I‘ve been vegetarian for almost 20 years now and it’s the one thing in my life that generates the most questions around other people, to my surprise even more than when people find out I make YouTube videos. It’s been a part of who I am for so long and I’m so used to fielding questions (and occasionally having to defend myself) that I rarely even notice any more; however when I get messages or tweets from people who are curious, intrigued or considering it for themselves I remember that it can be a confusing thing for a lot of people. I do have a YouTube video chatting about this so for those of you who want to get a cup of tea and watch that too it’s here (bonus entertainment in the comments section as you can imagine) but I also wanted to write a post because I can’t believe it doesn’t already exist on my site.
The most frequent question I get asked is “WHY?!?” – in all honesty there are times when I do tire of talking about this, it can be exhausting and sometimes frustrating to have to produce a monologue explaining why I do or don’t want to eat things. I hate cucumbers, and nobody ever asks me why I don’t want to eat them because they quickly and painlessly accept that I don’t like them, but add vegetarian or vegan into the mix and the conversation has a different tone entirely. Sometimes when I’m tired (or just want to talk about something else with new people) I just say I don’t like meat, but nine times out of ten that answer isn’t enough and people want to know why, hear about my ethical stance, ask if I use leather products, if I eat eggs, if I buy organic, if I’m religious, what my opinion on mock meat is, if my parents are carnivores and I’ve come to realise that it’s a conversation I just have to man up and have.
I don’t hold it against people – most are just genuinely curious and I understand that, I’m a bit of a nosy parker myself. We live in a society where it’s incredibly common to eat meat and although different diets and lifestyles are increasingly recognised by the mainstream, us herbivores are in the minority so it’s only natural that people want to know more about something that could be alien to them. We all want to understand why people do the things they do (often just the mere mention of the word vegetarian around new people sparks a deep ethical debate) so it’s only natural that people ask a lot of questions and I genuinely don’t think they realise that they are putting you on the spot in front of everyone. If you are thinking of vegetarianism be aware this this is a conversation you will have to have over and over again. Be nice, be cool, keep calm and I promise you in twenty years time it will be as normal as someone asking your name and you won’t even bat an eyelid.
To answer that question (the why) is kind of difficult really. I was very young, so I don’t clearly remember my thought process but I do remember how it started: I grew up as a dancer and I spent most of my week, including weekends, in a leotard rehearsing somewhere. I remember we were preparing for our annual show, so on Saturdays we practised in the theatre in town from morning till dark. When I was very young my Mum packed up tupperware after tupperware of snacks and meals to keep me going but as I got a little bit older I was allowed to take some money with me and walk with my friends to get food. I was already in the town centre really but I know that walking to the shop or bakery to choose something made me feel very grown up, it’s the little things eh?
On this occasion I was with my friend Sarah and we went to the bakery, where she proceeded to order a vegetarian sausage roll as opposed to the meat-filled puff pastry wonders I was used to. I grew up in Wigan so as you can imagine this seemed terribly exotic to me and I wanted to try it too – looking back and remembering the very limited selection of veggie food in supermarkets I’m shocked that a bakery in Wigan was even serving this, but I’m glad it did because it sparked something in me that I still stick to today. I’m not sure why Sarah wanted to order it herself, she wasn’t vegetarian and as far as I know still isn’t, maybe she heard someone discuss it on TV, maybe she looked at the bakery display and made a snap decision on a whim but whatever it was, I had my first veggie meal by choice and just like that I never ate meat again.
Whatever my parents really thought when I went home and told them (probably that it was a phase!) they were nothing but supportive of me and didn’t make a fuss. I find that so strange now, knowing them as people in a way I didn’t then. My Mum panics if I miss a couple of calls from her even now so it’s strange to me that she appeared unfazed by my revelation, but I think they truly thought it would pass and that by the end of the week I would be asking to go to KFC. It’s only really as an adult (and when I read messages from people arguing with their parents over this) that I realise just how lucky I was to have the support I did. I have a very distinct memory of my Mum taking me to Sainsburys (we usually shopped at Asda) to look for things I could eat and buying me sausages and Linda McCartney lasagnes. We got back and whilst putting the food away I vividly remember her saying that if I wanted to be vegetarian after trying it for a bit that was fine and if I decided to go back to eating meat that was okay too. That sticks out to me for some reason and I’m really appreciative now that they took that approach. They were both as understanding as they could be, and my Dad who did a lot of the cooking for a time due to his schedule, never gave me a hard time after school when he had to make something different for me. I couldn’t have asked for more.
