Not Meating Up

Eggplant, Aubergine, Solanum Melongena, Raw, Fresh

I’ve spent years watching, observing normal people like an amateur anthropologist putting together some sort of teenage ethnography, copying, learning to pretend to be normal. Sometimes people assume the next step is to start eating meat. But this would be a step too far. I don’t see how it would improve my life. I am horrified by the very idea. I have been watching for years and eating the things I am given. There isn’t anything I want to emulate. I am filled with dread at the thought of the sort of person I might become.

As far as I can see, there are four main types of (human) omnivore which are detailed below:

  1. Usually male, seems to be stuck at the age of about three with regards to food. Won’t eat vegetables and expresses dislike of any new foods, without having tasted them. Is also unwilling to try them. Little to no cooking skills and eats a very restricted diet, largely based on processed items and ready meals. Has little to no awareness of how childlike their eating habits are.
  2. Also usually male, arrogant and lacking any sort of reflective ability. Probably a science graduate. Talks loudly about knowledge, evidence & research but considers self to be omniscient, oddly believing they know more about subjects they abandoned pre-GCSE than people with degrees in these subjects. Possibly privately educated, very quick to rubbish vegetarianism, or ‘veganism’ as they call it (gets a bit shirty and defensive when asked if they made the papers that time for defacing a paediatrician’s office). Loud opinions are underpinned by an embarrassing lack of culinary knowledge and skills e.g. may confuse tahini and aioli. The Type 2 is peculiarly proud of being a rubbish cook, pouring scorn on the idea of actually having any sort of cooking skills, they seem to think that being useless in the kitchen and only able to cook meat confers upon them a level of superiority. Conversely, they get very stuck on the idea of Sunday roasts and Christmas dinner, holding them up as something you couldn’t live without, despite the fact that they involve a lot of work, which of course his mother has always done.
  1. Eats a range of foods, including vegetables and is pleased to try new dishes. Enjoys cooking, viewing it as something normal that adults do, like having a job or doing laundry. Stumped by vegetarian guests but doesn’t feel the need to loudly rubbish other people’s food choices. May or may not provide something; it may be odd or underwhelming. Somehow the normal rules of hospitality don’t entirely apply if your guests are awkward i.e vegetarian. May suggest going out to eat somewhere with few to no veggie options as a solution. Guest brings a batch of passive aggressive samosas when they visit next time.
  2. Probably female and quite posh. Loves cooking and takes great pride in being a good cook alongside her impressive sounding professional job and doing regular half marathons. Owns a pasta machine and gets excited about trying a new Ottolenghi aubergine recipe and buying za’atar from Waitrose when hosting vegetarian guests. Suggests sharing the veggie mezze selection when lunching at Comptoir Libanais.

If I were an omnivore, I’d need to be a Type 4. I am horrified by the idea of being fussy, childlike and a useless non-cook. If I were, I’d worry I might be returned to the manufacturer. ‘Hello, yes, I’m afraid the adult function in this human isn’t working properly. It seems to be stuck at toddler/lazy teenager. Can you recalibrate them please? Yes, if you could throw in a copy of Cooking for Dummies, that would be fantastic.’

While I don’t want to start eating meat, perhaps I could just behave as some omnivores do. I wonder if it would improve my life if I started being rude about other people’s lunches. Perhaps I could loiter by the microwave at work and make loud comments. ‘Oh, a supermarket lasagne ready meal! Are you a crap cook? Are you constipated?’ Perhaps I could also start telling people I just met how I think they had a deprived childhood. Occasionally I’m told I was deprived because I wasn’t given roast chicken or taken to McDonalds. I suppose I could tell people they are deprived because they’ve never had warm puris and potato subji fresh from the temple kitchen or taken part in a gulab eating contest. But I however have manners and theory of mind and understand that it’s rude to rubbish the experiences of people you met ten minutes ago.

Going to other people’s houses is a bit like playing dinner roulette. The food might be really good. Or I might be left wondering if I have really crossed London and paid for an expensive train beyond the Oyster zone to be given soup and precious little else. I occasionally watch people’s male partners starting to freak out, loudly objecting to the fact that they’re going to have to eat a vegetarian meal. I feel embarrassed that they’ve started behaving like children in the face of unfamiliar. I think about the fact that I would not have behaved like this as a child. I wonder how it is that nine year old Deva had more grace and social nous than an adult when faced with unfamiliar or potentially disappointing food.

The message seems to be that people couldn’t possibly cope with the idea of anything other than what they grew up with. Should I be able to act normally around people who eat meat? I mean, I grew up around other vegetarians in an insular religious community. Should I really be expected at age 33 to be able to retain all my manners and social niceties around people who eat different things to me? Should I?

I do feel I should be the one complaining, freaking out and loudly objecting at the prospect of a disappointing meal that might leave me hungry. Based on my own experiences, this is a real possibility. Trust me, I’ve eaten some dreadful things. I’ve said ‘Yes, thank you, lovely’ as I’ve eaten a plate of mung beans with Heinz ketchup. I’ve pretended that it’s fine that you haven’t bothered to provide anything as I eat a sharing bag of crisps in lieu of a proper meal. (Please see above point on social grace). Somehow it just doesn’t feel ok to be rude about people’s cooking. Especially if they’ve always been very kind to you otherwise. I struggle with the idea that food is an area that is somehow exempt from normal manners.

