Stylist.co.uk's Harriet Hall has been a vegetarian for eleven years. Here, she discusses the downsides of going green: from unaccommodating restaurants to the endless onslaught of questions from vitriolic meat-eaters.
I’ve eaten almost every kind of meat there is to eat. I’ve had pigeon, rabbit, horse, frog’s legs and snails. I used to devour an entire packet of crispy bacon in under five minutes, and I always went to school armed with a Peperami.
By the age of fifteen I’d happily eaten every Beatrix Potter character from Peter Rabbit to Jemima Puddle Duck.
And then, somehow, I was done.
My brother showed me a documentary about battery farming chickens and the idea that my penchant for a Happy Meal would in any way be connected to what I saw, left a bad taste in my mouth.
Gradually, when we had family meals, the food in front of me looked like a gross abuse of mankind’s power. The additional environmental pitfalls of meat eating only served to fuel my distaste for it.
To the irritation of my parents, and with my taste buds sated by my curious carnivorous past, I swiftly cut out fish and meat and I haven’t gone back for over a decade.
It’s not been an easy journey, though. There’s something about being a vegetarian that makes other people’s blood boil.
While I'm content with my choices, the social pitfalls are endless - here are just a few:
Restaurants are terrible at catering for veggies
Going out to eat can be great if you’re heading for Thai, Japanese or Indian. But I can pretty much be certain of the options that will face me at every other restaurant, before I’ve even glanced at the menu. They go like this:
1) Some kind of goat’s cheese tart
2) Something involving spinach and ricotta
3) Mushroom risotto
Every. Single. Time.
What’s the deal with goat’s cheese? People seem to think because you’re a vegetarian you must live on the stuff, but I can’t stand it. Together with ricotta it’s the bottom-feeder of the cheese chain; the lowest in the cheese hierarchy. I’m just not interested.
Admittedly, I have loads of time for risotto but why must it always be mushroom? One of my friends once went out with this guy (a meat-eater, no less) who kept saying ‘mushrooms are a vegetarian’s meat.’
No, no they’re not, they’re a vegetarian’s…mushroom, and we don't want to eat them with every meal.
Pubs are the worst offenders. As everyone’s steaming gravy-soaked roast dinners arrive, you're faced with some kind of soggy goat’s cheese-filled pastry and you realise you’d rather skip lunch altogether.
If it were totally impossible to make a decent vegetarian meal, I might cut restaurants some slack.
But when I’m at home I have a hugely varied diet of stir fries, vegetable stews, non-mushroom-based risottos and even…yes, roast dinners. You can get Quorn everything now, and drown it in lashings of veggie gravy, so I don’t see why publicans can’t do the same. The mind BOGGLES.
Going to someone’s house for dinner means BYOF
This might sound a little crazy, a little left-field, but if I invite someone for dinner then it usually means I’ll be providing them with food. OK, admittedly, I’m not a regular hostess. I’m a shoddy cook and I’ll usually opt for a takeaway, but if I actually invite someone over for a meal, then I will make sure I am proving something they can actually eat - be it gluten-free, nut-free, kosher or otherwise. So why, then, do I always end up having to bring my own food to a dinner party? Why do vegetarians always get a raw deal? (I've been waiting to slip that in this whole time).
I once went to a friend’s Christmas dinner where she refused to cook the roast potatoes in olive oil instead of goose fat. One of the few vegetables on a table covered in pigs in blankets, sausage meat stuffing and a three bird roast, was also out of bounds. I mean, it literally tastes THE SAME to just cook them in oil (I can attest to that, since I’ve eaten both).
I wouldn’t invite you over and say ‘Oh, I hope you don’t mind but I’ve marinated the tofu in my own urine.’
Nope, it’s just plain rude.
And, in the rare event that I arrive at a barbecue where the host has thoughtfully bought a load of halloumi as a meat alternative, it's usually snapped-up by the meat-eaters before I get a look-in, anyway.
I hate to make a fuss, but I’d almost rather just go for a drink than turn up to someone’s house, arms laden with my own ready-meal. It sort of takes the fun away from the whole occasion.
The endless interrogation
Then there’s the dinner chat. The second it is exposed that you’re a, v.e.g.e.t.a.r.i.a.n it’s like you’ve revealed to the entire table you enjoy eating babies’ ears as a snack – people. Cannot. Deal.
As if they can't quite get their head around it, people love to question you. They also love to try and trip you up.
My boyfriend recently stopped eating meat, thus exposing himself to a Spanish inquisition at every social event. ‘Why are you veggie?’, ‘Do you wear leather, though?’ ‘Do you eat gummy sweets?’ Why don’t you eat fish? Fish don’t have feelings.’ Yes, yes, us veggies have heard it all a thousand times over.
I’ve never been a proselytising vegetarian – I don’t care what other people eat, or if they want to devour a Wiener Schnitzel in front of my eyes. Telling meat eaters that it's cruel, or bad for the environment is like telling a smoker that it’s bad for their health.
I mean, the statistics speak for themselves.
Animal agriculture alone produces more greenhouse gasses than combined exhaust from all modes of transport. It is responsible for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. With the rate that our planet is devouring meat, the emissions for agriculture are projected to increase by an excruciating 80% by 2050. We are already on track to exceed our global CO2 limit by 2030.
According to Animal Aid, around 1,000 million animals are killed every year for food and many of those will have suffered an unbearable life of being stuffed into tiny cages, kept in the dark their entire lives or abused by abattoir workers.
Just last week I was visiting a farm where I watched a calf being born. ‘Oh, I thought, what an amazing opportunity to see one of nature’s most beautiful miracles.’ Then, halfway through labour, the calf suffocated and had to be dragged, tongue out, glassy-eyed and limp, flung into a corner – dead. It turns out, pumping hormones into the mother in order that she produce meaty young, had caused this particular calf to be so large its lungs were crushed during labour. This is the reality of livestock farming.
So why all the questions? And moreover, why does being a vegetarian enrage people quite so much?
Let's be honest...
Vegetarians are socially punished for something that, really, should be lauded. If we're honest, the real reason behind the vitriol vegetarians suffer, is the transference of guilt.
Being veggie isn’t easy. I’d love to be chowing down on aromatic crispy duck on the regs. It does take a level of self control. And there’s something about that, that makes people livid, immediately keen to deflect their own guilt and try and trip you up, convinced that your sheer presence is holier-than-thou, or label you as some kind of tree-hugging lunatic.
For a friend's twenty-first birthday, some of my girlfriends had T-shirts made with our nicknames on the back. When one of them wasn't sure what to put on mine, she suggested 'Veggie.' Well, that pretty much sums it up.
Who knows if I will be a vegetarian forever but for now, I will continue doing my bit and hope that others learn to catch-up. Soon, they might not have a choice.
Now, let me get back to my tofu...