Bad Vegetarian

Around three months ago I reached a tipping point and decided to be vegetarian. I did so for moral reasons, mostly based around animal suffering. For fun and interest, I wrote about my decision in the very first days of my faltering vegetarianism (see HERE). Now that a little time has passed, I thought it would be interesting to check back in.

I am a terrible vegetarian. I mean it. I am really, really bad at not eating meat. I always knew it would be difficult to alter my eating practices, but I hadn’t really grasped the details of it, the specifics. These difficulties in the last few months have come from a couple of factors, all feeding into each other, and most of which have been entirely unexpected. So sit back and allow me to paint you a wonky picture of my continually stutter-stepping aim to not eat meat.

Firstly, meat is everywhere. I mean it. Everywhere. It’s one of those things you see-but-don’t-see, until you try to avoid inhaling it. I don’t just mean in supermarket aisles or restaurants, but on every street, in every window, in every advert, on every tv. It’s everywhere. Which, in itself, isn’t so immediately strange right? I mean, meat-eating is the norm, certainly in our society. So of course it’s normal to see it. Again, in the immediate, it’s not so odd. But take even just a glimpse at history, at it’s suddenly a little more bizarre. Throughout all of human history, meat has been at least a semi-luxury. In a hunter-gatherer era, you’re literally just trying to gather enough resources to survive, so all food is a luxury. In a non-modern farming era, animals take up food that could be passing directly to you (e.g. they eat your grain). Right up to industrialisation and the invention of production-lines, meat was rare – or at least valuable – to everyone except the ultra-wealthy. Yes yes, I’m obviously broad-stroking things here. I’m not a historian, and I certainly don’t profess to know a lot about farming. But I know enough (which is to say, anything at all) to know that meat has never been easy to get hold of, until very very recently in history.

So, right up until the last few hundred years, meat was rare. Which means meat most certainly wasn’t everywhere. And really, a couple of hundred years is a fairly short time for our eating habits to transform so entirely.

My point here, perhaps more than the fact that meat is super prevalent, is that we are atrociously wasteful of meat. Again, not a surprise to anyone I’m sure. We all already know that we’re super-wasteful of food. But for me (because my vegetarianism is based on a desire to reduce suffering), the thing that makes it extra odd is that, y’know, meat comes from alive things. In order to eat meat, an animal somewhere was killed. Something that can and does experience pain. Fine. I’m not saying kill no animals. I’m saying it’s…pretty fucking bad that we kill animals so freely – animals that we know undergo a lot of suffering (and there is a large body of indisputable evidence for this). Maybe it’s really not so strange. Because frankly, it’s also fairly unarguable that – as an entire species – if it’s out of our immediate sight, and not in our particular in-group, then we don’t give much of a fuck about it.

Hey ho. I’m getting slightly off point, and chances are if you’re going to get offended, you already have. I can live with that, and chances are, so can you. So lets get away from the general, and back to my specific experiences.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m well aware that there are vegetarian resources out there – from specialist aisles, to websites, to restaurants, and so on and so on. I’m not trying to claim there aren’t. But what I’m trying to draw attention to is just how insanely pervasive meat is to our eating habits – and thus the entire spectrum of our culture.

Now I’m not trying to soapbox you, I promise. I’m not casting down the Wrath Of Vegetables on your head, I’m truly not. I’m just trying to get you to glimpse just how…well, mindbendingly weird it all is, if you step out of the meat-eat mindframe. Let’s take supermarkets for example. Let’s take the sandwich area of supermarkets. You know the bit – the area with pre-made sandwiches and wraps, next to an assortment of mid-sized drinks, and probably a selection of crisps. If it’s fancy, there might even be some little packets of grapes or something. Maybe a meal-deal. You with me? Right, here’s a fun challenge for you. Next time you’re in one of these sections, or you’re just passing by or whatever, have a gander. See if there are more than two main-meal options that don’t contain meat. Have a proper look – because for the last few months, that’s what I’ve been doing. If you’re not in the mood for cheese and pickle, or egg-salad, then chances are you’re fucked. The most exciting choice I’ve found thus far was in Boots, which had a falafel wrap. Points for effort, and for being the only vegan choice I’ve seen thus far, though most of those points are unfortunately lost by virtue of the wrap being fairly horrible. Still, they’re trying I suppose.

The first couple of times this happened, I was annoyed. Obviously, I was looking for food to eat right now, so I was hungry. And having to sift through twenty different options (all of which look delicious to my meat-craving brain) to find maybe one option that I’m willing to eat, that’s fucking irritating. And when you know that those possible options are almost certainly going to be good ol’ cheese and pickle, or egg-salad, irritation tips over to anger. If you live in Manchester and you’ve ever spotted a big fat bearded guy in a big black coat, just standing there and glowering at the sandwich aisle, then you’ve probably just been witness to one of my Tuesday lunch breaks.