When people object to a meat free meal, I wonder about sticking to familiarity or insisting that something is lacking. I wonder about making a song and dance about the fact that a Thai curry doesn’t come with bread and dal. Or maybe I could refuse to eat English food as it doesn’t contain spices, but accept Moroccan food as it is spiced and I could eat a stew-like dish with bread. Where would I fit in with my London social circle, if I were like a child when it came to food? I remember being made a lovely aubergine tagine with bulgar wheat, yoghurt, fresh mint and flaked almonds. If I turned my nose up at it, what would my posh middle class friends say? ‘Don’t mind her, this is our social mobility friend! She grew up on an estate in Belfast. We’re going on a field trip to a sourdough bakery next week.’

I’ve had people decline lunch invitations because I’m vegetarian. Maybe I could do the same. I imagine myself ringing a potential host,

‘‘Hello, I’d just like to talk through Saturday, please. As far as I’m aware ‘come for lunch’ is not some sort of euphemism like ‘sleeping together’. I’d like to remind you that I expect a square meal, which should contain protein, fat, carbohydrates and vegetables. No, I don’t want to sodding plan the menu.’

People ask if I would ever eat or cook meat. The answer is a solid no but I do fantasise about holding weird dinner parties. Our guests would have travelled about an hour across London and in this imaginary world, I have cooked meat for one of our guests. For everyone else, I’ve made a selection of pakoras served with chutney and the lovely biryani from Meera Sodha’s book, covered with a pastry crust. I give our odd man out a tin of tuna to start, followed by skewers of Bernard Matthews turkey ham and apples slices, covered in gravy. This would be based on some sort of notion that people like meat on stick, that fruit goes with meat and that people love meat and gravy. I couldn’t possible have absorbed some idea of food conventions from menus or God forbid, looked at a cookbook or quickly googled some recipes.

(I could also go down the road of insisting on making something familiar but just swapping the protein. I could swap the feta cheese for spam in a feta and spinach filo pastry and make ‘spamakopita’. I could make dal but replace the lentils with a tin of tuna and act surprised when it didn’t turn out exactly the same. Or make an aubergine lasagne but replace the grated cheese in the sauce and on top of the dish with shredded chicken.)

I proceed to subject our poor guest to an evening of the stupidest conversation they’ve ever heard.

‘You must have a very odd, disappointing diet,’, I say.

‘Errm, not really. I’ve never had this before. If I had guests over, I’d probably put a chicken in the oven with some veg and potatoes. My mum used to do that and it always went down well.’

I laugh loudly and say, ‘Well I’ve never had it. It sounds nearly as bad as what you’ve got there’, suggesting that the awful food I have prepared is somehow something to use against them, when it should be used against me for preparing something shocking.  I continue to harp on, saying stupid things and ignoring their responses, demanding that they admit they crave things they have never tried and have no childhood associations with.

‘But you must just want halava and kheer for breakfast sometimes. Don’t you ever wake up and think, ‘I could really go for some halava and kheer!’

They go home and there is no reciprocal offer of dinner. I don’t see them again for another eighteen months when we have a pleasant chat at a mutual friends’ wedding.

I would genuinely have to fall on my sword if I didn’t provide proper food for my guests. I view not offering proper hospitality to people as a huge slap in the face. I can only assume that you must be trying to ‘manage me out’ as they say in the workplace; get rid of me. My parents repeatedly said the guest is as good as God.  If the Lord came to visit, he would not be microwaving his own baked potato! (For God’s sake, just buy something.)

People seem to suffer from a bizarre sort of amnesia. They come over and I ply them with savoury pastries, stuffed with feta & spinach or potato. I offer them fresh focaccia bread. I pass the cheese board, the pomegranate tabbouleh and the babaganoush. They look slightly like deer in the headlights at the prospect of having to eat all this food. Yet next time I see them, they ask what I eat. I sigh and roll my eyes and wonder if I clonked them over the head with a hardback Ottolenghi, would they absorb any of it.

I also wonder about throwing an amnesia dinner party, for the people who make rude jokes after I’ve spent ages after making them dinner. If people are going to be rude, regardless of what I make, I like the idea of giving them something to be rude about, saving them from coming across as an elderly relative with an increasingly poor memory. Maybe raw tacos… (Cold lentils from a tin in Romaine lettuce leaves.)

Sometimes people want to talk loudly about what a novelty my vegetarianism is. I remember going out for dinner with a big group of people and it being announced ‘Deva’s a … is it vegan or vegetarian…?’ I hadn’t realised it was exciting enough to warrant an announcement to the whole table. I was horrified by the idea of confusing similar words (as the only person who got 100/100 in the P5 end of year spelling test, we have standards to maintain!). I was horrified by the idea of booming out things without knowing what you’re talking about. I had assumed that if something was so exciting that you need to announce it, that you must be really interested in it, paying attention to it, noticing and remembering things, because it’s just so fascinating! Noticing and remembering that I just fed you halloumi burgers followed by a cheesecake. (For f***’s sake, Google it. You have a phone.)

