I do not care much for vegetables. I do not eat any that start with an ‘a” — aubergines, artichokes, asparagus, avocado (yes, I know aubergines and avocado are fruits, but you do not have them for pudding, do you?). It is not a point of principle. They are just horrible. I do not like many greens, any vegetable that I cannot see immediately which part you are meant to eat or anything squishy. I have the vegetable tastes, in fact, of a particularly conservative six-year-old.
It is not that I deny or mock vegetarianism: that would be like denying gravity. I just recognise it is not suitable for someone who believes the basic food groups to be pork, lamb, chicken and beef. So who better than me to offer commentary on a raft of new vegetarian cookery books by living as a vegetarian for a week?
After seven days, I am willing to profess undying admiration for any vegetarian who manages every night to cook something capable of stimulating the palate for more than 15 seconds. But then, I have encountered very few.
The vegetarians I know seem to subsist on beans on toast, soup and salads, while each evening I amaze my family with crispy roasted belly pork or chicken stuffed with ginger and garlic.
But I understand why so many of you end up with your tedious diets. Among the staple ingredients listed in these books are arame seaweed, bergamot oil, mirin, masa harina and ketjap manis. I live in north London, home to the largest single concentration of poncey-food buyers in Britain. Yet I do not have a clue where to find those ingredients. God only knows how you are meant to cook from, say Rose Elliot’s Veggie Chic if you live in, say, Cumbria.
So what about the other books I have been armed with? Eat Smart, Eat Raw: Detox Recipes for a High-energy Diet by Kate Wood reminds me too much of an unfortunate evening when a friend and I were cornered by a wild-eyed woman who said she had eaten nothing but raw vegetables for two years; her bowels had never felt so free. Catherine Mason’s Vegetable Heaven does not have the photos I need to know whether I would want to eat her meals. The nice lady at Grub Street publishers recommends that if I need some ‘spiritual assistance” I should ‘turn to Quiet Food for both recipes and wisdom”. But does anyone who does not weave wicker bicycles in a wholemeal yurt for a living want spiritual assistance from a cookbook? And so another Elliot offering, Vegetarian Supercook, becomes the one book I choose to refer to.
Actually it takes a while before I turn to it. I spend the first few days of my experiment without the time to plan for recipes. Instead I throw things together — a pan of roasted vegetables and potatoes with halloumi melted on top, various combinations of mozzarella, basil and tomato, the pasta dish I routinely roll out for visiting vegetarians — spaghetti with chili, garlic, mushrooms and toasted herbed breadcrumbs.
But away from home proves harder. A trip to London soccer club Arsenal’s new stadium on my first meat-free day sees me and a vegetarian friend staring glumly at the menus at the snack bar. There are burgers by the bucketload, an array of meat pies, but just the one meat-free dish — a cauliflower cheese pie. ‘Don’t,” Jeff warns me. ‘It’s filth. And I want you to print that.”
It is not just at football grounds that selection is a problem. The staff canteen at my office has vegetarian selections every day, as well as a salad bar, but, as you have probably gathered, I do not really do salads: I will always take something that had a pulse over pulses. But when even a vegetarian colleague warns me off a vegetarian option — a meat-free scotch egg — my heart is starting to bleed for those who have to suffer this every day.
I am sure loads of you are even now protesting that you do not suffer. But I am just not sure I believe you. Most of the vegetarians I know gave up meat for political reasons, not because they do not like the taste (I admire your sacrifice, but it is not for me — I really do not care enough about animals, as my mother-in-law realised when I asked her to have her cat put down because it made me sneeze). That is why meat-free sausages have to be billed as ‘surprisingly hearty” — because we all know in our hearts that meat tastes best.
But for all my ignorant writing off of whole swaths of the world’s staples, I really love food. I adore cooking and I love shopping for food, talking about it, seeing it. But during a week deprived of meat, food comes to feel merely functional, a tedious bloody hike through the meal. Elliot’s lentil shepherd’s pie is the only thing I have seconds of all week, but I am still acutely aware that it is lentils in sheep’s clothing.
By Friday, and a banana curry that breaches another of my ludicrous rules — sweet and savoury do not belong on the same plate — and I am, frankly, fed up. I feel oddly low, somehow disengaged from my life (though it may be unfair to blame this on vegetables). I had been told I would feel less bloated after meals, but I can’t vouch for that; because I find my meatless main courses so unfulfilling, I spend evenings grazing on biscuits. I have got shocking wind — probably because of all those lentils — and the sense of worthiness I feel is the only emotional sustenance vegetables have given me.
So will I change? Well, there might be hope. Saturday night, my first day back on the meat, and I have an organic rolled shoulder of pork in the fridge, with a lovely, thick cloak of fat. But I don’t put that in the oven. Instead I turn to Vegetarian Supercook, and have a bash at the kedgeree. Admittedly, I cut up a cod fillet, roll it in egg, coat it with breadcrumbs and shallow fry it to stick on top of the rice. But it is a start, eh? Now to give up smoking, too. —