The immediate response is almost always a question. How or Why? Strangely so, because this isn’t something that happens to people with more conventional eating habits. As far as I’m aware, no one is ever asked, over lunch in a restaurant or at a dinner party, why or how they come to be eating roast beef or grilled fish. But a vegetarian who passes such dishes by in favour of alternatives that contain no meat or fish, is immediately open to interrogation.
Occasionally the cause is genuine curiosity, even perhaps admiration, a veiled and possibly frustrated desire to follow the same path. But more commonly there is a barely concealed element of aggression involved, a demand for justification. Vegetarians have to be prepared for hostility. The form it commonly takes was captured brilliantly by the comedian Ken Dodd during the horrifying foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001. As part of his introductory banter he would ask the audience, ‘Are there any vegetarians in tonight?’ When the guilty parties had raised their hands, he would give them a long silent stare and then snarl in mock anger: ‘Know-alls!’
He got it exactly right. The answer to the how or why question is usually expected to be some high-minded moral or smug ideological explanation, something calculated to pose an unwelcome challenge to the questioner’s own position.
I disappoint on all counts because I became a vegetarian entirely by accident.
It was some twenty or so years ago, shortly before Christmas, and I had just finished writing Kipling the Poet. The publisher’s reaction to the news was surprising, and, in my experience, entirely uncharacteristic. He said he could probably go for an earlier than expected publication if I let him have a completed manuscript by the start of the New Year.
In those curiously different pre-computer days most writers would rely on a professional typist to turn a much rewritten, often very messy typescript into a tidy copy for the publisher. Even then, last-minute corrections and changes to the text meant that delay was built into the system. In my case there was an added local complication. We were living in Edinburgh which at that time still followed the traditional Scottish practice of closing down all but entirely between Christmas and early January. Nevertheless, and without much hope, I spoke to the typist and she responded heroicially. If I could provide her with the typescript by Christmas Eve, she would return a finished copy to me by Hogmanay.
Although this gave me a viable deadline, extra time would still have to be found for last-minute revisions, and that meant curtailing in one way or another our seasonal celebrations. It was largely up to me to find a way out of this difficulty because, with the enthusiastic agreement of my partner Valerie, and to my own delight, I had become mainly responsible for the cooking at home. In normal circumstances I greatly enjoyed every aspect of planning, preparing, and cooking the Christmas food. But circumstances weren’t normal and an extended spell of Christmas cooking began to feel unwelcome. It was the cause of much discussion between us.
We organised an unusually large pre-Christmas supermarket shop that enabled us to stock up as though for a siege. Non-perishable food not needed immediately was stored in odd corners of the house and garage, while bottles and tins that would benefit from chilling were lined up on the steps leading down from the kitchen to the back garden. Fresh vegetables, which had to be bought nearer to Christmas, we packed in cardboard boxes and stored in the garage.
A trickier issue was our order with a local butcher for the Christmas meat. Once again here was a usually enjoyable activity that had turned into a time-wasting nuisance. Never before had the whole paraphernalia seemed so complicated, and so unnecessary. There was the turkey, round of beef, giblets, suet, and chipolatas, all to be collected at the last possible moment, stored briefly, prepared on Christmas Eve, and cooked on Christmas Day.
With no apparent way of saving time here, and with no thought of being taken seriously, I said something like: ‘It’s tempting to become vegetarians for Christmas.’ And Valerie replied instantly, ‘Well, that would be all right with me.’
I really can’t now remember what I cooked, but it was probably some kind of savoury loaf, made with lentils, nuts and mushrooms, and baked in the oven. Whether or not, it taught me an immensely valuable, never-to-be forgotten lesson. This was that removing meat from a formal dinner can make surprisingly little difference to the overall nature of a meal. Difficult to believe? A bit of self-justification, a case of Hamlet with the Prince of Denmark left out?
Well, such objections have a certain point, especially at Christmas, but it didn’t turn out to be anything like as forlorn as it may sound. After all, for this particular Christmas dinner everything else remained just as tradition demanded. The roast potatoes were still there, so were the sprouts braised with walnuts, the creamed parsnips, cranberry sauce, brandy butter, even the rich gravy. And, as we weren’t yet giving any thought to such matters, there was no problem about us enjoying a shop-bought Christmas pudding and cream.
The meal was enough of a success for Valerie to say that she ‘could go on like this’. And I felt much the same. Neither of us was converted on the spot, though we did immediately begin to eat less meat and soon stopped altogether. Then, after reading a particularly nasty report about fishing conditions in the North Sea, I found myself wondering aloud why we were continuing to eat fish.
