When people discover that I am a vegetarian, they are often surprised. They look at me and find none of the deathly pallor commonly associated with the veggie.
When conversing with carnivores, I concede that I haven’t been one of ‘them’ for that long, only about three years.
Put at ease, they become fascinated by me as a specimen. Their scientific and sociological impulses are aroused. How can I, all healthy looking and energetic, be a veggie? They want to know how it started. The story goes like this.
Back in 2007, I was living in Brixton with my friend Dan. He is from Wigan, the pie-eating capital of the UK, and probably the world. He’d been brought up to regard vegetarianism as something weird that southerners get up to, like dogging. It was beyond his comprehension.
In our happy Rushcroft Road flat, Dan and I would cook for each other (sweet, isn’t it?). He would roll in from work and pop some chops under the grill, or I’d roast some chicken breasts. He was quite advanced as Wiganers go, and only ate pies or sausages three or four times a week. We occasionally grilled salmon, as a nod towards cholesterol levels and a healthy lifestyle.
Things were going fine. The household was steady. But for whatever reason, I became unnaturally attracted by vegetables, to the point that I saw them not as a side dish, but the main part of a meal. I started making pasta with vegetables for dinner, or perhaps a tomato risotto. Dan was a tolerant fellow and put up with it.
One day, however, he came home and excitedly showed me some sausages he’d picked up from Moen’s, the posh butcher’s in Clapham. I said that I didn’t fancy them, at which point his equanimity broke.
‘ARE YOU A VEGETARIAN?’ he said, using the v-word as a pejorative.
‘I think I might be,’ I said quietly, eyes downcast.
‘Oh,’ he said. Neither of us expected that.
‘Does this include fish?’ he said hopefully.
‘I don’t know.’ It was all so new.
‘So you don’t want these sausages, then?’
I shook my head.
‘Well, what are you going to eat?’
‘Some vegetables, I suppose.’
Then, like all big news, it became a matter of telling people. I told my mother, who told my father. She took it in her stride. I’d dabbled in environmentalism, which she knew can lead to vegetarianism. She saw it as an opportunity to cook different meals, expand her repertoire.
My father, however, is northern, from Leeds, and wasn’t prepared at all. He was as unsettled as Dan by this turn of events. I imagined him sitting at home, casting his mind back across the rearing process and wondering where he had gone wrong. Had he shown rather too much interest in some sprouts in the early years? Not finished a second portion of roast beef? He would have concluded that his carnivorous credentials were impeccable, and blamed my mother for being ‘soft on the boy’.
My first Christmas as a vegetarian was a fraught affair. Blood relations kept asking me ‘what are you going to eat?’ in worried tones. They believed my vegetarianism to be a sign of a deeper malaise, a mental unravelling of some sort.
I assured them in a ‘there’s-nothing-to-look-at-here’ way, that it was all right. I’d just have the vegetables, thanks. My mother heaped roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts, red cabbage and carrots on my plate and wondered whether I had enough, eyeing me nervously throughout the meal.
With time, my nearest and dearest realised the new me was very much like the old. I was still the same greedy bastard they’d known before. I still ate as much as I possibly could on any given occasion. Apart from the meat.
Dan and I went our separate ways a few months later. I can’t say the vegetarianism didn’t play a part. However, and this shows the live and let live attitude of the man, we remain friends, despite my unorthodox lifestyle.
What probably saved the friendship between me and this connoisseur was that even if I am unduly fascinated by the aubergine, I still like to tuck into the cheese and wine. And, as I like to say, without the meat, you have far more room for a good bit of Stilton.