Saturday, 3 March 2012

Vegetable Matters

Sometimes I find myself thinking about life, the universe and everything as I drive from school to school, as I do in the course of my work. The other day as I was driving along (somewhere just outside Bedale, I think) it struck me that I have been a vegetarian most of my life. I went through a comparitively brief period eating fish as well as vegetable matter (during which I was, I suppose a piscatarian) but felt uneasy about it, and went back to being vegetarian.

Sometimes people ask me why I'm a vegetarian. It usually crops up at dinner-parties (not that I go to a lot of dinner parties, although I'm always open to invitations). I usually shrug and say that I've been a vegetarian for so long I don't really think about it. Part of the reason for this is that I'm not evangelical about it - we all have to find our own way through life in such matters. Another part though is a cop out, if I'm honest. If I say why I am a veggie then we'll all rehearse the same old arguments I've heard time and time again. (Similarly, I'm a double bass player - and whenever I take my bass somewhere, someone will say "Cor, that's a big violin, mate". Spare me).

If I say I don't want animals to be killed so that I can eat, someone will ask me what I'd do if I were stranded on a desert island with nothing but lots of grass and a live sheep. Would I kill the sheep or starve? My favoured answer to this is that if I were stranded on a similar island  with the questioner instead of a sheep, I'd probably eat him, so what? Seriously, though, would I kill the sheep? Perhaps. However, I remember reading about a Zen monk who lay down before a hungry tiger for the tiger to eat him, saying that the tiger needed to eat more than he, the monk, needed to live. Why should a sheep die so that I might live? If the hypothetical situation became suddenly real, though, I'd probably eat the sheep. Who knows?

Whatever I did to the sheep would prove nothing. Being a vegetarian for me is nothing to do with maintaining some sort of imagined purity of body or action. For example, I'm sure I take in the odd bit of invisible lard. If I visit someone and they offer me a piece of cake, I don't ask them what they made it out of. At this point, another dinner-guest will pipe up that in that case, I'm not a really vegetarian. Give it a rest, please. It's like telling a Christian they're not a Christian because they go to dinner parties and indulge in gluttony.

Do I wear leather shoes? Yes. I'm not a vegan. As I said, it's not about personal purity. I don't see the point of that sort of approach and anyway, it's about doing what I can sustain and not give up on. I am attracted to veganism though. Someone will say how it can't possibly be good for one to be a vegan. Some of the best fell runners I've ever know have been vegans, so it can't be that bad. I try moving towards it now and again, but it's hard to do and I back off. Keep it personally do-able, sustainable.

I think one of the annoying things about the predictable discussions that arise when vegetarianism pops up is that half the people round the table have a sneaking feeling they would quite like to be vegetarians. Some people only feel happy when they've got half a dead cow on their plate, but not all. As with smokers, some meat eaters have a giver-upper lurking in there, trying to get out. If they can beat me to their satisfaction in the sheep on the island and the leather shoe arguments then they can keep their latent half-hearted giver-upper locked up until the next dinner party.

What I tend not to tell people over dinner is that if you don't eat meat for 35 years then all that conditioning wears off, and the idea of slaying another creature with eyes, ears and a brain, chopping it up and chewing on it's innards seems quite shocking. Don't get me wrong, I understand perfectly why other people do - I used to do it myself, without a second thought. And if I had to eat meat, I'd rather raise an animal and kill it myself. Which reminds me, I forgot the "carrots have feelings too" argument. Spare me. What would you rather do - pull up a carrot or poleaxe a pig? Intuition tells me I'd rather pull up a carrot. Don't knock intuition. As Einstein said: "“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Thanks to Turnstone for the Einstein quote.


hyperCRYPTICal said...

My younger son has been a vegetarian for twenty-six years, the morality of meat eating becoming a problem for him at the ripe old age of ten. He was very strict on himself and I had to search every food item (purchased for him) for whatever trace of animal life that might exist within as an E number, etc. and reject all that did.

He would not wear leather shoes. At the age of eleven he had head lice and oh the problem I had in persuading him to allow me to eradicate them for they were life after all.