I have these bizarre conversations with people, where they say vegetarian food must be limited or boring. So I start waxing lyrical about the many, rich traditions of vegetarian food from different parts of India. In response to this, vegetarian food is then re-branded as something difficult or complicated or invalid if it involves effort, or something they couldn’t do. What am I supposed to say? What is this magic rabbit you want me to pull out of a hat that involves nothing new, little to no skill and will somehow assuage your scepticism? Do things only exist if you can invent or make them yourself?

To me it’s just food, normal food, things I grew up eating, recipes my mum made, recipes I make. It feels terribly odd when it’s almost implied that I should pretend that the food I eat is lesser or boring, that I should agree with the hot dog eaters, who don’t know the difference between puff and filo pastry, that life would be better if I adopted their food. I can’t and have no desire to swap the kachoris of my childhood for potato smiley faces, no more than I’d replace kichari and chapatis with waffles and beans. I can’t graft the nostalgia I feel for halava, kheer and sandesh onto bacon&eggs and neither would I.

I wouldn’t ever want to unlearn what I know and can make. I love trying new food and learning to make new things, developing new skills. How would I unlearn what I know? I imagine myself being taken for a culinary lobotomy. A warm lady in a white coat explains the process to me as I sit nervously in a chair. ‘Ok, Mrs Scrobertshaw, now we’re just going to remove most of your culinary expertise and curiosity. Once the process is complete, you’ll mostly eat chicken, pasta and things from packets and boxes’. I beg to be able to retain my samosa making skills, saying they don’t have to be vegetarian. Or parathas. Can I still make those? People enjoy them with a range of dishes. ‘No, sorry,’ she shakes her head with an apologetic smile. ‘I’m afraid you’re going to have to stick to pre-made onion bhajis and naan bread packaged in plastic from now on’. I shudder in horror and start screaming. Once I’ve calmed down a bit, I ask the nice lady if my spelling will be affected? Will I be able to retain all of a word, or will I lose up to half of the letters in words? Will I start asking people in their seventies if they are looking forward to being octagons? Will I end up in Vienna when I wanted to hop around Singapore, Malaysia and the Antipodes (Austria/Australasia)? Will I become oddly unobservant and start asking people eating big slabs of cheese if they are vegan?

I ask about altering my approach to fitting in. I always wanted to fit in and be middle class. The problem seems to be that I am relatively unbothered by difference and don’t feel the need to loudly comment on it. I ask if she could redo something to my brain to address this, if that is in fact, how I should be behaving as an educated, well-travelled person who reads. Gluten-free diets became fairly mainstream about eight years ago. Can she tweak something or put some sort of block in so that I’m unable to get my head around things that have been around for years and are often covered in the mainstream media?

Could she dial down my ability to listen and take in information, although this will admittedly make my job difficult. Could she put in some sort of default to non-sequiturs, so that I just keep repeating the same thing, giving the other person the impression that my ears are sealed over or that they are talking to a brick wall. I also ask for an empathy reduction and ask her to re-route my sense of humour to be amnesia-based. She’s not quite sure what I mean and I give her an example. I tell her about the time we went to visit some family friends; she is a Ukranian Russian speaker. She made us lovely pizza on a hot stone, I noted the stand mixer on the kitchen counter top and she made the most beautiful cake I had ever seen. She had clearly gone to a lot of effort to host. I invited them over in reciprocity and we all ate lots and had a nice time.

Did I go wrong there? Should have dealt with the situation differently, as she’d had a different upbringing to mine? Should I have gone on and on about how crap Ukranian food was? Should I have harped on and on about how all they eat is potatoes and cabbage and beetroot? Would that have been the right thing to do, to weirdly forget what they had actually fed us and neatly gloss over her generous hospitality? Should I have kept going, thinking it was funny when I could see she was annoyed and no-one else was laughing. Would it have been the right thing to do, given all the preparation and effort, time spent on her feet and cleaning up afterwards?

At this point, the nice lobotomist lady tells me she isn’t willing to turn me into a rude, ungrateful, immature tw*t and says she isn’t willing to take this any further as it would be unethical.

After reading the initial version of this, a friend asked if I was only willing to be friends with people who can cook. I wasn’t saying that but I am saying that I expect to be given a square meal when visiting people and I don’t want to have to bring passive aggressive samosas. I don’t care if you buy the food, make it or order it, just give me a square meal and let me eat it in peace.

I’m not judging you for being an omnivore but I am judging how you respond to otherness. The more educated and well-travelled you are, the more expensive and prestigious your education, the more carefully I’m listening to your response. I grew up on a sprawling council estate in Belfast and just wanted to be middle class. I’m now surrounded by people whose parents have both been to university, both have professional careers, own more than one property and can afford to help their children out with a deposit to buy a house. These are people who say, ‘when we go skiing…’, for God’s sake. If your response to vegetarianism is anything other than, ‘Ooh I made a lovely Ottolenghi aubergine dish last week from his new book’, I want my money back. I want my money back.