I say it was annoying the first few times – and it was. The few times after that, it was demoralising. Then after that, it just became…weird.

Again, and I feel I really need to stress this here, I’m not trying to get all PETA on your asses. So hold off on saying things like “well you don’t have to be vegetarian!” or “but you can make your own food”, because I’m well aware of that, sunshine. All I’m trying to highlight, all I’m trying to highlight here is that it’s a bit weird that meat is so pervasive. And it is weird, when you think about it. Meat is not just something you can easily have if you want it, it’s something that’s genuinely difficult to not have. And again, looking back at that brief-history-of-meat from a few paragraphs ago, that’s a weird change in polarity. Even if you’re a meat-eater who fancies just not having something meaty for lunch, then you’re probably in for a struggle, or a very bland experience. And that’s, well, kind of bananas right? I mean, even if I do decide to start eating meat again at some point – which is of course a possibility – it will still be a very weird culture that not only has meat in the overwhelming majority of pre-prepared food out there, but actually makes avoiding it, in all probability, a slightly negative experience.

So. Let’s get back to me being bad at not eating meat. Or, to put it another way, let’s get back to the fact that I have, repeatedly, eaten meat over the last few months. One of the major influences on this is one that I had literally never thought about until I moved house: having a crap kitchen.

Again, it sounds – and is – extremely obvious. But like a great many obvious things, it’s not something you actually think about. Like the phrase ‘know it like the back of your hand’. How well do you actually know the back of your hand? Could you describe it? In detail? Without looking? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Let’s get back to this kitchen. I moved house for work, and I knew full well that the kitchen was small before I moved in. But I really, really didn’t comprehend how much this would impact on me. Let me describe it for you. You walk in, and the door cannot open the whole 180 degrees. It can’t move much past 90, because then it collides with the sink. So you walk in, sidestep right to avoid walking into the counter, and immediately close the door behind you – at least, if you want to get to the sink, or the cupboards where my food is kept. You’ve walked two steps, and now you’re in the middle of the kitchen. If you face forward then touching your left hand is the counter and hob. At the same time touching your right hand is the sink and drying rack. If you’re cooking, this is where you stand, rotating on the spot. To get to the food, you turn and face the cupboard, ducking back to avoid being hit in the head by it’s door. To get the chopping board you reach up and grab it from on top of the same cupboard – shuffling it out from under the two or three other kitchenware items that are also kept there. Turn 180 degrees and place on the countertop. Turn 10 degrees right and there’s the hob. If you’re feeling luxurious, you can even crab walk left and right along the range. Oops, you forgot about that cupboard door. Ouch, you forgot about that drawer handle. Oh well, let’s keep looking around. There are a number of cupboards in the room, all of which are full. There are three people living here, and at least 40% of the kitchen’s cupboard space is filled with the landlord’s belongings – we have a lodgers agreement, which is quite different from a tenancy agreement. The largest cupboard in the kitchen is filled to the brim with an assortments of pots and pans, all with just enough rust and grime to make them too uncomfortable to use. So, eliminate the space that is filled with the landlord’s stuff, and which is filled by my housemate’s stuff and you’re left with a short shelf, and one and a half cupboards, with no shelving in. All for you! Actually, I get some extra space because I’m tall – so I’ve arranged to keep all my cookingware on top of the cupboards. It’s a good job really, because without that space, I literally wouldn’t have room to keep my stuff in there, without taking up a lot of the limited counter space, which people need to, y’know, actually cook.

If you closed the door when you first came in (which you did, unless you want even less room and want to risk setting off the smoke alarm) the room is now dim. There are, in fairness, three lightbulbs, which would illuminate the room quite well. But two of them are broken and we refuse to replace them again, because of a continuous electrical fault that – in around a month and a half – has blown out over 10 lightbulbs in the house. So, for the time being, there is one lightbulb (and there have been weeks where there were no lightbulbs). The only outside light comes from the door at the other end of the room, which is about seven feet away. It’s not a long room. The second door has a large glass pane, and opens into a little shack-type outhouse. Past this four-foot room is the back door to the house, which likewise has a glass pane, although it is heavily frosted. Open that and you’re in the back yard – around ten foot square of weeds and mud, So the only daylight that reaches the kitchen is passing navigating rows of urban housing which cuts out about 60% of the sky, over a fence, and through two (frosted) windows. Even on a sunny day, not much gets through. I’m not being pedantic here either, it’s important to paint a picture of how little light this room receives.

It’s important both on it’s own, and also because in addition to dim, the room is dank. We keep the back doors open whenever we’re cooking to try and reduce the condensation, but there’s no extraction fan. And in a small space like we have, any steam is too much steam. As a result, with the exception of the hob and countertop, which are cleaned multiple times a week to combat this, everything in the kitchen is covered in a tacky patina.