He is thirty-seven this year and remains a vegetarian and will admit that the ethics of meat eating are now unimportant to him, yet he cannot put meat in his mouth and never will.

He does wear leather shoes though.

Anna :o]

Tom Stephenson said...

Good title.

Sandy's witterings said...

I quite frankly keep out of fields of cows in case they want revenge. But this is not a vegetarian gong banging blog or else I'd wander past and let you bang it in peace and quiet - sounds as if you don't do that anyway. It's about being able to carry on a line of thought or action which is perfectly harmless even though it's not quite the social norm.
The same seems to go for being an atheist, being religious, having a sexuality, a political opinion, even just voting or not, liking folk music, the list goes on.
Good on you for being vegetarian, even if I'm not I say. I don't even mind you being a double base player !

Kat Mortensen said...

I greatly enjoyed this post, Dominic.

Kevin and I eat fish and fowl, but often talk about going (I can't believe I'm going to write this bad, bad pun, but ...) "whole hog" and eradicating every animal source from our diets.

I don't think I could give up dairy though. My big problem would be eggs. I absolutely love them. And cheese.

The problem for me right now, is providing food that we all can eat and be satisfied with for a reasonable cost. I have my 83 year old mother to think of too and she's always been a carnivore of the highest order. She STILL throws the fact that I used to "LOVE" lamb back in my face. She herself, can sit with a rack of it in front of her with absolutely no compunction.

I do believe at some point in the future, Kevin and I will be moving away from the fish and fowl element, but for now, it is the easiest to keep us all happy in this house. We have managed to change my mom's diet somewhat in this regard - apart from when we all go out to dine and she immediately orders a steak or burger because (as she likes to tell all her carnivorous-cohorts) she can't get them at home!

I did so love YOUR arguments. Bravo! (I cringe at the sight of the cattle and pig-cars that rumble past on the local byways). I shall never be a party to their efforts!

I do not ever preach about this, but I have definitely come up against the inevitable questions as to my choices. And yes, dinner parties are few and far between for us too.

John Hayes said...

A wonderful post. I'm one of those about 80% vegetarians (tho I have a good deal of giver-upper in my system, I plead not guilty to asking annoying questions!) I very rarely cook meat at home, but if I go out, which I don't do often, I often get some sort of chicken dish, & if I go to someone's house for dinner, I'll gladly eat what they've served in the meat department. But I do very much agree with your poleaxing a pig or pulling a carrot argument. When I lived in Idaho I had some thought to raising animals for meat, but realized I was probably too squeamish to do the slaughtering, & yes, that fact does keep me away from meat a good deal of the time.

The Weaver of Grass said...

As your mother, I have to say that it has sometimes been difficult to find things to give you to eat over the last few years. When you lived at home I was into all things veggie and in fact preferred veggie food myself but now when you come round it tends to be for dinner parties with others and often having to plan a menu and then add on something veggie is almost a bridge too far. However, now that I find (on your suggestion) that I can just put all the vegetables together and add something like white beans it has got easier. Roasted veggies seem to be your favourite and I know your heart sinks in a restaurant at the thought of yet another goat's cheese recipe!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone.

hyperCRYPTICal: Does he read blogs? I would be interested to know what he made of this.

Tom S: Thank you. I must admit I felt a bit smug about it. Rather Guardianesque, I thought.

Sandy: Thank you. Reading your comment reassured me that yes, I'd expressed more or less what I set out to express!

Kat: I eat dairy products. I try not to do so too much, though, as it's easy as a veggie to eat too much of them. My rule of thumb is that if, as a vegetarian you try to be a vegan and fail, then you're probably getting the balance right.

John: I think I could slaughter an animal for food if I thought it was necessary. However, the necessity has never arisen.

WG: Ugh! Yes... Restaurant veggie options... Trendy ones go for goats cheese, stodgy ones go for tinned button mushrooms in cheese sauce. There's almost always cheese. If you're a veggie you don't mind cheese, but you're always on the lookout for meals that don't include it, as you don't want it every mealtime. If something has beans or nuts in it for protein, it doesn't need cheese.

