I was in Stamford on Friday, absolutely stunningly lovely town, especially on a sunny day (pubs are a bit suspect, mind) and we were looking around the market - a huge sprawling affair that winds through the town centre streets and makes Northampton's once famous cobbled market look like a really big waste of space. It reminded me of Chapel Street market in Islington, where my great grandmother owned a shellfish stall. It had a real cosmopolitan feel about it and stalls selling things from all over the world.
We spied an 'authentic curry stall' and were drawn to it. A guy was selling Indian takeaways in microwavable dishes; rice, bhajis and samosas. He had a big selection and was doing a roaring trade. The only thing he was offering that was suitable for vegetarians were these humongous onion bhajis - everything else had either chicken or lamb in it.
Just up the road was this swanky Asian Fusion place - actually looking just a little too contemporary for Stamford - and we looked over the menu. I did a bit of mental arithmetic and totted up 70 items on the menu. There were 3 vegetarian main courses and, not counting breads, rice or noodles - nothing else on the menu that was suitable to a genuine vegetarian or vegan. I wouldn't have wanted to eat there even if it had been appealing, because there is zero guarantee that the vegetarian food will have been prepared away from the meat.
Pedantic? Yes. But I'm a vegetarian for a reason, not just a laugh. I had a vegan friend, who is sadly no longer with us, who refused to listen to me - would stick her fingers in her ears and go la-la-la - if I tried to tell her that every Friday, when she treated her family to chips from the local chippy, that the chips, she was going to scoff, were fried in the same oil as the fish, the chicken, the saveloys, the sausages and any other deep fried mammalian-based delicacy that is on offer.
No. I don't eat fish. If I ate fish I wouldn't be a vegetarian. If I had to have a label - because I'm not a vegan - it would be Lacto-vegetarian, because I eat milk, cheese, yoghurt and eggs - bi-products of animals, either natural or processed. My argument is simple - you don't need to slit a cow's throat to get a pint of milk from it (yes, I am aware that milk is intensively bad for cows and isn't strictly natural to have a mammal lactating 365 days a year, especially when its not in calf, but...) and I don't need to kill and dismember my ducks to get eggs - they lay them whether I ask for them or not.
I don't eat most shop bought desserts. A huge percentage of them contain the words 'pork gelatine', sometimes 'beef' and occasionally, if you can believe this and in the case of Heinz's Treacle sponge pudding - fish oil! I don't know about you meat eaters, but the idea of mackerel sponge pudding with custard isn't that appealing (unless you're pregnant or a bit sick). However, it's the inclusion of gelatine in things that, in my humble opinion, means the manufacturers' miss out on that 5% of the market. Because the 5% of the market are genuine vegetarians and vegans, not weekend warriors or people who think by having jacket spud and beans once a week they're being 'veggie'.
Actually, that reminds me of someone else, who is also no longer with us. He always refused to come round our house for dinner, claiming that he could stomach vegetarian food, yet his favourite dinner was the aforementioned jacket and beans. He would argue that it wasn't vegetarian food it was just food. which technically is correct but technically it isn't meat either, so semantics don't win this one, baby.
My vegan friend with the chip shop thing was just relaxing her beliefs for something she loved. I won't condone it - I have chips from a chip shop, once or twice a year and I occasionally eat in restaurants where I really can't vouch whether or not my food was cooked in a pan that had had meat cooked in it and was maybe not washed properly.
I once found a small piece of Char-sui pork in a mushroom fried rice; it was a shame as I patronised the takeaway for years and they knew I was a strict vegetarian - I have never been back. Nor have I ever been back to the Star of India in Northampton, ever since my vegetable samosa was actually a lamb one - and while it was a restaurant run by Muslims, who aren't veggies, they know enough to know better!
About twice a year, I actually get a FISH and chip craving - it's normally when I go to the coast and smell that sea air mingled with the nearby chippy. I've yet to cave in.
Plus, in the 15+ years since I gave up meat entirely, I've noticed one thing above all else - have you noticed how bloody expensive it is for meat and fish nowadays? Jesus Harry Christ, it's incredible what you people will pay for good cuts of meat. Which leads me nicely to the enigma that is vegetarian food in restaurants. Before I get into the lack of imagination and choice, what about the cost? In 80% of establishments I've been in, the vegetarian option is comparable in price to the meat options! But it's not just restaurants, what about supermarkets? In Sainsbury's last week and they've introduced this new vegetarian lattice pie jobby - looked interesting and maybe worth a try. That was until I noticed it was the same price as a pie pertaining to have 'the finest' beef in it. Since when does potatoes, a few vegetables and some cheese cost more than a piece of Aberdeen Angus steak? You are, of course right, it doesn't, ever.