And of course, I’m not a small person. I’m bloody massive. So we have a very small kitchen – with enough room for two organised people to have their kitchenware and food in, if they take turns doing the actual cooking, and clean everything away afterwards. Except we have four people’s belongings in it, three of whom use it on a daily basis. In a kitchen with barely any light. With an oven that, frankly, I refuse to use at all out of a genuine fear of contamination.

Aside from me having a good ol’ gripe, what’s the problem? Well, the problem isn’t that you can’t cook in there – you can, with time, effort, and preparation. The problem is that it’s just extremely unpleasant to cook in there. Now people cook in many different ways, for many different reasons. People do it socially, or for fun, or as a bit of ‘me time’, or even just because they’re hungry. I do it, at different times, for all of those reasons. When I’m in a good mood, I’ll cook and auto-talk to whoever is nearest as I make a big pot of bubbling goop. If I’m in a bad mood, or a sad mood, I’ll put headphones in and bake up a loaf of something, or a cake that I’ve just invented. It’s fairly safe to say that I like to cook.

Except now I don’t. In this house, with this kitchen, I don’t cook for fun, because it’s not. I refuse to bake, because that requires the ability to clearly see what you’re doing, and the space to do it. It also requires an oven that’s been cleaned in the last five years. I could, of course, spend several hours cleaning it myself but why the hell would I want to do that? It’s easier, and more enjoyable, to just not bake.

This is where my supermarket-section from earlier comes back. When cooking is not simply a chore, but a genuinely miserable one on a par with unclogging the sewage drains, you’ll do quite a lot to avoid it. When you get home from work, and you’re tired, and you have shit to do, you’ll do a lot to avoid it. And the supermarket is a five minute walk away. I don’t have to cook, I can just stick something in the (horrible) microwave, and the plastic wrap will keep most of the germs away I’m sure. Or failing that, I’m in Longsight for flipsake, there’s a takeout on every damn corner. And yeah, I could spend 40 miserable, hungry, angry minutes preparing food and knocking my head on cupboards. Or I could spend an hour digging through the supermarkets to find a vegetarian option devoid of carrots (man, fuck carrots). OR, I could have food in the next two minutes. You know, as long as I’ll eat meat. It is incredibly easy to let my moral concerns get buried under annoyance and hunger, and it repeatedly has been.

So. Fail I have. And chances are, fail I will again. But I do keep trying, and in the last few months I’ve garnered a great deal more empathy for people who live on takeout and ready meals. Jamie Oliver may dance on screen proclaiming that it’s easy for us all to eat healthy, but he’s lying. Because it’s much much easier to not. Fresh food is more expensive. It takes more time to prepare. And it’s harder to find.

The last part is perhaps the most obvious; I miss meat. It’s been such a normal thing that I’ve enjoyed for such a long time, it’s a hard thing to break. It’s significantly harder when it’s waved in your face all the damn time. I don’t use this as an excuse, I am aware that willpower is a thing, and it’s my damn job to deal with it, but it is still a thing that exists, so I’m mentioning it here. And that difficulty was expected. What wasn’t expected was how my stupid brain would operate on this. Yes I miss meat, and the reason that comes up for this is the obvious one; it’s tasty. But habit is stupid. And while I miss meat ‘because it’s tasty’, it turns out the larger obstacle in my head is that I miss meat because I’m used to having it. When I realized this, I realized that I don’t just miss meat because it’s nice, I miss it because my brain is, at least slightly, addicted to it. I really can’t think of another word for it. Two weeks ago I ordered a meat-feast pizza from some takeaway or other. And it was shit. I mean it was really bad. Crappy chunks of donner and battery-chicken and god knows what else. And I sat there, eating my crappy pizza, and knowing full well that not only was I breaking vegetarianism (again), but that I was doing it with crap super-unethical meat, and that I wasn’t even enjoying it. It wasn’t tasty. It wasn’t nice. But I kept eating it, because my brain wanted more.

That, on some level, is addictive behavior. I wasn’t eating it for taste. Or for nutrition. I was eating it for a hit. Aha! My stupid brain went. Meat! Yesss, give uss the meeeeat. It was like having an idiot Gollum in the back of my skull. A behavior and habit ground so deeply into my head that I unconsciously flounder when it’s not present.

So there we are. I’m a pretty bad vegetarian. But I’m not, as yet, willing to give up on it. It has, at times, made me angry and irritable, and thus far it’s making my eating habits significantly more difficult. But, still, for me, whether I assess it morally, nutritionally or ecologically, it’s still just…better.

And goddamn do I wish I could pretend otherwise.

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