Don’t become a vegan.
I can see the lines of disappointment furrowing his brow as my father in law’s face crumples under the weight of expectations I would never fulfil. There’s a maw of silence in the previously bubbling dinner conversation as a good friend looks at me as though reassessing if his continued participation in our relationship will be for nothing in the end. And although I haven’t broken the sorry news of my terrible choices to my mother I know that day will come when she must decide if the sheer effort of accommodating me on those all-to-fleeting visits to home will be worth all the trouble. I don’t consider myself a bad person, but I probably drink too much, I have a big loud motorbike and a poorly chosen tattoo from a metal festival I used to go to every year.
The facts about meat eating are stark and thrust upon us seemingly all the time by those same few friends on social media who have made it their mission (either for good or selfish reasons) to let the entire world know that a plant-based lifestyle is the only way to avoid global meltdown, bathe one’s soul clean of moral turpitude and/or gain a fabulous complexion and regular motions: eating animals is unhealthy; eating animals is immoral; eating animals is a large contribution to climate change. None of which I want to tell you about. Just like Dawkins laid out in his 1996 book of a similar title, climbing mount vegan is not something you can do in one leap. You can’t jump to the pinnacle of plant-fuelled smugness in a single bound. You don’t just become a vegan, so don’t try. You’ll need to do some prep, don the appropriate clothing, pack some supplies of information and the correct vocabulary and set out on the path. You’ll probably have a stumble or two and I haven’t reached the heady heights yet myself but you’ll find out a lot about yourself, about ‘the cause’ and how others view it, view you and their relationship with effecting change in their own lives.
The truth is I’m not a vegan, and I don’t really want to be one. I wanted to see if I could go a weekend without consuming animal products (I’m talking about oral consumption here, not full-blown forensic examination of my every label and clothing tag. I wear leather head to toe on my bike for goodness sake). My wife and I were hosting a couple of friends who are mainly vegan. They’re lovely people, even if they do have some off-beat beliefs and live on a canal boat. The days leading up to their arrival I was tense, looking at the notepad on the front of the fridge which usually sets out the week’s meals and envisioning the plethora of beans and pulses we would inevitably have to cover in all manner of awkward-to-prepare and underwhelming dressings to make edible let alone enjoyable. My wife had already been through the Minimalist Baker’s vegan book and picked out two days worth of meatless lunches and dinners. She pats my arm reassuringly; she already drinks oat and coconut milk in her tea and morning mochas and engages with the idea of eating less meat for health and planetary goodness. She has recently said that she would be up for being mainly meatless in her dining and I had cringed.
I resolved to approach the meat free weekend with the same mind-set I used when I gave up smoking rollups eight years ago: don’t give up, just see if you can go today without it. The chimp in my head would go nuts if I ever told it we would NEVER do something EVER again. It can’t handle that kind of wanton use of infinities and cannot process a future without that SOMETHING in it. Better to treat it like a toddler and tell it you can have it again tomorrow, just see if we can do today and then review again tomorrow morning how we felt about a day without it and see if it’s up for another day. And so on. To be clear my chimp hasn’t been told that it isn’t going to eat a Cathedral City cheddar bacon butty again but that’s none of her* business.
*My chimp is female and called Arnold. If you haven’t already, check out the Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters for fun mind-management.
So the weekend rolled on, and because my work has wangled a 20% discount at Wagamamas I suggest dinner there for an evening without dishes. Chums infer that they have a separate vegan menu so we are on. I end up perusing the vegan menu out of curiosity and order a big bowl of something. It materialises with strips of seitan (what even..?!) and a creation of a simulated egg made from coconut cream for the white and a yolk of creamified Sriracha sauce. The whole dish blows my taste buds off. The seitan is a bizarre experience and not awful. I prefer it to tofu I’ve had before. Sunday comes and our chums are off. I’ve done a weekend and I feel alright. I didn’t keel over, burst into flames, or lose any ‘man points’. If anything when I wake up my guts feel all nice and not like they’ve been doing any of the usual heavy lifting they do at the weekend. A Sunday roast is planned with some work chums. I insist that we stop by Waitrose on the way home to get me a beef alternative. When dinner is served I carve everyone beef and I get three vegan Cumberland sausages made from (Water, mushroom, peas, pea stuff, flavour stuff, spice stuff, stuff) according to the label. There is an awkward moment where my food choice is clumsily explained and everyone kind of does a disappointed sigh and eye roll combination. Two minutes later and my three sausages are reduced to two as everyone wants to see what they’re like. I take the trying of my sausage as confirmation that they are all secretly vegan curious and it will be my contribution to their inevitable abandonment of the meat trade. Their response is muted which I further take to be internalised surprise that they are unwilling to release for fear of joining me in the leper colony and facing ridicule. Wait, what the heck is happening here?! Why am I thinking like I’m somehow changed and taking this seriously?
Now the news spreads ahead of me like a gruesome medical diagnosis. “Simon’s a VEEEEEgan!”. What I have viewed as gentle scaling of a mountain, step by step, day by day, is viewed by others as a binary switch that has been flipped and which I may not switch back. I am conscious that if I am seen eating something not strictly vegan then it will be pointed out. “That’s not vegan, is it? I thought you were vegan?” Fuck off, it’s fried toast. One could mischievously think of vegans as some kind of superhero, simultaneously saving themselves, the planet and all animals from certain death, maintaining the costume and actions of a superhero. However a vegan who stumbles or does not completely tick ALL of the boxes is not seen as a superhero but just some weirdo running about with their underwear on the outside. You may not stray from the path.
Partly this is an issue of terminology and linguistics; it is too cumbersome to explain exactly where your personal borders lie, but it must be explained because social situations dictate it should. One can’t eat a different dish to everyone else of an evening and not be asked why. The choice is either to say “I’m vegan” and allow the rigid pigeonhole to form around you based on the preconceptions of the audience or to unroll your portable projector screen, extend your pointy stick, inhale and in one breath (whilst supporting the flow of normal conversation, not making it about you or boring the tits off of everyone) explain “I’m not eating any meat or dairy for a while just to see if I like it and if I do that’s great because the only meat I can afford is not raised ethically, is not sustainable and offers a poor deal for farmers and is of a low quality and I like my new range of farts”.
I’m excited to see how it goes, I cannot say I’m interested in going full dictionary definition vegan simply because there are some meat products I can’t avoid (leather still offers the best combination of protection for bikers) and I’m not a fan of being restricted by terminology. I might decide that it’s not for me and I don’t want to have it seen as a failure of some kind instead of having tried something and found it wasn’t for me. I’m hoping that the experiences of my boat-dwelling friends will materialise and I will gradually lose the taste for meat and cheese (shhh Arnold) and be able to enjoy a new and expanded spectrum of cooking. There’s too much conjecture and far too many opinions to be sure of the health facts surrounding veganism for me to say that it motivates me to avoid death by eggs, but as I was told recently no one has ever been taken to hospital with a protein deficiency. Maybe that’s because they didn’t have the strength to dial 999.
So far my experience has taught me, as per my summary at the top, that you shouldn’t become a vegan; take it day by day, make changes once you’ve framed them with your chimp and make it a fun journey of discovery which rubs off on those around you, hopefully encouraging them to think about their choices too.
Simon lives in Whiteley with his lovely wife and two children. He has a sense of humour as dry as an exquisite white wine on a summers day. Simon previously owned an off-the-grid scuba diving resort in Indonesia with his wife where he met our co-founder. His favourite eco product hails from his South East Asian days… the bum gun. In his own words “it makes my botty sing with the happy voices of a thousand uncut trees”.