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Breaking Bread

As a recent convert from vegetarianism to veganism Jane Hughes is learning she will need nerves of steel to resolve the question ‘to be or not to be a vegan?’

Three months into my vegan experiment, I hit a snag. Staying at my mum’s house for a weekend, I found myself completely unable to ‘come out’ as a vegan, and so simply ate the ‘special cheese’ and butter she had laid in for me. What does this say about me? That my commitment to veganism isn’t strong enough to make me deserving of the name? That I’m embarrassed to be a vegan? That I consider accepting my mother’s hospitality with good grace more important than sticking to my dietary principles? Yes, probably all these, and more.

I ate the cheese, and the butter, and it was interesting. I didn’t feel sick, or mentally sickened by my own behaviour. I didn’t have a revelatory moment when I realised that dairy food tastes fantastic and I’d be a fool to stop eating it. I didn’t feel particularly guilty, which pleased me because I wouldn’t like my veganism to be driven by guilt. Guilt is rarely a sustainable reason not to eat something. I did feel slightly disappointed that dairy food didn’t taste better – after all this time, it was nothing special.

It struck me as silly to be creating a big taboo for myself, because doing so somehow elevates the forbidden thing into something that you wish you could have. I suppose it might have been an awful anticlimax if I had managed to be the purest possible vegan for years and years, and had then had a crisis over a cheese toastie. Best to crack early, find out you’re not missing much, and move on, rather than nursing a dreadful secret craving that must never be fulfilled. That’s one of my excuses.

There has been a flurry of letters to The Vegetarian magazine concerning ‘so-called’ vegetarians who sometimes eat meat. This arises from Yotam Ottolenghi’s comment that there are plenty of ‘pragmatic’ vegetarians who, whilst rarely eating fish or meat, are not entirely repulsed by the notion. Thus we find ourselves with chefs and acquaintances who seem to think that vegetarianism is more of a whim than a commitment, and bristle with indignation if a vegetarian won’t just chill out and eat what everyone else is eating for once.

Personally, barring the onset of a catastrophic personality disorder, I can’t see myself ever eating meat or fish again, but I don’t yet feel that way about eggs and dairy. I shy away from confessing that I’m eating vegan, and that’s partly because I’m not convinced in my own mind that I will never again eat a lemon meringue pie. I’m not ready to seize the moral high ground, as I know that I may have to beat an ignominious retreat.

Eating vegan at home isn’t particularly difficult, although the range of recipes available to me has been drastically cut. It has been interesting to see which of our regular dishes are already more or less vegan (veggie sausage and mash, chilli bean wraps, beans on toast, Chinese and Indian dishes), which can be successfully modified (we have had limited success with muffins and pancakes), which vegan alternatives just don’t work for me (vegan cheese substitutes of all kinds – ghastly and miserable) and which foods I really miss. I thought it would be butter. Turns out to be Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup, a comfort food since I was little. Sob.

Shopping for food has become a very time-consuming affair – I guess it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, but I’m still learning what I can and can’t have. Eating out is a different matter, and so difficult that we’ve more or less stopped doing it. There’s precious little joy to be extracted from a plate of pasta in tomato sauce. Especially as the pasta might be made with eggs. That’s another aspect of veganism that has taken me by surprise. As a vegetarian, I can be reasonably sure, just by scanning a menu, which dishes will be suitable for me. It’s pretty obvious, generally, if something contains meat or fish, and you can have a shrewd guess at whether things are likely to contain beef stock or gelatine. It turns out to be far, far harder to guess which dishes might contain traces of milk or eggs.

I’ve asked around, and most people seem to think vegetarians are basically OK – possibly misguided, a bit faddy, pathetically unable to stomach the ‘realities’ of Nature (red in tooth and claw!), or soft, sweet, slightly infantile people whose delicate sensibilities need to be protected. The same people seem to believe that vegans are difficult. Vegans, apparently, are provocative, aggressive, ‘political’ and, well, just taking it all too far.

Recently I attended a very thought-provoking two-day conference on food, culture and sociology at the Institute for Cultural Research in London. Food writer and historian Elisabeth Luard gave me cause for reflection when she raised the proposition that people who will not eat with other people are not to be trusted. If you will not accept food, you are not a friend. Bringing your own food to a dinner is an insult to the host, and leaving before the meal is over is downright disturbing. Breaking bread together is an age-old ritual closely associated with trust, bonding and peace-making. Taking somebody out for dinner is a standard part of the modern mating dance. Eating out is problematic because I don’t trust people to get it right when it comes to vegan food, and I don’t trust people not to take against me for even mentioning it – so right away, we’re on rocky ground.

My best friend put her finger on it – when I told her I was vegan her words were: “Oh dear, how antisocial.” Last time we went out together, I gave in and ate a pizza. Afterwards, she had regrets. I didn’t, not really, because from my perspective, at that time and on that day, putting my friend at ease and enjoying food together felt more important than making a stand against the dairy industry.

I might live to regret saying this, but at this stage in my evolving dietary consciousness, I’m still putting the comfort and happiness of my friends and family before my own dietary principles. What a cliff-hanger – will I still be vegan in two months’ time? Watch this space!

Jane Hughes is editor of The Vegetarian magazine, for the Vegetarian Society.