Written by William Dobson
I’ve always been a staunch anti-vegetarian. In fact, I would go as far as to say that, until recently, I viewed myself as the Richard Dawkins of anti-vegetarianism. As a breed, I’ve generally found them to be preachy and zealous. It was also because so many that I’ve met have been deeply hypocritical. My first conversation with someone trying to explain their vegetarian stance was with a bloke wearing a leather jacket. Then there are the ones who protest about cruelty against animals but continue to drink milk and eat cheese. It’s an argument as flawed as a pro-life Midwestern American suggesting that the world would be a better place if all Iraqis were killed at birth; a discussion I once had the displeasure to witness. And, perhaps most annoyingly of all, are the vegetarians who say ‘I just don’t like the taste of meat.’ Can they not understand the ridiculousness of such a statement? How can one person decide that they don’t like the taste of something so varied and diverse? I’ve never liked Brussels sprouts but, on this basis, I didn’t decide to eschew all vegetables which, to me, seems like a similar rationale. This is all in addition to the fact I just love meat. I can’t imagine a world without it. Aged 12, I spent four days in Kansas City and had steak for every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner (I’ve been struggling to lose the weight ever since) while my proudest achievement in life, thus far, was demolishing a kilo of beef in one sitting; even more impressive seeing as I’d just finished off a large thick shake as a warm-up.
My hardline stance once led to an incredibly awkward conversation with a steadfast vegetarian in, slightly bizarrely, a Mexican restaurant in Damascus. She had tagged along when I was going out to supper with a friend. Unfortunately, midway through the meal, the friend went to the loo and ended up getting locked in the bathroom (or so she claimed), abandoning me to the mercy of this French evangelic-vegetarian (never a good combination). Faced with an excruciatingly awkward silence, I started drinking my margaritas slightly too vociferously and, as a result, my provocative side came out. I seem to recall spending a good half an hour trying, and failing, to come up with a meal I could envisage eating which was devoid of meat. I think her exact response was ‘I hate the idea of stereotyping people but you, Monsieur, are the most stereotypically English person I have ever met.’ Being a patriot, I of course took this as a compliment although I’m not sure it was originally intended as such. To set the record straight, she just so happened to be the most stereotypical French person I’ve ever met…incidentally, I bumped into her a few weeks back while staying in Paris and, rather ironically, she was tucking into a large plate of steak frites at the time!
So, what’s changed? Well, in essence nothing. I still disagree vehemently with most people’s reasons behind choosing not to eat meat, although I do have a grudging respect for those who are more rational in their arguments; vegans, people whose vegetarianism stems from an adherence to certain religions, those who don’t eat meat for environmental reasons etc. (I have a soft spot for people who are passionate enough to follow through with their convictions) However, more fundamentally, I’ve recently started to realise that vegetarian food can actually be really delicious. It doesn’t mean that I would ever cease to eat meat; I don’t know where I’d be without jamon iberico de bellota or sirloin steak. Yet, I’ve come to the conclusion that to be able to make truly delicious food, without relying on a tasty bit of meat to make everything better (no innuendo intended), is a pretty impressive skill to have up your sleeve. Give a meat eater some eggs and they’ll probably just fry some bacon, perhaps a sausage or two and some black pudding. Too easy. Do the same with a vegetarian and they’ll be forced to do something more creative. Perhaps a frittata with some asparagus, mushrooms and some taleggio cheese or a deliciously light soufflé. Of course, some cuisines do lend themselves towards vegetarian food. Italian is an obvious one close to home but the Middle East and India – the country with the world’s highest percentage of meat abstainers – are, in my opinion, among the best places for vegetarians to travel. The herbs and spices used really brighten up what can otherwise be fairly mundane components.
My appreciation of vegetarian food was further enhanced recently when I had the pleasure of cooking with a wonderful lady called Mana from Ahmedebad in the Gujarat region of India. Her family were actually Jains, an Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living things. They don’t even eat root vegetables, as this requires destroying the plant. Mana herself wasn’t that strict but it was an amazing experience to be in the kitchen with someone who had such an instinctive style and passion and yet managed to make an incredible meal from humble ingredients. We ate a wonderfully rich and delicately spiced daal; a take on sag paneer with the addition of tomato, puréed with garlic, ginger and green chillies for a bit of a kick; potatoes fried in oil, with mustard seeds, turmeric, cumin and coriander; and a wonderful dish of roasted aubergine, with that deep smoky flavour, mixed with yoghurt and garlic, all served with basmati rice and home-made chapattis. It ended up being one of the most well balanced meals I’ve eaten and I don’t remembered ever feeling simultaneously so full and yet so healthy.
So, perhaps now is the time for me to climb down slightly from my high horse (which incidentally makes an excellent sausage and some interesting ham as I had the pleasure of discovering in Munich). For all those vegetarians out there, unless you can convince me that you have valid reasons for not eating meat then, well, we’re probably not going to see eye to eye on the subject. However, I’ll be happy to let you at least cook for me and further cement my new found appreciation of vegetarian food. Indeed, in the future I’m might even be tempted to do a ‘Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’. However, unlike HWF, any brief conversion to vegetarianism on my part would have no ethical pretext. Rather, I’d use my hiatus as a bona-fide carnivore to expand my food horizons. As a reformed KFC-addict who woke up at 930 on his 21st birthday, severely hungover, just so I could make it to McDonald’s before they finished serving breakfast, it would be one step further on the road to food redemption.