Let me begin by introducing myself: I am a Vegan. My friend Kevin still thinks a Vegan is an alien visiting from outer space. He could be right. That look of sheer confusion on the faces of unsuspecting co-workers when someone offers to make a hot drink in the office canteen and you say“Uh, yeah – coffee for me but no milk, thanks… I’m Vegan.” It plays out like a scene from Mel Gibson’s Signs.
In fact, I am a very bad Vegan. One of the most vicious types. I have a particular weakness for pastries and cheese. Worse still, I rarely check the labels on any bottle of Shiraz that I pick up from Aldi on a Friday night. That old leather belt that used to hold up my corduroys has only just gone the journey. I drink black coffee, but it’s not always Fairtrade. And when it comes to dining out at restaurants I just give up completely and end up destroying a perfectly innocent cheesecake. I then have to drink more non-Vegan red wine to drown the guilt, whilst trying to exorcise myself of the dairy demon that found its way into my digestive system through lack of choice. That’s my excuse anyway. But in truth there is always a choice.
For me, the choice to turn Vegetarian was made shortly after meeting Sam, my wife-to-be. I was about 23 years old at the time and a fully-fledged meat-eater. Whilst we were enjoying a romantic dinner-for-two Sam, who was a Fruitarian back then, kindly questioned whether or not I realised I was munching on a dead duck. This was not a guilt tactic. It was merely a simple statement, yet I couldn’t offer my beloved a worthy rationale for my choice of main. My discomfort increased because I had been previously harping on in conversation about how much I loved animals (yes, everything from feeding coral fish whilst snorkelling in the Caribbean to the grand welcome given to me by the two floppy-eared golden retrievers each time I went around to her family home).
I should add, reader, that I was never forced into being a Veggie. I had felt ‘the change’ coming for a while leading up to that point. Whatever that impulse to change was, I followed it. Was it that fated culinary experience with my wife? Was it my habit-forming morbid fascination with the faces of the smoked salmon at the fresh fish counter when picking up my end of month treat? Could it have been my sudden interest in animal welfare documentaries on TV at the time? Or was it just sheer coincidence that I was reading a book at the time about Yoga and the virtues of a high-energy diet rich in grains, fruit and vegetables. I’m not sure. And actually it doesn’t really matter. Besides, I didn’t preach to others about making a similar choice themselves, because I couldn’t (and still can’t) pinpoint exactly what the Veggie catalyst was for me. I just felt I had to do it.
Over the past year I have gone one-further and consigned myself to the full frenzy of Veganism. One of the main reasons why I went Vegan is because, as one or two friends of mine would argue, ‘if you care so much about not eating meat or fish what about the cruel treatment of the dairy cows and battery hens’? As a Vegetarian, I could never justify why I still ate milk, cheese, eggs etc when being aware of the inhumane conditions and processes yielding such produce. It’s not that I have purposefully meant to get myself into these topical debates, but a co-worker gets one sniff of your lunchbox and whoomph… it’s all kicking off! Let’s just say, dinnertimes in the office have sometimes played-out like an episode of Jeremy Kyle. Some of the following statements are comments that I’ve often encountered when delving down into the rabbit-warren of The Great Vegetarian Debate:
“You stand there all high and mighty, yet you drive a car every day to work that pours out toxins.”
“Okay, so what if you were stranded on a desert island and you had to kill to survive?”
“Humans are top of the food chain. If we went into the jungle we’d be meat for a lion.”
“What a load of pious crap. It’s all just a way to make people feel high and mighty”
And another one of the classics: “Human beings were born to eat meat – it is how our bodies are made. We need the nutrients.”
I must admit, I often question the logic in my own outlook of never hurting another animal again for the rest of my life. The harsh truth is that I will inevitably directly or indirectly destroy other living beings at some point or other. Tomorrow when I walk to the local shop I will possibly crush a couple dozen ants under the soles of my feet without even noticing. To make things more difficult in the vegan debate, one is offered the opportunity to buy Organic. For instance, is it okay then to eat cheese and drink milk from cows hand-reared by a loving farmer? Is it okay to eat eggs from chickens livin la vida loca on a five-acre estate where they are free to party at midnight? Once again, choices. What I do know is that if you are living in the UK (and not scraping through on the poverty line) it is now possible to follow a Vegan diet and remain healthy, thanks to the extensive range of animal-free alternatives available in most supermarkets.
A few months ago I came across a blog that had been posted on Facebook by a pro-Vegan. Oh my word – the hate. The sheer hate that was emanated from opposing parties in that stream of comments. Some contributions were clearly just ‘heckling’, while others were making fun of the situation e.g. posting a photo of a pig and labelling it ‘yummy’. I’ve seen more serious pro-vegan social media efforts of late though, from photos of special packaging on a Pork Chop (‘my name is Milly and I used have a life once’) to graphic videos of tortured battery hens. Whilst I can totally affiliate with the shock tactic approach of getting consumers to become more aware of who was harmed, and how, in the process from slaughterhouse to shelf, I really don’t think it will make carnivores any less resolute to feast on animals or their by-products.
My conclusions to this great debate are thus: 1) A person will only awaken to the virtues of Vegetarianism when he or she is ready to do so (in other words, when he or she is at a particular point along their individual path to enlightenment). 2) There is no point in arguing or debating the pros of being a vegetarian with an individual who does not have enough empathy to consider the pain and suffering of another living being. Why? Because for every seemingly humane reason to be a non-animal consumer there exists an opposing argument, one that is equally valid in the mind of your carnivorous counterpart. There is no right and wrong here. Only choice.
2017 (c) Simon George Howes.