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Stunt Cows and Lentil(s): My Life as a Herbivore
by Paul Thomas
2006-10-02 10:47:26
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Fat people, vampires, cannibals and committed carnivores look away now: October 1st is the beginning of Vegetarian Awareness Month. Organised by the North American (it would be) Vegetarian Association, this month long programme aims to highlight the benefits of substituting the meat in your diet for the plethora of healthier options available.

The NAVA site - www.worldvegetarianday.org - encourages its visitors to explore, even for just a day, the wholesome and ethically sound benefits of a meatless lifestyle. They point out the many positive benefits this lifestyle change will have for yourself, the animal world and the environment. I suspect they really need a photo of a big guy stood wielding a large blunt instrument for this to work a little better, but their intentions are good none the less. They don’t encourage you to get a copy of the album Meat is Murder by The Smiths though, and neither do I.

They also encourage their readers to take part by holding events and celebrations (?) that will highlight the positive effects that this particular lifestyle change can help bring about. Encouraging participants to spread the word about how this lifestyle can help reduce the risk of heart disease and cancers brought on by excessive meat consumption; explaining how this existence can ease the suffering of animals that are being increasingly factory-farmed for (y)our consumption and help preserve vital ecosystems currently being destroyed to facilitate this ever-expanding process. Like I said, their intentions are good.

What is it really like to lead this lifestyle though? It has been just over a decade now since I last knowingly ate a meal that included meat, and realised I could exist without it too. Although I was probably a little more right-on a decade or so ago, ethics were not the main reason for my decision to renounce. I would also like to add that I have never seriously pontificated on the subject – I just don’t have the facts - and won’t now; you can do what you like as far as I am concerned. These are just a few thoughts for your information, so you can tar me with any brush you like afterwards.

I am British and therefore an animal lover (really), but as I previously said this was not the main factor behind my decision. After some personal deliberation in June 1996 I finally turned my back on the filthy, road-kill-looking lump-of-waste that is - in my eyes - meat. I have been fine health-wise since quitting, though this is not the case for everyone I know who has tried this. There are certain protein and chemical elements I am missing, some more than others but I can easily supplement those if I become ill. The obvious benefits though are I am not overweight despite driving regularly and holding a sedentary job, I still have good skin and I don’t smell like I’m on the Atkins diet, even with a high-carbohydrate diet, and I still have enough energy to exercise regularly.

However often I smell bacon being fried though, which can smell really nice with the right hangover, or found myself sat in a Thai restaurant near the kitchen, I have no inclination whatsoever to succumb. I’m probably just being stubborn now too, but I can never envisage myself eating meat again. And even though my shoes are still made of leather and I’ve had it ripped out of me more times than I care to consider, especially during my time as a student (where I wasn’t just nicknamed sneakily behind my back, I was known for two years by the name Lentil), I just don’t want to eat meat again.

That’s not to say there have been no lapses. There was an incident in a restaurant in Estonia back on 16th October 1998. I pushed the boat out and ordered a salad, what eventually arrived really did resembling one too; it was uncanny. There were bits of lettuce and everything. As I heartily tucked in my companion made the point that some small red things resembled pieces of ham. Now I’ll be honest, I was in Eastern Europe where they really like their meat, and I wasn’t paying much attention. I had previously existed on a diet of bread, cheese, pasta and assorted vegetables for the previous six weeks and, in short, I was beginning to waste away. Anyway, upon closer inspection – a good scientific prodding with the fork – it was revealed that the rogue lumps really were ham; lost in the translation they had conveniently been missed from the English menu. The meal was promptly pushed to the other side of the table, my dining cohort laughed and no doubt a shameful, foul mood descended upon me. I did not try to make myself sick though as that would have been churlish.

The second accidental tumble from the wagon occurred on February 2nd 2002 on board a Hemus Air flight bound for Bulgaria. Personally I insist on a loosener or two before boarding any plane, so I was pretty refreshed when the in-flight meal was eventually thrown into my lap (I don’t recommend the airline by the way, it was at one stage banned from the airspace of nine EU countries for safety reasons and this may still be true, but I digress). Again, we were bound for Eastern Europe where for some people meat is a way of life, and I had simply failed to heed my own first warning. This particular salad had not even touched the sides when one of my companions began looking at my tray for something. Confused, I began moving things about to help them find whatever it was they had lost. When I was eventually asked if I’d eaten the salad and replied in the affirmative most of the rear of the plane knew what had happened, a pilot’s announcement could not have left me feeling any more humiliated.

For whatever reason my accidental eating of meat usually results in untold levels of joy of my dining companions, while I sit looking bemused at their reaction to my apparent disgrace. I was told I looked healthier; there was some colour back in my cheeks after years of looking pasty and I no longer physically resembled a long-term prisoner of war. I hadn’t even noticed the meat that time either though I am reliably informed that it was, again, ham.

People imagine that they had broken my will personally. For their amusement I give you the following: Occasionally I go running in some woods near to home and I have been known to inhale the odd fly while doing so. I’m not sure ingesting flies via my lungs counts but… Or how about when I crush and rub flies, gnats or whatever, into my own eyeball? It is not done deliberately as sweat and a crushed fly really can aggravate the eye, and surely the body has a way to remove these foreign objects. I’ll leave that up to someone else to decide, but those are known examples of meat entering my body over the last decade or so.

