'Don't you miss meat?' This is the first question posed by the friends and family of the newborn vegetarian. The question, for me at least, isn't offensive. And the answer isn't complicated. I rarely miss the taste of meat - although I occasionally dream, like a vegetarian android, of mint-coated sheep - but I do miss the loss of ritual that accompanies meat consumption.
As a meat eater, I took these culinary rituals for granted. Indeed, I wasn't aware that I was taking part in any ritual. These rituals often rely on association - fish and chips by the seaside or Pukka pies at the football, for example - and on occasion - such as jerk chicken at Notting Hill Carnival or a bratwurst at Winter Wonderland.
For vegetarians who know few other vegetarians, such as myself, these events can prove difficult. As you forego what seems the norm, you can feel left out. Alcohol often helps. Drinking during such events, for me at least, is an equally important ritual and one that helps mask the loss of meat. I can just about do without jerk chicken at Carnival or Pukka pies at the football, for example, but not without rum punch and pre-match beers.
With the help of booze, foregoing meat at the above-mentioned rituals is not too difficult. The true challenge is conquering those daily, weekly, and monthly rituals that have no association other than food.
Such is the case when my folks order their fortnightly curry. When I played a part in the ritual, my mum and I used to refrain from eating in the afternoon and would make jokes about the sheer quantity of curry we hoped to consume. After ordering three portions of lamb madras between the two of us, my mum and I would divide the meat with precision, ensuring absolute equality.
My mum and I no longer share this ritual. My folks still order a curry - I get a mountain of chickpeas and eight veggie samosas - but the occasion and the comradery is absent. My mum recently said she was happy I became a vegetarian, but pines for the day we can once again share three portions of lamb madras. I tell her about the animals and the environment, and she simply sighs. These days she orders a lonely lamb vindaloo - assumedly hoping the blistering heat will mask her son's betrayal.
One of Britain's most famous rituals, the Sunday roast, is perhaps the most miserable occasion for the newborn vegetarian. The roast is the epitome of table fellowship and the embodiment of the culinary ritual. In my family, every member, starting with the eldest, receives their flesh coated in fatty gravy. Everyone comments on the meat at various intervals. The comments are sometimes approving, sometimes critical, but always grateful.
Since my conversion to vegetarianism, I sit at the table disheartened, salivating with envy. In his infinite kindness, or perhaps sympathy, my dad cooks a nut roast with vapid Oxo gravy in an attempt to include me in the ritual. The nut roast is not, despite its name, a roast and Oxo gravy is not, despite its name, gravy. They are failed attempts at mimicry and lost causes in the gastronomic tradition. I can no longer comment on the meat, as I'm no longer part of the gang and no longer part of the ritual. I'm a lonely outsider.
In my experience, the loss of ritual is far more disheartening than the loss of flavour for the newborn vegetarian. I can mask flavour with copious carbs. I can quench my appetite with a mountain of pasta or boatloads of chips in a sea of chili sauce. No amount of carbs, or chips, and no amount of chili sauce, can replace the ritual. Believe me, I've tried.
I have witnessed plenty of benefits since ditching meat. Physically, I feel better. Ethically and environmentally, I feel like I'm doing my part. It is not, however, all roses. My experience will perhaps serve as a cautionary tale for those who have been told - disingenuously, in my opinion - that vegetarianism is always easy. It's not.
Nonetheless, I will continue to toil through this plant-based life. I just about care enough for the welfare of animals to avoid donor kebabs in favour of chips. I just about care enough for the environment to eat a charlatan nutroast while my family devour a pig. And I just about love alcohol enough to enjoy those yearly events without jerk chicken or a bratwurst. In the end, despite the loss of taste and, more importantly, the loss of ritual, being a vegetarian is just about worth it. Just about.