I think that catering for veggies at dinner parties need not be a chore - in fact the imposed limitation (as in all creative work) can enhance the interest for everyone. And, as you say, one can always throw the veg together and add beans.

GOAT said...

Great post, Dominic. I was vegan for several years. My then-girlfriend was too, which made it easier, but honestly, the stress and complication at every meal away from home (and shopping for the ones that were at home) just got so wearisome. It wasn't just the food either, it was the shoes and jackets and belts etc etc...

The other tiresome thing about not eating meat is, as you say, the CONSTANT pressure to explain or justify your practices. People talk about preachy vegetarians but I think it often stems from other people's guilt or defensiveness: the number of times we used to get the "Oh, well I'm MOSTLY vegetarian" when we really didn't care. V

eganism is probably a lot easier nowadays, shopping-wise, but I came to see it as exceedingly unnatural and it seems the tide of medical opinion has been turning against soy, which is the protein base of so many vegetarians/vegans (or used to be).

I'm "predominantly vegetarian" now - and I have a rule about accepting meat if it's offered to me in the course of my travels, which, I confess, may be as much about convenience as graciousness. I've still never cooked meat at home, except for canned fish, and if anything I'm always closer to drifting back to (at least) vegetarianism than going more in the direction of meat-eating. Too many abattoir exposes on Australian TV in recent months!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for that, Goat.

Furtheron said...

Hi - Thanks for the post - one that has me thinking. I'm not a vegetarian - partly from considering that biologically the human body is clearly designed to eat meat - look at the teeth, the jaw etc. etc. so I partly feel something along the lines of "why put diesel into something designed for petrol" - that is a crap analogy I know ...

But your piece has me thinking... would I kill the sheep? I eat meat but actually killing my own and all that? Not so sure, if I was starving then probably yes... if I had the strength but that is the thing I like my meat already for me to cook and eat not still feeding on the grass in the field. If in that situation I reckon the point I'd be hungry enough to do it I'd probably be too weak physically through being too weak emotionally before...

A Cuban In London said...

I loved the sincerity and honesty of your post. Not being evangelical about it is probably the best bit about being a veggie. As an omnivore myself, I recognise the benefits of a vegetarian diet (especially on long-haul flights :-D).

Thank you. That was a very touching post.

Greetings from London.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

Furtheron: I suspect the biological argument can be/has been made both ways. I've heard it asked, why our our intestines so long? Carnivorous animals have shorter ones, apparently. I'm sure the arguments can run and run. What I think is interesting is that which ever way it went it wouldn't have much to do with the convictions of those eat or don't eat meat. As Lenin said, one can argue for or against anything.

Cuban: Yes -they reckon a veggie diet is healthier though, sadly, years of abstaining from meat hasn't left me with an abdomen to match that Fonseca guy!

George said...

A great post, Dominic! I've dabbled in vegetarianism on numerous occasions, but never with any long-term success. Spiritually, I'm with you 100%. I just haven't been able to complete the transition, though I haven't eaten red meat for the past twenty-five years (perhaps a small exception here and there).

The main problem with being a vegetarian from my standpoint is the constant need to explain one's preference to others. People want to treat you as some type of eccentric, rather than just let it be. Why should anyone have the least bit of interest in what other people choose to eat?

Jenny Woolf said...

Interesting post. I don't eat much meat, because I happen to be married to a vegetarian and at first I couldn't be bothered to cook 2 meals. Also, to be honest, I don't like handling dead creatures much. He doesn't know why he became a vegetarian but perhaps it's because his mum liked that kind of food. When there are so many food choices in the world, it seems odd that people are so intrigued by the idea of not eating meat. We too get all this "you're not a real vegetarian because...."

By the way it's an awful lot cheaper not to eat meat. But even that's not why we don't do it. Or don't do it much, anyway.

Rachel Fenton said...

Married to a vegetarian and, on the whole, we eat the same meals without issue. But going to other people's houses for food proves farcical.

Jenny Woolf said...

Oh, just wanted to add I finally got round to joining your blog! :) I have meant to for ages.