Our decision not to go on doing so was relatively easy. By now I was already exploring vegetarian cookery and finding there were plenty of satisfying alternatives for us to try. A remarkable and surprising number of them I was soon to learn.
This part of the story ended much as we might have guessed. The typist kept her promise and had the typescript ready on New Year’s Eve. The first two days of the New Year were spent proof-reading, and the typescript was ready to send off to the publisher as soon as the post offices resumed their normal service. True to his professional image, the publisher not only decided there was after all no hurry to publish the book, but postponed the original publication date by some six months.
So, we needn’t have undertaken our rushed experimental Christmas or have become temporary vegetarians. For me personally, the conversion was not directly motivated by religious or ethical principles, or by worries about animal welfare and modern methods of food production. It was, though, pretty well inevitable that a strong interest in such issues would follow, as it did. Now, looking back, it feels entirely certain that sooner or later we would both, either separately or together, have turned to vegetarianism. But, it wouldn’t have been then. Not at that particular moment, not in that way.
Truly because although defining a vegetarian is a fairly simple matter, and can be settled by referring to any decent dictionary, it still seems to cause many people a great deal of trouble. So! A vegetarian is someone who, for whatever reason, never eats meat or fish, and avoids as far as possible all products derived from animals or fish, but who does eat dairy products (i.e. eggs, milk, and cheese that is manufactured without the use of rennet).
My concern here is to clarify practices and positions without becoming involved in specific ideological disputes. Therefore, I shall simply point out that vegetarianism does not exclude the use of dairy products, a guiding principle given official support by The Vegetarian Society which was has been in existence since the middle of the nineteenth century. This has not, however, prevented the use of dairy products by vegetarians from being criticised as an illogical position to hold. It’s a view I rather sympathise with, though I also accept the line that the official position is defensible. Vegetarians who cannot take whatever inconsistency is involved here and choose to exclude diary products from their diet are called Vegans.
It’s all perfectly straightforward, as long as we accept the long-standing agreement to disagree over dairy products. Any difficulties involved in that, though, are nothing compared with the illogicalities joyfully accepted by all sorts of people who claim, quite falsely, to be vegetarians. Here are some non-qualifiers.
A vegetarian is not someone who eats fish, just once a week, once a month or ever. Nor is it someone who has drastically reduced his or her intake of red meat, and it is most certainly not someone who only eats white meat. Chicken is the most common candidate for meat that somehow does not count as meat, though pork also puts in an appearance. Nor is it someone who enjoys, ‘just now and then’, a bacon sandwich, prawn cocktail, slice of cold beef, rock salmon and chips, or any other tasty meat or fish treat.
I have no wish at all to sound critical of those who have chosen to eat very little meat or fish or are trying to restrict their diet in this way. Far from it. Such decisions appear very sensible to me, not least because they suggest a complementary interest in vegetarian dishes. It’s entirely a matter for the people involved. I only start to object if they then go on to describe themselves as vegetarians.
To represent the type, it is most certainly not the woman I once got talking to in an Edinburgh greengrocer’s. Very affable our conversation was. We even got to the point of comparing ways of cooking some of the less familiar vegetables on display. ‘Oh yes,’ she assured me, ‘I’m a vegetarian, though of course I do like the occasional plate of mince!’
So, the ‘truly’ vegetarian recipes offered on this site, will contain no meat, fish, or any products knowingly derived from animals or fish. ‘Knowingly’ is a necessary qualification because it is sometimes difficult to know for sure. Eggs, milk, and vegetarian cheese will, however, be used. So will meat and fish substitutes. These have become sufficiently respectable to be monitored and approved, or not, by the
Vegetarian Society. But they can still be controversial.
The case against meat and fish substitutes, usually presented in the semi-aggressive Ken Dodd mode, though without the humorous intent, is the inconsistency (or hypocrisy) of declining to eat the real thing while happily eating something that is, in effect, an imitation. I have no real problem with this one. Like most converts I spent many years eating, and indeed cooking, meat and fish before becoming a vegetarian. The pattern, nature, and to some extent the flavours, of the dishes, and the food, I used to eat are instilled in me.
I’ve no wish to dress up food in any fancy way to make it seem something it isn’t or to eat meat substitutes all of the time. But if I can continue to occasionally enjoy for supper, say, sausages and mash, burger and chips, haggis, or a plate of mince come to that, without any animals being killed or treated in disgustingly unacceptable ways, then I see nothing reprehensible in doing so. This was very much the approach adopted by Linda McCartney in her pioneering inspirational cookery book Home Cooking, and the starting point of her enormously successful business manufacturing meat substitutes. It’s a policy with which I fully agree.
