My least favourite dinner table question

At some point during a formal dinner, one of the guests on either side of me will usually twig that I’m eating something different to them. Are you vegetarian, one will ask, and why?

As a non-evangelical vegetarian, after years of attempts at a succinct, compelling response, I still find this question hard to answer so I knew I had set myself a challenge when I agreed to write something about being vegetarian for the Alumni Office’s green impact blog.

It’s a complicated question for me in part because stopping eating meat wasn’t at first a conscious decision. I ate meat until around ten years ago when, during my university years, I gradually realised that meat has ceased to be part of my diet.

There were some very sound reasons for this: I barely knew how to heat up baked beans let alone cook something that would take much longer than three minutes and could potentially be followed by 24 hours of self-inflicted diarrhea and vomiting. Cooking facilities at my university were limited to a defunct two-ring hob on which, even at its full power, a freshly boiled kettle of hot water would cool to tepidity.

The other driver for me was, as for many students, cost. Unless you buy the cheapest of meats – which in the end is probably more bone than meat – vegetarian food is significantly cheaper.

An inability to cook and an underlying stinginess have remained with me since my university days but over the years of being questioned about my vegetarianism I have acquired a number of responses.

You may be aware that vegetarianism can help significantly reduce climate change because of the high levels of methane emitted cows and pigs but you may be less familiar with the idea that the farming industry contributes significantly to anti-microbial resistance, which is worrying for us all. I didn’t know very much about this until Dame Sally Davies’ Manchester lecture on the topic last year, which you can read more about here. Strangely though, Dame Sally declined to answer a question on vegetarianism put to her by an audience member.

For more on meat eating vs. the planet, the Guardian offers ‘ten reasons vegetarianism can help save the planet’. As always, there are arguments to be heard on both sides. I googled ‘vegetarianism and climate change’ and the third hit was a Daily Mail article reporting asking ‘Are vegetarians to blame for climate change?’. And if that’s the stance the Daily Mail takes, I think that alone is a very good reason to be vegetarian.

When I was growing up in Halifax, my brother for a while worked in an abbatoir and thinking about what goes on in abbatoirs is surely enough to put most people off their dinner. As Paul McCartney said:

If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.

I do feel a deep sense of compassion for animals which means my gut response to a rabbit is to want it to continue to live in peace not to put it in a pie.

I’m told that the meat most missed by vegetarians is bacon which fortunately I have never liked. There is such a thing as vegetarian bacon as the picture below so unappetisingly shows.

SNV17720

Image by Duncan Toms from Flickr Creative Commons

Thankfully, there are nowadays lots of options for human herbivores that don’t involve fungi and albumen. My current favourite meal is courgetti, a spiralized form of courgettes which works well with a tomato or pesto sauce, or many other things no doubt. Spiralize means, as you can guess, formed into a spiral shape.

Courghetti from Flickr CC Adrian Berg.jpg

Image by Adrian Berg from Flickr Creative Commons

I count myself lucky to live and work in Manchester, a city which has been home to revolution after revolution: from industrialisation to the first splitting of the atom to the world’s first computer to the foundation of the Royal Society for the Protection of the Birds in 1889.

While Manchester can’t claim to have invented vegetarianism – it apparently goes way back to BCE with figures such as Pythagoras – Manchester is the birthplace of the Vegetarian Society was founded in the early nineteenth century and continues to be home to the Society today. For those of us who work at The University of Manchester, within very easy reach I would recommend:

  • The Greenhouse Café in the George Kenyon Building
  • The Veggie Café at Contact Theatre
  • The Eighth Day healthfood shop on Oxford Road
  • Some of the stalls at Tuesday’s Levenshulme market outside the Martin Harris Centre
  • And a little further out, but worth the trip, the Unicorn Grocery in nearby Chorlton.

For other good vegetarian restaurants even further afield I suggest you read MEN’s guide.

I believe everyone should enjoy the food they eat and take pleasure in where it has come from. For me, that means not eating meat but for many readers of this blog it will mean eating meat, but perhaps choosing free range, organic, local. I feel fortunate to have an abundance of food and choice on my doorstep.

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