I was visited this morning by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses, doing the door-to-door ministry for which they’re most-famous, and I was reminded of an interesting quirk in the practices of the WTS. If you know anything at all about their beliefs, you’re probably aware that Jehovah’s Witnesses generally refuse blood transfusions.
I first became aware of their policy of rejecting potentially life-saving blood when I was just a child. A school friend of mine (this one!), following a problematic tonsillectomy, found his life at risk because of his family’s commitment to this religious principle. Because I’ve always been interested in religion and the diversity of theological difference I ended up looking into the background of their practice… and I came to a very different scriptural interpretation.
Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.
This is God speaking to Noah, by the way. Sexacentenarian Noah’s took a six-week cruise on a floating zoo and God’s just said “boat number 1, your time is up… and by Me you’d better be horny ‘cos it’s time to go forth and multiply.” God invents the rainbow as a promise not to reformat-and-reinstall again, and then follows it up with a handful of rules because He’s a big fan of rules. And even though blood transfusions wouldn’t be invented for thousands of years, the Jehovah’s Witnesses almost-uniquely feel that this prohibition on consuming blood covers transfusions too.
That all sounds fair enough. I mean, it requires a pretty heavy-handed interpretation of what was meant but that’s par for the course for the Bible and especially the Old Testament.
But let’s take a step back. Here’s those verses again, this time in Hebrew:
Every moving living thing is your food, like the plants you were already given. But you may not eat any creature that is still alive.
“Still alive?” That’s a very different way of reading it, right? Suddenly this strange verse about abstaining from, I don’t know, black pudding (and possibly blood transfusions) becomes a requirement to kill your dinner before you chow down.
This is like Deuteronomy 14:21, where it says “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” The same directive appears in Exodus 34:26 but I prefer Deuteronomy’s because it also has this really surreal bit about how it’s not okay to eat roadkill but you can serve it to your immigrant friends. It turns out that kid-boiled-in-mother’s-milk was an old Canaan recipe and pagan tribes used to eat it ritualistically, so a prohibition on the practice by Noah and his descendants was not only an opposition to animal cruelty but a statement against polytheism.
Could “eating things alive”, which is specifically forbidden in Judaism, be – like goat-in-goat-juice – another pagan ritual, formerly widespread, that the early Israelites were trying to outlaw? Quite possibly.
But there’s a further possible interpretation that I feel is worth looking at. Let’s paint a picture. Again, let’s assume despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary that the bible is literally true, which meets people who use the covenant of Genesis as a basis for medical decisions much more than half-way:
God’s just declared bankruptcy on his first “Earth” project and wiped the slate clean. He’s had the RNG – I’m assuming that God plays dice – roll up a new landmass, and he’s populated it with one family of humans, plus two of every kind of land animal. Possibly more of the fast breeders like the insects and some of the small mammals, I suppose, depending on how closely they were housed in the ark. Don’t make me explain this to you.
Let’s assume that God doesn’t want the disembarking humans to immediately eat all of the animals with no concern for sustainability. This is, of course, absolutely what we humans do: if we take a biblical-literalism viewpoint, it’s a miracle that the delicious dodo would last until the 17th century CE rather than being eaten on the first post-flood day. God’s sort-of promised that the humans will be allowed to eat almost anything they like and that He’ll stop meddling, but He doesn’t want a mass-extinction, so what does He do? He says:
You can eat all the plants you want. But don’t eat any of the animals that are alive right now: let them breed a bit first.
This has always seemed to me to be the obvious way to interpret the commandment not to eat living animals: don’t eat the ones that are living at the moment. Certainly more-rational than “don’t have blood transfusions.” And if what God (allegedly) said to Noah is to be treated as a rule that still stands today, rather than just at the time, then perhaps it’s vegetarianism for which Jehovah’s Witnesses should best be known. That way, they’d get to argue with the hosts of barbecues about what goes into their bodies rather than with judges about what goes into their childrens’.
But try telling them that. (Seriously: give it a go! They’re usually more than happy to talk about scripture, even if you’re a little bit sarcastic!)
An increasing number of people are reportedly suffering from an allergy to the meat and other products of nonhuman mammals, reports Mosaic Science this week, and we’re increasingly confident that the cause is a sensitivity to alpha-gal (Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose), a carbohydrate produced in the bodies of virtually all mammals except for us and our cousin apes, monkeys, and simians (and one of the reasons you can’t transplant tissue from pigs to humans, for example).