Anyway, the main issue here is one that is fundamental to all cookery, not just vegetarian. It has to do with taste. After all, non-vegetarians do not generally eat raw meat or fish. They eat flesh that has been carefully flavoured and cooked in one way or another. So yes, when a vegetarian prepares a meal with meat substitutes it can reasonably be seen as a concession to an otherwise rejected mode of life, an unwillingness, or inability perhaps, to dispense entirely with the past. But not, surely, in any hypocritical way.
The aim of a vegetarian sausage or beanburger should not be to make it approximate as closely as possible in taste or texture to the original model of a pork sausage or all-American hamburger. The texture of such substitutes is, after all, entirely different, and it should be matched with its own taste and flavours. For this reason, it seems to me that the least attractive of meat substitutes are those which strive lovingly to recreate the appearance, taste, even the aroma, of the original.
And it’s precisely here that vegetarianism excels in the scope it offers for individual creativity. Far more so than its non-vegetarian equivalent, modern vegetarian cookery is excitingly eclectic and multi-national. There is, for a start, the attention paid to the vegetables themselves which are so often neglected in non-vegetarian cookery. This, no doubt, is a main reason why official statistics show that most people eat astonishingly few of the vegetables that are essential to their physical well-being. It is a fundamental aim of vegetarian cookery to draw attention to the neglected range and quality of vegetables available.
But this concern with vegetables, native and foreign, is simply the starting point. For modern vegetarianism is able to draw on foodstuffs and ingredients literally from all over the world, absorbing and adapting them into a distinct cuisine. Grains, seeds, fruit, pulses, each group comprising in itself an extraordinary variety, have important roles to play in this process, as also do countless herbs and spices. For most non-vegetarians there is a culinary individuality here of a kind they usually experience only when dining out and self-consciously ordering dishes from foreign cuisines. From their ordinary daily meals they can have little idea of the range and variety of flavours and textures that are readily on hand for the vegetarian cook.
It would be quite implausible, in several respects, for me to claim that my cooking could possibly be anything other than basic.
When, in pre-vegetarian days, I first decided I would learn to cook for myself, I had no theoretical knowledge of food and very little practical experience of cooking it. Valerie, though, had both, and at the start especially her guidance and advice were crucial. At that time we lived separately. We also cooked separately, and with great enjoyment, for each other.
But although lacking the kind of fundamental knowledge of a subject that comes from formal teaching, I did possess what, in such circumstances, is probably the only truly effective learning alternative. Better in some respects because without it no amount of formal teaching is likely to be worth very much. I mean enthusiasm, and not simply that but the kind of enthusiasm that constantly edges into excitement and swiftly becomes fascination.
When people ask me, and in our fast-food age the tone is often one of incredulity, even disbelief, how I can possibly spend two or three hours every day linked in one way or another to the kitchen, I explain that cooking is my main hobby. It’s an activity I enjoy and find totally relaxing.
That’s an explanation they are always happy to accept. After all, most people have long-standing personal absorptions of one kind or another on which their minds constantly linger: a local football team; a novel that is always going to get finished and is certain to be published one day; a silent supressed passion for someone or other, whether an internationally renowned celebrity or an unsuspecting man or woman living two streets away; the goings-on in a TV soap opera; the poetry of, say, Philip Larkin or Elizabeth Bishop. For me, on any normal day, my mind plays uncontrollably, and often at the unlikeliest moments, with thoughts of what I’ll be trying out for dinner that evening, or tomorrow evening, or next week perhaps.
At the time we became vegetarians, neither of us knew much about what exactly was involved in this kind of cookery. Valerie’s informed advice remained and her enjoyment of what I was cooking notably increased, but the practical aspects of the new learning process now fell mainly to me. In a way, it meant re-starting from scratch, going back to basics.
And that is what I’ll be doing here, except that the return to basics will now carry with it some years of personal experience. That experience is home-based, everyday, rising occasionally to a semi-formal dinner party or celebration with friends. The vegetarian cooking I want to describe is a daily activity, a way of life. Much the same, for me at least, applies to the kitchen equipment I use. This also is truly basic, something that, to my mind, is perfectly in tune with vegetarian cooking.
I have never owned, or really felt the need to own, a food processor or microwave oven. Apart from the usual range of kitchen knives, cooking spoons, whisks, slices, dishes and pans, the only specialist pieces of equipment I find indispensible are a powerful electric blender with attachments for grinding; strong reliable scales; and a pestle and mortar, or rather two of these, one medium sized, one tiny. This apparent austerity is, once again, purely a matter of personal choice or inclination. It is in no sense a criticism of those cooks who enjoy using, and benefit from, the vast number of ingenious items of kitchen equipment now everywhere on sale.
