Neither meat nor fish
|09/09/2014||Filled under family|
More than thirty years have passed since Kate and I decided we would eat nothing more that came from the bodies of slaughtered animals. We became, at a stroke therefore, vegetarians.
Since taking this step, one that we felt to be neither difficult nor particularly radical, our eating habits have served us up some surprises along with many disappointments along the way. By doing so we instantly placed ourselves amongst a misunderstood minority in a world of carnivorous humankind and a consequence of choosing to live our lives this way has been to place us apart, to put us in that slightly oddball category where one might find religious fanatics or politicians, something we hadn’t anticipated at all. Perhaps it was the fact that we already felt ourselves to be in this category, before foregoing meat, that made the transition so easy for us. At the time I would spend my weekends windsurfing from the beach at Felixstowe, hardly a sport that conjures up mass support, and we had a young family growing up fast and taking up every waking moment of our day. We had also moved into this area of the country very recently, we were incomers with only new found friends to call on, and as with outsiders everywhere, trust comes only slowly.
When asked, we like to say we eat neither meat nor fish, rather than use the term ‘vegetarian’, not least because this is one of the least understood words in the English language. If I had a penny for every time I have been asked the question “So do you eat fish then?” I would be quite wealthy by now. Or else “What about chicken?”, as if somehow birds are excluded from the animal kingdom because they are descended from dinosaurs and only have two legs. It turns out that there is a whole library of words out there which can be used to describe different diets and a ‘pollo-pescetarian’ would happily eat both fish and poultry although nothing else from the meat counter. Then again, never shy of inventing new words when they seem to be needed, the Americans have come up with ‘flexitarian’ to describe someone who has ‘occasional indulgences’ of meat eating, which I suppose must be a bit like eating the odd chocolate bar whilst trying to lose weight.
We have ceased to puzzle over what part of the word ‘vegetable’ is so difficult to understand and by now have come to terms with our place in the culinary world. Not for us is the pleasure of struggling to choose from a long menu at the restaurant table. The ‘vegetarian option’ (what a ghastly expression!) usually sits on its own bearing a tiny ‘V’ symbol and when it is something other than vegetable lasagne, the lazy chef’s choice, it will be accompanied by a side salad or occasionally, if we are very lucky, some risotto rice. If we do ever fancy a little mashed potato or, heaven forbid, a crisp Yorkshire pudding with gravy (something I often have a craving for), a vegetable filled pie or, strangely, even vegetables such as peas or carrots, then we must eat at home, cooking these things for ourselves, as we know from long experience now that these will not be on offer in most restaurants. None of these items need contain any animal products, and indeed nobody could possibly argue that peas, carrots or potatoes are anything less than vegetables, yet a lack of imagination or understanding on the part of the chef invariably leads to our kind being treated as an afterthought on the menu. Hardly surprisingly therefore, we do not eat out very often.
By contrast there is a world out there where we are made to feel more than welcome, where our eyes boggle at the choices before us, like children in a sweet shop. I refer, of course, to the vegetarian restaurant, that rarity which caters solely for our habit, with no apologies. The fact that their tables will often be full of non vegetarians (carnivores) who will also enjoy the good food being served serves only to emphasise the strangeness of the modern world, for if these people are there by choice then when faced with a menu in a ‘normal’ restaurant, presumably they would like to have the same food items on offer. So why aren’t they.
To find a vegetarian restaurant one must take to the internet. No amount of wandering the streets or asking taxi drivers will do it for they are invariably tucked away down some backstreet or hidden in a basement somewhere. It would be a mistake to wait until you are hungry to try to find one. Even using Google they can be difficult to pin down. In an old part of the city of Hull we once discovered Hitchcock’s, an unusual but perhaps not untypical specimen. The restaurant is housed on the first floor above what used to be a forge, and the front door could be the entrance to a private house, you would walk past without realising it was there. The single sitting for food begins at eight in the evening (pre-booking is essential) and the menu is determined by the ‘theme’ for the day, which might be Spanish, Italian or something else, the food being served buffet style, all you can eat and more spread out on large tables. Our own visit was on Cajun night so many of the dishes were a mystery to us, anything coloured red being far too hot for our palates. But at least we could eat anything on offer, no picking our way around dishes that might have meat in them. As a dining experience it is unique. That it happens to serve purely vegetarian food was a delight to us.
If Britain is a place where we are misunderstood, then further abroad there are places where we are shunned. France comes to mind as one of the most meat-loving countries in Europe. We once so baffled the checkout person in a motorway restaurant (considerably more upmarket than anything found on this side of the Channel) when we chose only the salad from the buffet, without a meat selection, that he had no idea what to charge us for our food. On another occasion the restaurant manager was so clearly offended when we refused any of his deliciously cooked meat dishes that he could barely speak to us. Survival itself must necessarily involve eating meat in one form or another, he believed, so our bodies must be craving for it. How could we deny such a basic urge. Well, strange as it may seem our thirty year diet seems to have done us no great harm. My hair and teeth are showing signs of ageing but no more than my contemporaries and I can still find enough energy to walk up the odd hill when I feel the need to. I don’t cower away from the sunrise and my reflection still smiles back at me from the mirror so I presume I have not passed over into realm of the undead. What I can do, however, is gloat all I want when horsemeat is found in beefburgers or chicken is tainted with salmonella. These things really don’t concern us any more although I might offer up a small prayer for the animals concerned. I am very happy sticking to my veg and two veg and letting the rest of the world fuss over the meat content of the average sausage.