I can’t remember precisely the first time I tried to be a vegetarian – but I did it to annoy my mum, like claiming to be a Maoist and a lesbian, so I guess I was around 13. Teenagers are the most represented group among this country’s 1.2 million non-carnivores, and it makes sense – you can piss off your parents and feel like St Francis of Assisi all in one. And of course, it can be an excellent cover for eating disorders.
Though my parents were animal lovers to the point of foolishness, ‘meat’ was so ever-present in our household that, as an only child, I grew up thinking of it almost as a sort of mute sibling. Different sorts of ‘meat’ were never defined, with my mother offering people ‘a meat roll’ (kinky!) no sooner had they stepped over the threshold, but pig was probably the star. ‘What’s for tea?’ I’d sigh, coming in from school and hoping to be offered asparagus, quail’s eggs and ile de flottante for a change. ‘Ham, Spam and baa-lamb!’ my mother would inevitably cackle.
Spam! If one thing made me determined to give up meat, it was the Spam which my mother treated almost as fruit – in summer, we ate it five times a day. Years later I would read the poet Jack Collom’s acrostic – ‘Suddenly, masked hombres seized/Petunia Pig/And/Made her into a sort of dense Jell-O’ – and shudder. And then there was the chitlin! My hometown of Bristol found fame and fortune, shamefully, as a slave port, and one of the lesser evils we passed on to the unfortunate captives was a liking for this unspeakably unedifying foodstuff which is still favoured in the Deep South of the USA. Thankfully it seems to be less popular here, so I’ll explain it to you – chitlin is the intestines of pigs, often, for some reason, braided, as though it was the silky hair of a beloved child. And the size and texture of the unplaited kind is, to be frank, extremely penis-like. My mother simply could not get enough of it, and when I came home from school and found it leering mockingly at me from the fridge, it was enough to send me into a two-day sulk. I would then have yet another bash at vegetarianism – quickly to go the way of all flesh when a Vesta Beef Curry appeared in the pantry.
I spent the next four decades trying and failing at vegetarianism; one, because I have no willpower whatsoever and two, because meat shouldn’t taste so nice! That’s the thing about a really great cheeseburger; the dead bit doesn’t taste dead, it tastes more alive than the bits that never lived or died. About twenty years ago I achieved a supremely silly semi-triumph and succeeded in foregoing those animals which I find beautiful – pigs, lambs, ducks – from my diet while also not eating beasts who I consider ugly. This left me in the admittedly morally ludicrous position of eating only animals I found moderately attractive – cows, chickens and fish. The breakthrough came two years ago. My best female friend had always been a vegetarian and then my best male friend joined her; at our weekly lunches, mopping up the blood of some blameless cud-chewer, I began to feel something less than human, though they never judged me.
I’m quite an eccentric vegetarian – not one of those bores who do it for health reasons and I loathe those sad-sacks who cultivate allergies in lieu of personalities. I’m one because I’m keen on animals – and even keener on people, who I feel are degraded by eating animals. Unlike a lot of vegetarians, I’m not in it to feel pure and up myself; I have been known to watch my carnivore husband’s plate like a hawk, and the minute he lays down his cutlery, if there’s meat going begging I’ll neck it in a flash – and enjoy it, too. I don’t want to create a demand for innocent animals to be killed for me – but if they’re already dead, it’s a shame to waste them. Another way I may be atypical is that I hate the use of the word ‘veggies’ to describe either vegetarians or vegetables – I associate it with the sort of half-wit who also uses the words ‘willy’ and ‘tummy’.
I asked a few of my friends also past the first bloom of youth why they had become late-onset vegetarians. Samantha, 46, said ‘I gave up meat when my beloved pug Ruby was put down a few weeks ago – it was weird watching her die and thinking about the love I had for her and what difference was there between her little body and another animal’s.’ And Roman, 45, explained ‘I just switched this year – I love my dogs so much and couldn’t see the difference between them and cows or sheep. Once I hit YouTube and saw how degraded our farming system has become I just had to stop – animals on farms actually have personalities. I find people who eat veal or other baby animals grotesque – I grew up on a farm so have seen most things. We now have so many alternatives available it would be silly not to at least try them.’ Incidentally, Samantha and Roman are two of the most hard-headed, hedonistic people I know. Traditionally, the meat industry and its useful idiots the carnivores have tried to discredit vegetarians by making us out to be sentimental, dull killjoys. They’re going to lose, one day soon.
That being said, my husband and most of my mates are carnivores, and I would never judge or preach at them – like faith, you have to find your way to it yourself. But I do believe that in a hundred years from now, we will have evolved into a species who look back and regard people eating animals as something rather simple-minded savages did, the way we think of cannibalism now. Until then, though, when I see any of my husband’s once-living leftovers heading towards the rubbish, I’ll see it as my moral duty to step in and save it – after all, it would be a crying shame to throw the poor desiccated creature into the bin when it could instead be giving me nourishment to fuel my crusade against carnivorism.