I am an only child, something that realistically probably made it easier for everyone to adapt. The ‘only child’ discussion is another thing I’m well-versed in now as well as vegetarianism conversations and despite what people may think (my parents would have had more children if they could – fertility is something people don’t often consider before making a snarky comment) I wasn’t spoiled or ruined as a child. I’m not stupid though, I know that the fact that my parents had the luxury of more time with me may have made things easier – there were no siblings to cook for so it was probably less hectic at mealtimes, in turn allowing them to let me experiment. I don’t come from a family of hippies or environmentalists, my parents didn’t really know any other vegetarians and my home was a regular place where my Dad ate meat and my Mum’s only real nutrition experience came from Rosemary Conley pamphlets. I say this because I really think we educated each other along the way, my parents have probably tried new foods due to having me as a daughter and I learned not to be precious about things and am not totally freaked out around meat.
I’ve had boyfriends and friends who were vegetarian, vegan and staunch meat fans – I tend not to think about it too much, after all most of us don’t pick our friends based on what they like to eat. You could argue that you want to be around people who share your viewpoint on the world, which I understand, but this leads me nicely on to the question of ethics – am I vegetarian because I don’t want to eat meat, or because I am against cruelty to animals? I’ve noticed over the years that people want to put you in a box. They want you to be either a Peta t-shirt wearing animal rights activist who is ready to argue with them or someone who just doesn’t like meat. Brows are furrowed, heads tilt and looks of confusion abound when it becomes clear you might be a little bit of both.
The day I decided to try a vegetarian sausage roll I knew nothing of the meat industry or where my food came from. I was a child, and whilst I knew right from wrong I can’t sit here and say with a clear conscience that I made any kind of educated decision. I made one meal choice that made me question things, led to me forming a habit and doing research as a result. I don’t even remember what I had for dinner last week without checking Instagram, so I can’t speak of childhood Gemma with much certainty but I know now that there is something really strange to me about eating dead flesh. That is the basis of why I’m vegetarian and people seem to accept this in conversation quite easily. When I think of a dead body I can’t distinguish between essentially human flesh and an animal. I mean, to me there really is no difference, it’s all dead carcass, and I just don’t want to eat it. If you do, and you don’t have that mental association, you do you, but for me I can’t get that out of my head – like a scene from a horror film it’s kind of etched in my brain and I have a hard time overcoming it, so I don’t try to. It’s a stubborn part of my mind that believe you me I have tried to apply to processed carbs, chocolate and takeaway food with little to no success.
The animal rights issue for me isn’t really even a question. I’m sure they exist, but I have genuinely never met someone who takes pleasure in the thought of a living creature being killed so that they can eat, so I don’t think it’s a question of someone being anti-cruelty and other people being cold hearted. The world we live in is a strange thing and the food industry even stranger – we are so far removed from what goes on in slaughterhouses that it’s easy to brush it off and enjoy that chicken caesar salad, especially if you’ve been raised with that as normal. I don’t want to give anyone a hard time for that, after all, if I had been with another friend that day and not Sarah with the vegetarian sausage roll, would I have elected to be vegetarian as an adult? Would I have stuck to it? I like to think so, but who knows, if I’d been raised on a farm I might have grown up sending animals off to slaughter and being fine with that. The reality is some doubt inside me was allowed the room to grow, which led to me being vegetarian.
“But what about bacon?”
Besides the why, when and where, as a veggie I spend a of my time talking about bacon. A lot. I always find this really amusing, but it’s the very first place people go when they find out you’re veggie. You’d think bacon cured cancer, did your tax return and made you an espresso in the morning, and honestly most meat-eaters I know don’t even have it that often so it always cracks me up to see their faces.
“Don’t you ever eat bacon?”
“But don’t you really want it?”
“Not really, it’s been so long now I don’t think I even think about bacon.”
“But don’t you want it when you smell it cooking?”
“No. Do you want some bacon? You seem to really like it.”
Another thing I have to talk about a lot is what I eat on Christmas Day. This is a big deal apparently. Again, a lot of meat eaters rarely eat turkey, but the one day they do eat it is so sacred you’d better be prepared for some strange looks when you explain that you don’t shun your vegetarianism on Christmas Day. Wait till they find out not everyone even celebrates Christmas! All jokes aside I have found being vegetarian incredibly easy, and it’s brought me a lot of happiness and fulfilment over the years. I can’t imagine going back to eating meat now, and I’m sure I never will. I think as a society we are making real shifts towards vegetarian and vegan meals being mainstream. It’s so much easier now to eat out and find different alternatives – I hope people are more open-minded about trying it for themselves, even if it’s only once a week or a couple of times a month. Going meat-free for some or all of your meals makes a massive difference to the health of not only us but the planet. I’ve never understood the veggies and vegans who look down on other people for not being as strict as them, but that’s a whole other post!
I’m considering making this a series, maybe doing a tips post for vegetarianism as well as going dairy free, pitching it to family, my favourite cookbooks and some options for dining out/social settings. Let me know if you’d like those posts, I feel like I have a lot to say about going meat-free than can’t fit into one post alone. Whether you’re a veggie, vegan, occasionally go meat-free or a staunch meat eater I hope you found this post interesting, thanks for reading, and let me know if you’d like me to discuss it further!
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