I suppose that coming to vegetarianism in the way that I did, I have never lost the initial feeling of pleasure in doing most kitchen jobs for myself. Simple activities, whether cutting, slicing, mixing, mashing, or kneading, I think of as being integral parts of the whole business, and I don’t want to hand them over to a machine or gadget. For me they are expressive of the key vegetarian option of taking as much personal control as possible of what you cook and eat. And there are bigger issues here than the sophistication of the kitchen equipment you may choose to use.
In my terms, the desire to control what I eat and cook involves not only dispensing with meat and fish, but also, whenever possible, with the instant, pre-packaged food culture of modern life. The most common defence for living off meals that come ready prepared in plastic boxes or hermetically sealed packets and are then swiftly heated in a microwave oven, is that there is simply not enough time to do otherwise. The same excuse is often given by people for not becoming vegetarians. And it’s true enough, in both cases. Someone returning home from a hard day’s work to an empty house or apartment will find it more convenient to eat convenience food, and, yes, vegetarianism can take time.
But it’s important to make sure that the alternatives being considered are the right ones. Vegetarianism occupies no more time than that taken by a non-vegetarian cook who is similarly concerned with eating fresh home-prepared food. In some respects considerably less time is involved, because vegetarian cooking depends more on managed time, on sensible planning and advance preparation. This returns us to the issue of an all-absorbing hobby. If you really want to pursue vegetarianism then you will find the necessary time. If you don’t, you won’t. It’s up to you.
Nowadays, the kind of cookery I have in mind is a regular daily activity aimed at producing vegetarian meals that are healthy, tasty, and attractive.This has become something that is relatively easy to achieve, though it wasn’t always so. Over the past twenty-five or thirty years, vegetarian cookery has been transformed, and it’s worth considering briefly some of the issues raised by this transformation.
The first vegetarian meal I remember consciously choosing to eat in a restaurant was heavy, stodgy, bloating and fairly tasteless. It put me off for about ten years. That ‘worthy food’ as it used to be commonly and fairly described represents one extreme. The new extreme that has largely replaced it in restaurants is ‘gourmet vegetarian’ cookery. It is elegant, light, beautifully presented and has clearly learned much from nouvelle cuisine and TV celebrity chefs. Whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, gourmet cookery is admired not simply for the quality of the food itself, but for its colour, presentation and, not infrequently, the extraordinary number of ingredients used. These are dishes for special occasions, meals to learn from as well as enjoy, but they are not for tonight’s supper or tomorrow’s lunch.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this. Far from it. Vegetarian gourmet cookery especially has introduced glamorous and adventurous approaches of a kind that only a few years ago would have been considered impossible, inappropriate even, for something as staid as worthy vegetarianism. That’s all to the good.
The trend becomes less aceptable when related to the celebrity chef programmes that are now such a regular and repetitive feature of television. I rarely watch them, partly for the obvious reason that they have little relevance to vegetarianism. But also because what I have seen has no connection with, and, as far as I’m aware, very little influence on, the daily eating and cooking habits of the vast majority of people. It almost certainly has no practical or general benefit and belongs properly with the entertainment industry.
The most significant change in vegetarian cookery in recent years is not down to celebrity chefs at all, and has nothing to do with extremes. Inspiration has come from the books of dedicated vegetarian cooks, such as Rose Elliot, Linda McCartney, Paul Southey, Colin Spencer, Sarah Brown, Gail Duff, and Roz Denny. This list consists only of writers whose work has been particularly helpful to me and it must in no sense be taken as exclusive. I would like to add, though, two non-vegetarians, Delia Smith and Madhur Jaffrey, for the exceptionally vegetarian-friendly approach in their books. I also feel that Delia Smith deserves special credit for publicly dissociating herself from the cult of celebrity chefs, and insisting on two crucial distinctions. First, between cooks and chefs, and secondly, between home-based and restaurant-based cookery, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian,
The collective achievement of cooks like these has been remarkable, and genuinely influential, in that they have treated vegetarian cookery as something that is both distinctly itself and possible. No longer need it be thought of as an arcane, special, or removed preoccupation. It has become a highly desirable, perfectly feasible everyday experience. This kind of vegetarian cookery is not constantly striving to be either worthy or spectacular, though it can, in the most acceptable of ways, quite easily be both.