A soft, shrivelled thing lay at the back of the cutlery drawer. Dull brown now, but once a bright, organic orange. A dead carrot. No idea how it got there – so it was clearly a Sign my storage skills were in decline and that my cupboards could do with close inspection. There might be other strays around, rotting or sprouting in corners, like last year’s ex-potato found under the oven….
Something out of time or place can be refreshing, making you see the familiar differently. Like a spider in a lift or spectacles on the classical nose of an ancient statue. But this was my kitchen, where a certain Order must apply. It was too late to save the relic under the soup spoons, but all was well in the fridge. The swede, spinach and leaves were in the vegetable drawer – still where I put them after the latest shopping expedition.
Waitrose, January, 2019
The other woman in the queue was wearing a real sheepskin jacket for sure, and my handbag was leather, so neither of us followers of Fundamentalist Fashion, which forbids any dressing in dead animals….but there was a packet in her basket called ‘fish-less fingers’ and behind us an aisle full of plant-based products – hundreds of ranges, including a vegetarian haggis. (An oxymoron, if ever there was one.) The in-store magazine was a ‘vegan recipe’ special, with pictures of beetroot burgers and courgette cake; apparently two in six of us are only occasional consumers of fleshy food. Flexitarians, they’re called. I’ve been one of them for years, but didn’t know it. And this year, I’m taking a step further – to stop eating meat altogether.
It’s to be a gradual process; I’m not going to be born-again about it. The quiche lorraine in the freezer won’t be thrown away – the waste not, want not principle goes too deep for that. And besides, no one cares what a single pensioner in the Midlands puts on her plate. Once, though, there was someone who cared a great deal….
My first marriage was to a man of many causes – apartheid, rainforests, endangered species and tribes; he was also a man who’d never eaten meat or fish, or been tempted to. It was an absolute red line, that led straight from an abattoir – where his father once saw cattle cry before slaughter. They seemed to know what was coming and the scene would settle his own fate too, food-wise. His future – and his family’s – would be meat-free.
So to his son, a steak or slices of ham were pieces a once larger, living whole; my carnivorous habits distressed him bitterly. He played a sweet folk guitar and cruelty-free shampoo made his hair smell delicious. – my ‘hairy wonder,’ I called him. I’d never actually liked the look of raw animal flesh – or cooking it – too much skin and bone, too much grease in the washing up – so I agreed to convert to Lacto-Vegetarianism, at least for a year. I couldn’t promise never to eat ‘anything with a heartbeat’ again, because the word ‘never’ frightened me. And still does.
It was the 1970s. Alternative eaters were a tiny minority then. B utcher’s shops were common in the high street. A pioneering restaurant called Cranks hinted at the vegetarian image problem. Too earnest, too beards-socks-and-sandals. In our attic flat, I tried to be inventive with nuts and do interesting things with lentils; I stuffed a lot of peppers. Beans, though, made me windy and brown rice soon bored me concrete. I went on the odd march – against nuclear sites or factory farms – and waved a few banners, but my heart wasn’t in it. Saving the planet and feeding the world was important of course – and urgent now – but I had problems of my own. So one day I sat in a café, ordered a chicken sandwich – crossing the line – and knew that the marriage was over.
Half a century later, I’d like a little less death in my life. Like politics, there’s just too much of it around. It’s time to go back now, at least part of the way, and make a new, freer choice – for myself alone. The pig population won’t thank me for it, the hairy wonder will never know and cutting my own connection with the abattoir won’t make me a Better Person – or a Vegan.
A local Food Fair, Summer, 2018.
The girl in charge of one of the stalls had a hippie air about her – lots of ethnic beads, a long floaty skirt and a T-shirt with a slogan that said, Eat what the Elephants Eat – which I thought was grass, twigs and tree bark….Great for fibre, but rather restricted for a human being, surely? So I paused for a chat. We agreed about battery hens, but not about animal rights or research, which helps some people stay alive. To her, enjoying a lamb chop was actually evil and eating honey exploited the bees – which sounded a bit extreme and Marxist to me. And anyway, I could never go dairy-free, too much of a cheese addict for that.
I can’t be a true Veggie, either. This isn’t a bloodless resolution, because one of my murderous ways will remain. A tin or two of sardines will always sit on a shelf in the kitchen, ‘sustainably sourced, responsibly fished’ – but still once creatures alive in the Atlantic, doomed to be drained and gutted in a cannery. But oily fish is good for the older heart and brain, they say. I’m fond of tuna, too, whose blood is warm – and saying no to prawns, plump and pretty in a pink sauce, would be a sacrifice too far. So it may not be noble, radical or chic, but I’ve found the ‘ism’ for me. I’m going to be a practising Pescetarian…