So as each and every one of you will know, this month has been Veganuary - a 31 day long promise to the birds and bees and cows and pigs and sheep and prawns and former racehorses that for the duration of January 2015 I will comply with a more compassionate lifestyle that diminishes their need to suffer.
And I'd be lying if I said that it was my moral compass that initially ushered me in this particular direction. Really it was more about tickling a curiosity, challenging myself and - let's be honest - I'd sort of hoped that after a few weeks of not eating loads of the things I love, I'd wake up one morning with a body like Brad Pitt in Fight Club and a complexion clearer than my conscience, or that woman off the Olay ad's face. None of that has happened.
I've had a lot of fun doing this though, as have (I think) some of those close to me who've kindly invited me to dinner, cooked something vegan and discovered first hand just how much we rely on animal stuffs to create even straightforward weekday dinners. So, massive shout out to the chefs for cooking me the delicious things I wouldn't have been bothered to cook just for myself (I'm not really lazy, I just live alone, and who spends more than half an hour cooking something for only themselves?).
What's also super interesting is going to dedicated vegan and veggie eateries to sample the wares and soak up the tone. And I'm certainly no expert foodie or restaurant critic, despite spending more hours sitting in front of Come Dine With Me than with my own mother this year, but in the last couple of weeks or so, eating out in different places I'd been recommended or found or knew already, something did stand out:
Vegan and vegetarian food can be done really, really well (Mildred's - need I say more?) and contrary to my earlier flippancy, I have actually been doing some serious time in my kitchen, bastardising recipes, cauterising my hands and exceeding the low expectations of my ravaged taste buds with some really great vegan grub. So why oh why is it that fake 'meat' and fake 'cheese' and fake other stuff like fake 'chocolate spread' play such a seemingly large role in the average vegan diet?
The only whiff of seared flesh I've had all year
After lightly grilling my hand, I went on to grill a vegan friend about fake food over plates of crispy 'duck', chilli shredded 'beef', sesame 'prawn' toast and barbeque spare 'ribs', and the short (and presumably right) answer is that, just like all humans who have been reared on staples like actual bacon, cheese and Sunday roasts, vegans enjoy the tastes and textures of familiar foods, even if they aren't an exact DNA match.
I think I knew the answer to this already, because in my micro-sojourn into veganism I have at times enjoyed the quasi-sausages or the odd plate of pasta with 'facon' and grated 'cheese analogues' or a 'chicken' burger. But the reason this excess of false food stunned me was because it was the more 'explicitly vegan' establishments that were dishing out the sham ham, whereas places that draw little to no attention to the fact that they don't serve death were the places offering the least Meat Replacement Therapy on the menu.
In researching pseudo foods I also unearthed a beefy steak-like fungus called Fistulina Hepatica and something called a meat extender, both of which sound like implements you're more likely to find in a wipe-clean dungeon than in the larder... Imagine going to dinner at a friend's:
Friend: "Have a drink and make yourself comfortable. I'm just warming up the meat extender to accompany the fistulina."
You: "Errr. Ok, but I thought we were just going to have dinner and watch Gossip Girl...?"
So basically, it just seems funny to a tourist like me that so much easy vegan food out there is just a less-good alternative to the omni-original, rather than an unfettered celebration of all of the other nutritious and delicious and sustainable products the earth can provide. Pray tell, is there any other reason to eat these imposter foods other than they're the closest representation of the real McCoys that vegans miss? Because, is the long game of veganism not to exist in and inspire a world in which humans don't rely on animals for sustenance? So it seems to me that clinging to wannabe meat and dairy crutches is a bit like giving up smoking and continuing to wear a nicotine patch, even when the cravings dissipate.
All this said, Linda McCartney is going to be regular guest in my freezer, even after Veganuary is over.