Hardcore, moderate, selective, et cetera—the school of vegetarianism is growing. To which do you subscribe? The Guardian investigates.
Are you the sort of vegetarian who enjoys smoked salmon? Photograph: Getty Images/Stockbyte
‘Tis January, the season of denial. Pubs lie fallow, restaurateurs tread water waiting for the sugar-pink bonanza of 14 February, and everyone’s having a “dry month”, no matter what the Met Office says. Some even choose this time of year to go the whole hog, push aside the bacon butty, and take that big drunken-new-year’s-resolution step: going vegetarian.
Problem is, in the all-inclusive waffly language of today, what does “vegetarian” even mean? A deceptively simple question, and one the Vegetarian Society firmly addresses, defining a veggie as someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs.
One must feel sorry, then, for dyed-in-the-(artificial)-wool vegetarians who must share their space with those “veggies” who just happen to eat fish, the lacto-ovo-pesce-pollo-vegetarians (AKA the “two legs good, four legs bad” school of nutrition) and the reported 37% of American “vegetarians” who responded positively when asked if they’d eaten red meat in the past 24 hours.
Next, having decided on your flavour of vegetarianism, there’s then the issue of why. After all, vegetarians are so often subjected to CIA-style dinner-table grillings about their chosen diets and its exact nutritional breakdown (“where do you get all your protein?”) that it’s best to swot up in advance. A handy PowerPoint presentation won’t go amiss.
When you start to search for a vegetarian raison d’être, you’re spoiled for choice. There’s the obvious “thou shalt not kill stuff” reason. Then there’s the “being nice to animals” reason – a most tricky subject that seemingly requires in-depth knowledge of the meat-production business, dairy trade and a comparative study of the nervous systems and psychologies of all beast, fowl and swimmy things in order to make an informed decision. Which is worse: eating all parts (offal and all) of an “ethically produced” grass-fed “high-welfare” cow; swallowing live oysters whole in lemon juice; or buying cheap milk mass-produced by farms that cull their male calves at birth? There are no easy answers.
It’s increasingly popular to go veggie for health reasons, but this seems to be a step best taken on a case-by-case basis, especially given that more restrictive diets like fruitarianism can have unintended consequences, as Ashton Kutcher has been finding out. Health studies on the subject of vegetarians-v-meat-eaters, even when adjusted for lifestyle choices such as smoking and alcohol consumption, still lump the burger-toting pork-belly-lovin’ crowd in with the “poached chicken breast with salad” cohort. And should you go vegetarian for NHS-friendly reasons, it’s best to warn your friends that it’s your health, not Dolly’s, that you’re interested in looking after. Indeed, what meat-eater isn’t guilty of having plied their vegetarian friends with cheese-heavy saturated-fat-filled concoctions in a desperate attempt to keep the whole table happy and fed without resorting to quinoa-stuffed peppers?
For many food-enamoured readers, the reason that may hold most sway is the environment. Livestock production causes a heck of a lot of planetary damage. “Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation”, warns the UN, and both drains and pollutes our “increasingly scarce water resources”. No one can argue that eating animals is a particularly efficient method of turning the sun’s rays into viable nutrition (except when the animals graze land unsuitable for growing crops). Ergo, anyone who has ever considered buying a Prius should also think about eating less meat.
And there’s the crux of it. Eating less meat (and fish for that matter) can only be a good thing for the world. Perhaps not on a species level – farmers argue that if you want to save endangered breeds, you better pick up your fork – but it’s hard not to be on the side of the “meat reducers”.
Unfortunately, it is just so much less sexy to be a meat reducer than a vegetarian. You can’t say it with a bumper sticker. There are no special clubs or societies to join. Heaven forbid, your friends may not even notice; especially as, if you’re only going to eat meat occasionally, you should do it when you go out. Everyone knows (or at least suspects) that restaurant veggie fare often goes some way to subsidising the meat courses – just as the pork terrine subsidises the seared scallops, and wine drinkers subsidise everyone else’s meal.
On the upside, speaking of wine, there are some benefits to being a meat reducer (or semi-vegetarian, or a flexitarian, should you be in search of a fad-worthy name). While “ethical vegetarians” and vegans must scrutinise back labels in search of isinglass, a fish-bladder derivative used to clarify wine and beer, the Meat Free Monday crew can continue to glug rioja with impunity.
Holidays, especially to the kind of foreign climes where chicken is often viewed as a particularly delicious type of vegetable, become that much less infuriating; you can always go mad on the tofu when you get home. South-east Asia, with its liberal use of umami-rich fish sauce, is now a practically guilt-free destination.
So food lovers, own up. Are there really any for-the-good-of-the-planet gourmands out there, who in previous years would have sold their grandma for a leg of jamón ibérico but now forgo even the merest slivers of parmesan? Could Jay Rayner ever find true happiness as a vegetarian? (Possibly not.)
And for the sake of vegetarians at dinner parties everywhere: do please share your vegetarian recipes that drive meat-eaters equally wild. A thousand mushroom risottos beg for your mercy.
Environmentalist Janique Goff’s Facebook page shares updates on green advocacies from all over the globe.