More than 35 years ago, I stopped eating flesh because I did not want creatures to be killed to feed me.
Since then, I’ve had some weird encounters with food – like eating three desserts when banquet chefs have put meat even in the salads. Any vegan or vegetarian will come up with their own long list of stories in our meat-focused society. And now the rise of realistic fake meat is ushering in a new chapter of weird.
Place and people
Growing up on the Wild Coast of the old Transkei, we often ate things like crayfish, oysters and prawns – it was the local food.
And I would help my grandmother on the farm make biltong after my grandpa had been hunting in June and shot a bushbuck. My German-extract farmer folk were convinced that I was going to die after I stopped eating flesh, and for many years, my grandfather would present me with biltong. “Janette loves biltong,” he would beam to anyone within earshot. Eventually, I did not have the heart to say no, and I’d do some quiet regifting.
So my memories of eating flesh are about place and people. I miss the place and the people, but I have not, for a minute, missed eating dead animals. Explainer: I use the word, “flesh”, because many people assume that vegetarians eat fish and/or chicken. I also don’t eat bones (gelatine) and processed stomachs (rennet).
Benefits for the planet, and for me and you
The environmental issues of meat farming came to the fore after I’d stopped eating meat, bolstering my certainty that I was doing the right thing. This Guardian article makes the point, with evidence, that avoiding eating meat and dairy is the “single biggest way” to reduce your impact on the Earth. Can’t argue with that.
Vegetarianism, I am convinced, has made me healthier, but you do have to be more aware of your health. I take vitamin B supplements and make sure that I eat a balanced diet. A doctor ordered my friend to start eating meat because he was existing on cheese and tomato sandwiches and suffering serious nutrient deficiencies.
It’s also made me more creative with food because the meat-and-two-veg formula does not apply. I even created a Pinterest board to store recipes and called it “Vegetarians love food” because they do – love food, that is – and I use it often. Here’s the link. I mention this because it is astonishing how frequently people assume that if you don’t eat meat, you don’t like food.
Just like the real thing
Because I do indeed love food, I got all excited when I discovered that a local restaurant had added a “vegan menu” to its offerings and couldn’t wait to try it out. Shock and horror, truly. The main affairs on the vegan menu were a “chicken schnitzel” and “beef-style” and “chicken-style” burgers. They taste just like the real thing, the waiter proudly told us.
Apparently, they look like the real thing too. I did not look. I ordered a marguerite pizza from the non-vegan menu. It was fine, but I was disappointed. I wondered … I stopped eating dead animals because it sickened me that they were killed for me, so why would I want to eat something that tastes and looks like dead animals now? Is this not like offering realistic fake pork to a Jewish person? Why would anyone do that?
Note that I don’t mean the kind of soya patties and “sossies” we’ve been able to buy in the supermarket. I’m not wild about that food, but it’s okay and I will eat it on occasion. My Indian mother-in-law makes a delicious curry with “soya prawns”. They don’t taste like prawns, just have a vaguely squiggly shape.
No, I mean stuff that is engineered to look, feel and taste just like real meat, chicken or fish, the kind that is described here: the writer talks about how her family ate realistic fake meat burgers and thought it was real meat.
Genuinely bamboozled, I created a Facebook post. Maybe my clever friends would help me work it out. Was I missing something here? I asked. Why would you feed realistic fake meat to a vegetarian or a vegan? I wondered aloud if the vegan menu was taken up mostly by meat-eaters trying to cut back on their meat consumption or by people who briefly become vegans because it’s trendy to do so but miss the taste of meat.
The responses poured in. The gist of meat-eaters was that fake meat is a good thing because it helps them eat less meat. Here’s one response that encapsulates what was said: “I think in principle this is a good bridge to move away from flesh, especially for most of us that were raised on a culture of eating meat-based diets. It seems like a bizarre quandary, but until meat makes you violently ill or one becomes truly aware of the horrors of the meat industry (like me), but finds it very difficult to maintain a vegan-based diet only, I don’t see it as an overall bad thing.”
I agree with that – I don’t object to realistic fake meat and I’m glad there are alternatives for people wanting to move away from eating real animals. But I still did not understand why anyone would think it is okay to offer it to vegans and vegetarians. I chose not to eat flesh a long time ago, so why would you assume that I am missing its taste and texture?
This was becoming quite a conversation. Some don’t like the use of meat names for vegetarian food. “If you don’t eat meat, why would you want to eat sausage?” Good question. And this: “Who decided that plant proteins need to take on the names of animal protein? And why would you want them to taste the same?”
A screenshot of my Pinterest board called “Vegetarians love food” … so much deliciousness without a shred of fake meat
Then I met a new category of vegan. “I love the taste of meat and often crave a good burger or slow-roast lamb,” C said. “I just don’t want to eat animals anymore. I imagine many vegans stopped eating meat for ethical/moral reasons, not because they didn’t like the taste of meat. I don’t usually buy vegan ‘meat’ substitutes as it’s usually crappy highly processed food and tastes like it. I would eat it if it was healthy and tasted great, in the same way I eat nut cheese and meringue made from aqua fava.”
That makes perfect sense to me. You may find that some people who are vegan for religious reasons fall into this category too. And I’m happy that the substitute is helping people like C not eat meat.
However, I don’t think that they are the majority of vegans or vegetarians. Apart from C, all the vegans and vegetarians I know will not eat something that looks, tastes and/or feels like flesh.
My view is that realistic fake meat belongs on the “meat” section of a restaurant menu, flagged as a real-meat-like substitute for meat. I see it as an option for meat-eaters and “ethical” and new vegans who miss eating meat.
#him (slightly bemused at my bamboozlement) pointed me to an article that suggested I was on the right track. It explains that plant-based products are big, growing business, although most of us don’t know what they actually are – about a third of respondents in a survey think a plant-based and a vegan diet are the same thing. Plant-based, I pondered, often seems to mean meat-referenced.
Then, the crunch: “It’s well understood that the major players in the current meatless movement are targeting omnivores, not vegetarians and vegans, with their products. As an extension, being presented with an increasing number of ‘plant-based’ foods that don’t force a lifestyle change looks like an option, not an edict.”
There was even a mini world war in my Facebook conversation around this deeply emotional subject. The suggestion was that people becoming vegan today are making an “intellectual decision” and they still enjoy the taste of meat – unlike the rest of us who became vegetarian because we did not like the taste of meat and were acting on “individual whim”.
I found that upsetting, but I realised something: our society has and still does use meat as the benchmark for food. For many of us, it’s hard to imagine not eating flesh; it’s utterly inconceivable to understand that people who don’t eat flesh also don’t want to eat something that tastes and looks just like it. It is time to liberate ourselves from that restrictive mindset, that prison.