This all started for me as a child, during the formative years as many things do, I suppose. I would watch my mother lift a roast dinner out of the oven then leave it to stand for a few minutes. I used to stare at the brown, pink or white carcasses transfixed, either stifling the urge to vomit or thinking up an excuse to avoid having to put it anywhere near my mouth. I remember vividly that it was the roasted meats or anything with a bone, fat or a clearly visible artery that bothered me most of all. It was too close to the original, or it too closely resembled something I could identify like a piece of road-kill. It was definitely more uncomfortable visually than looking at a sausage or anything else that had been processed.

Fortunately this all took place back in the 1980s, the halcyon days before eating meat was akin to playing Russian Roulette (see NAVA again). Meat was largely free from disease, hormones, steroids and – I am probably pontificating right now - any other rubbish fed or injected into the poor beasts than it is today. Hell, the animals were probably unaware they were about to be killed either during those days. Hopefully BSE and the recent Foot and Mouth epidemic will have cleaned up the whole industry anyway. But as I remember it I would be offered some meat but would politely decline, not aware that it was in any way ill mannered to fake retching as I did so.

And as for eating from the bone… Jesus wept! That will always be up there with things I will never do again, like shooting a man just to watch him die (not really). Nibbling away, trying not to touch a rogue piece of cartilage or bite into the bone itself, it was disgusting and just required far too much effort on my behalf not to eat the whole thing backwards. Then you had to pull the morsel away from your mouth, and looking at the shredded remains - resembling a miniature shark attack victim - felt as close to an act savagery as I can ever imagine myself committing, except for shooting that man…. Anything from the bone was always a no-no from the earliest age. Bizarrely though, any other meat I did force down actually tasted ok though, just so long as I could eat it wearing a blindfold.

Thankfully as an adult this dietary choice does not affected me too badly. I don’t eat out very often as the lack of choice is depressing where I live. It is amusing to be dragged out though and sit down, flick through the menu then turn down everything with the (V) next to it flat and fake a miniature tantrum. Before handing the menu back to the waiter and sit stoney faced with my arms crossed, salivating uncontrollably at the merest whiff of food; my own small act of martyrdom. I will very rarely eat an evening meal either and if I do make food, I do so as much to stifle hunger as to enjoy something I have prepared.

Obviously then, I don’t really have an interest in food, which is as convenient as it gets; I can’t eat a lot of it, plenty more I simply don’t like. This change in lifestyle may affect you more than it does me. Vegetarian food, if pre-prepared consists basically of cheese or mushrooms wrapped in bread or pastry, though the market is slowly expanding. Sit back and just imagine the combinations though. I don’t mind cheese – I am not a vegan, I would starve – and I hate fresh mushrooms because they can be picked from the wild where dogs piss freely. That and they taste revolting and are the plant-world’s equivalent of Thrush. I don’t eat raw fruit as the texture I encounter when chewing revolts me like meat, so I’m basically my own worst enemy.

I won’t go near anywhere like a McDonalds restaurant for fear of being associated with people that do, but also for the poor quality of the food and the shaky business ethics of the companies themselves. I occasionally indulge in a takeaway; a good Indian meal will last me for days taste-wise. I do manage to get by with some good cookbooks, lots of fresh vegetables, pasta, potatoes, rice, a massive herb rack, some lazy cooking sauces and, unexpectedly, the super mushroom-based alternative to meat that is Quorn: all the meaty goodness without the meat!

I can consider myself heroic to be able to cope with this poor, bland diet of bread, lettuce and water, as lesser vegetarians would have broken years ago. At the same time I have seen others try this diet and lose all the strength in their bodies within a few days of starting. There are other people I know who claim to be vegetarian for ethical reasons but will happily eat fish too. There is one friend will only allow herself to eat any animal she could kill with her bare hands; utterly bizarre! I would pay to watch her go toe-to-hoof with a cow to see if this was true, let alone watch her catch, kill, gut and eat a fish.

There is one other downside to all of this that probably affects some of us more than others. Often I will not tell people that I am a vegetarian because I am bored of the inevitable conversation that ensues. If I get rumbled I will tell people that it’s all an ethical choice just to avoid the inexorable turn in conversation that occurs when a grown man confesses to having made different dietary choices. This generally intrigues some people; people who are easily impressed at any rate. At other times when I’m not quick enough to shoehorn that nugget into the narrative while the shock is registering, the same twenty questions inevitably follow. Why? When? What is it like? (It’s wild, but I tone it down - just so you know). This is all fair enough; people seem genuinely surprised and interested, but if you’ve been asked the same questions hundreds of times it becomes difficult to feign any interest in you response. Rock Stars, I salute you.

There is pretty much the definitive version of (my) life as a vegetarian. Stunt cows are used lead the rest of the herd into the shed for slaughter, before being shifted off the production line and back out to graze until the next batch is due to go in. They learn not to fear the door or sounds of bolts and will happily walk in time and time again, unaware of the fate of their constantly changing groups of friends. I am not sure Stunt Cow is the correct term for them though, or if the process is still used to be honest; I just like the name. For the time being at least I hope I don’t have to answer the same questions for a while and if you fancy giving it a go, or organising an event, contact NAVA. Now go and celebrate with a nice plain lettuce leaf sandwich.

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Get it off your chest
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Asa2006-10-01 22:14:51
I must be the first to say it:

Hitler was a veggie...


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