It's like the Pope's visit. Catholics represent 9.6% of the UK's population. That's almost double the amount of vegetarians. We paid for Pope Nazi-Pin-Up-Boy XVI's visit. Everybody paid for 9.6% of the population's absurd anachronistic dogma. Incredibly, but I don't know how accurate the figures are, but there are only 3.7% of childless couples in the UK; even so, these people have to contribute to the education of your children. People supporting fox hunting ranged between 10% and 55% of the population, depending on which side of the argument you spoke to. The reality is that less than 1% of the population were actively involved in the blood sport. Actual figures suggest the number is closer to 0.01% of the population of the UK. Have you noticed the number of things in a supermarket designed for one person? Outside of the wonderful things like Pot Noodle or cup a soup, how often do you see a single piece of meat on the pre-packed counter? Always two and "fuck you if you haven't got room in your freezer, you shouldn't be so sad to be on your own" is what the supermarket is saying to the 13 million people who are single and over 18 in the UK. 13 million? What's that? About 18% of the population. Nearly a fifth.
I heard from a militant friend of mine that at least 1% of the top 1000 earners in this country avoid paying tax - in a at present legal way - and that unpaid money amounts to the tax paid by 13 million people on low wages. It seems fanciful and slightly unreal; but Yaya Toure, who plays for Man Citeh is currently pocketing before tax the grand sum of £225,000 per week. That's £12 million a year. He's not even the best footballer in the world.
One good bit of news is that empty allotments places have dropped by almost 100% in the last five years. 10 years ago allotments were under huge threat, now they are as safe as the houses that surround them. Good news for fans of vegetables. You can see yourself how cheap and easy it is to grow your own veg. Growing your own produce gives us back one thing we've lost - odd shaped carrots, weird spuds, wonky runner beans, British grown green beans, lettuces with slugs, pathetic onions, scabby apples, bent peppers and unbelievably tasty soft fruits - nothing is uniform when you grow your own and it looks and tastes better for it. Someone I know who belongs to the local allotment society claims there are approx 65,000 allotments in the country and a skim round the 'net seems to confirm this. What this has to do with the rest I'm not totally sure about - just more spurious percentages; but the point is if you own an allotment, are a footballer, support Catholicism or are childless, you aren't regarded as some kind of freak, which is the general consensus that, I'd say, 90% of vegetarians get for not eating dead animal.
[An aside: at its height Big Brother was viewed by about 8.5% of the population. If you were an alien and landed on earth at that time and had nothing but newspapers to educate you, you would have believed that it was the most important thing happening, not just in Britain, but the entire planet. In a four week period during 2004, the program amassed almost twice as many column inches in all newspapers than any other single story!]
Vegetarians are not just treated like weirdos. They are also treated with no imagination or respect. In some societies, people who don't eat meat are honoured. You rarely go into any restaurant and find a vegetarian dish that has had some thought gone into it. Many places still seem to think that a sloppy vegetable lasagne is acceptable. Buddhists and Hindus - Chinese and Indians, both (mainly) vegetarians and yet walk into a Chinese or 'Indian' restaurant and regardless of how much is on offer, there is a lack of imagination or, dare I say it, urgency to please. "Oh, he's a vegetarian, they're all hippies who treat carrots like gods".
Most cuisines will cater for non-meat eaters in some fashion. In Poland, I found that my meal was the most expensive on the menu (and possibly the most disgusting to to be honest) - it was a bolete stew made with locally picked mushrooms. It was a bit like how I'd imagine a slug casserole to be like in consistency, not taste. I struggle to find anything in France and the Germans seem to struggle with the concept of why people wouldn't want to eat meat. Friends in the States reckon being a veggies is easy over there unless you want to go out to a restaurant, then it's more difficult for them than it is for us.
Amazingly, despite millions of people in India not eating meat (approx 58% of all households is vegetarian), the estimated total percentage for veggies worldwide is... 5.8%.
Obviously this figure would be higher if the conglomerations that run the world weren't constantly thrusting the need for us to consume dead animals - we even throw new science at it and insist that meat and fish is better for you because it has Omega 3 in it. BFD.
One last thing. I actually liked meat. I didn't stop because I didn't like it (the wife's reason) or because I was politically motivated; I stopped because I didn't want to contribute to the death of an animal to fill my stomach when something I could grow would suffice.