It began as a New Year’s resolution: two months as a vegetarian, following which I would attempt to maintain a strict vegetarian diet for at least five days each week. In the end I decided to stick it out and try to last a full twelve months as a vegetarian, having never in my life lasted for more than a few days without eating meat (or fish). This is that story.
The reasons behind any such undertaking are usually relatively subtle, but I feel I can safely group my motivations into two broad groups. The first was that it seemed the right thing to do, and the second that it was obviously the right time at which to do it.
Subsisting on a purely vegetarian diet is, in my mind, inarguably more ethical and morally correct than indulging in the eating of meat and fish. The reasons against the consumption of meat are abundant and compelling: it is healthier; it is cheaper; it means that innocent animals do not have to be killed or subjected to cruel living conditions; it means that an inordinate amount of carbon dioxide does not have to be released into the atmosphere in the rearing, killing, shipping, processing and storage of huge quantities of livestock; it means that sustainable woodland does not have to be cleared to make way for pastures; it means that some of the vast amount of grain used to rear calorifically-deficient meat could be used to feed the poor. And there are many more.
The arguments against vegetarianism are simpler, though for most people they remain more compelling. There are three. Firstly, it is somewhat easier to maintain a healthy intake of protein, iron and certain other nutrition through a diet which includes some level of meat or fish. Secondly, it will annoy Paul McCartney. Finally, and far more crucially, crushing the flesh of raw or cooked dead animal between your jaws can result in pleasant stimulation of the taste buds and the release of warm and aromatic liquids and oils into the mouth. In other words, it tastes nice.
Setting aside the (at this point completely unquestionable) belief that eating meat in this day and age is wrong, I had thus far failed in my adult life to overcome the temptation to continue crushing dead animal between the teeth in my skull and lower mandible. It was too pleasurable an experience. The catalyst for crossing this (delicious) river of (sizzling) omnivorism was that I found myself living in the company of vegetarian friends, and their apparant capability to control their (wild! carnal!) carnivorous urges shamed me enough to attempt to do so myself.
My first impression of going vegetarian may surprise you: I found it easy. As in, incredibly easy. I just stopped buying meat and fish, and that was that. My life pretty much continued as before, except instead of eating things that had meat in them, I was eating things that didn’t have meat in them.
Now, I should be clear that I had an unfair advantage. I live in London, a large and cosmopolitan city, so firstly my local supermarkets catered well for a vegetarian diet. In fact I live in an area of the city with a particularly ethnically diverse population, so I found it easy get hold of a wide range of vegetables, cheeses and meat substitutes that might be harder to find elsewhere. Further than this, when eating out I found that most places I went tended to have two or three veggie-friendly items on their menu, from the mundane (pesto pasta) to the downright bizarre (brie, cranberry and mushroom Wellington?). The most difficult places to get decent vegetarian food seemed to be Chinese restaurants, but that is in large part because I do not consider tofu to be decent food (it’s more like a food sponge, essentially lowering the overally ‘foodiness’ of a dish). But even if I did end up somewhere lacking proper catering for a vegetarian diet, it was always easy to go somewhere else.
What do you mean it isn’t vegetarian?
A few things caught me out early on. Firstly, I kept forgetting that gelatin is not vegetarian, or more relevantly that products likely to contain gelatin are not. It’s basically boiled, reduced cow, pig or horse. Yuck. So goodbye Haribo, goodbye jelly, trifles, marshmellows, in fact most sweets. Well, I knew this beforehand and so only really have myself to blame here.
Another one that I knew but had forgotten about was Guinness. I’m a real ale drinker generally, but I will indulge in a pint of the black stuff from time to time — except when remembering that the fining (clarification) process involves the use of a chemical agent derived from fish bladders. This is also used by a lot of smaller breweries but LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU so it’s fine.
More surprising: Parmesans (and certain other cheeses) contain animal rennet. This also affects anything which includes parmesan, namely most pestos. If you were being strict this would easily wipe out about half the “vegetarian” dishes in London pubs.
Ultimately I resigned myself to ignoring some of these minor infractions. I hadn’t decided to go vegan — in that I was still eating eggs and cheese — but also hadn’t made an effort to stop using non-food products made from animal. I don’t wear fur (obviously) and have very little leather (a couple of belts), but I wasn’t going to be strict about toiletries or, say, buying furniture that might include glue made from boiled down horse. So a few traces of chemicals generally manufactured as a byproduct of the meat industry didn’t seem the end of the world. It isn’t like I was gnawing down on some rhino horn.
In March I went to France. In France, the vegetarian option is chicken. A French friend offered to make me a simple vegetarian salad with a foie gras dressing (which I declined). But I did eat gesiers (gizzards) which were amazing. And, um, a hotdog. You can’t be vegetarian in France, so I wasn’t. I ate fish during a trip to the USA — but only once, and only then because I stopped to get food at a truckstop on Route 66 and the most vegetarian thing they had was a tuna sandwich.
I also ate meat on Burns’ Night in the UK, but that was just haggis and haggis doesn’t count, right? Because haggis.
Other than that I did pretty well, with only the odd failure here and there (oh those potato skins had cheese and bacon? oops...) and often because I had been invited for dinner to a friends house and had neglected to tell them of my change in diet. But overall I was very strict with myself throughout the year. Until…
I stopped being a vegetarian on the 21st of December. I was spending Christmas with my parents and had already told them no, it was fine, I would eat meat on Christmas day. It was to be just three of us and cooking a separate nut roast for me would have been a ridiculous amount of hassle, and resulted in no net reduction in the amount of turkey eaten in the house anyway.
However, this temporary truce turned into a spectacular fall from the meat wagon. Once I started eating meat again, I found that I wanted it with nearly every meal. Without the simple rule of completely excluding meat from my diet, I found that I lacked the discipline to avoid eating it in small quantities with every meal. Ham in sandwiches, chicken into a pasta sauce, and roast meat on a Sunday immediately replaced vegetarian alternatives with which I had previously been completely happy.
Since the New Year rolled around, I have abandoned vegetarianism. This is not something I am entirely happy about and I would like to think that in future I may find a way to maintain a more sustainable consumption of meat. One of the things that I have found most frustrating about a year of apparently easy vegetarianism is that I now find the prospect of a meatless meal less appealing than before.
All told, I learnt a lot by cutting myself off from meat for a year. I learnt that vegetarianism in large metropolitan cities is a lot easier than you might think, if you are willing to put a little effort in. I also feel I gained some insight into how my mind handles cravings in ways that I wouldn't expect, and that abstinence may be easier than frugality. And finally I learnt that removing meat from your diet is not a sure-fire way to lose weight - especially if you supplant that meat with ungodly quantities of halloumi, cheddar, stilton, mascarpone, mozzarella, camembert, reblochon...