The interesting thing is that the most-common cause of alpha-gal sensitivity appears to be the bite of one of a small number of species of tick. The most-likely hypothesis seems to be that being bitten by such a tick after it’s bitten e.g. deer or cattle may introduce that species’ alpha-gal directly to your bloodstream. This exposure triggers an immune response through all future exposure, even if it’s is more minor, e.g. consuming milk products or even skin contact with an animal.
That’s nuts, isn’t it? The Mosaic Science article describes the reaction of Tami McGraw, whose symptoms began in 2010:
[She] asked her doctor to order a little-known blood test that would show if her immune system was reacting to a component of mammal meat. The test result was so strongly positive, her doctor called her at home to tell her to step away from the stove.
That should have been the end of her problems. Instead it launched her on an odyssey of discovering just how much mammal material is present in everyday life. One time, she took capsules of liquid painkiller and woke up in the middle of the night, itching and covered in hives provoked by the drug’s gelatine covering.
When she bought an unfamiliar lip balm, the lanolin in it made her mouth peel and blister. She planned to spend an afternoon gardening, spreading fertiliser and planting flowers, but passed out on the grass and had to be revived with an EpiPen. She had reacted to manure and bone meal that were enrichments in bagged compost she had bought.
Of course, this isn’t the only nor even the most-unusual (or most-severe) animal-induced allergy-to-a-different-animal we’re aware of. The hilariously-named but terribly-dangerous Pork-Cat syndrome is caused, though we’re not sure how, by exposure to cats and results in a severe allergy to pork. But what makes alpha-gal sensitivity really interesting is that it’s increasing in frequency at quite a dramatic rate. The culprit? Climate change. Probably.
It’s impossible to talk to physicians encountering alpha-gal cases without hearing that something has changed to make the tick that transmits it more common – even though they don’t know what that something might be.
“Climate change is likely playing a role in the northward expansion,” Ostfeld adds, but acknowledges that we don’t know what else could also be contributing.
A little dated, perhaps: I’m sure that nobody needs to be told nowadays that one of the biggest things a Westerner can do to reduce their personal carbon footprint (after from breeding less or not at all, which I maintain is the biggest, or avoiding air travel, which Statto argues for) is to reduce or refrain from consumption of meat (especially pork and beef) and dairy products.
Indeed, environmental impact was the biggest factor in my vegetarianism (now weekday-vegetarianism) for the last eight years, and it’s an outlook that I’ve seen continue to grow in others over the same period.
Seeing these two stories side-by-side in my RSS reader put the Gaia hypothesis in my mind.
If you’re not familiar with the Gaia hypothesis, the basic idea is this: by some mechanism, the Earth and all of the life on it act in synergy to maintain homeostasis. Organisms not only co-evolve with one another but also with the planet itself, affecting their environment in a way that in turn affects their future evolution in a perpetual symbiotic relationship of life and its habitat.
Its advocates point to negative feedback loops in nature such as plankton blooms affecting the weather in ways that inhibit plankton blooms and to simplistic theoretical models like the Daisyworld Simulation (cute video). A minority of its proponents go a step further and describe the Earth’s changes teleologically, implying a conscious Earth with an intention to protect its ecosystems (yes, these hypotheses were born out of the late 1960s, why do you ask?). Regardless, the essence is the same: life’s effect on its environment affects the environment’s hospitality to life, and vice-versa.
There’s an attractive symmetry to it, isn’t there, in light of the growth in alpha-gal allergies? Like:
Today – climate change causes ticks to spread more-widely and bite more humans.
Tomorrow – tick bites cause humans to consume less products farmed from mammals?
That’s not to say that I buy it, mind. The Gaia hypothesis has a number of problems, and – almost as bad – it encourages a complacent “it’ll all be okay, the Earth will fix itself” mindset to climate change (which, even if it’s true, doesn’t bode well for the humans residing on it).
But it was a fun parallel to land in my news reader this morning, so I thought I’d share it with you. And, by proxy, make you just a little bit warier of ticks than you might have been already. /shudders/
We cannot believe were a year old this week! It feels like only yesterday we were opening the doors and anxiously standing, hoping that someone would like the look of our new restaurant and come and visit us! Thankfully, you did over 100,000 of you this year! We are beyond proud to know that customers enjoy…
The day has arrived… our lovely little Not Dogs restaurant in the Bullring, Birmingham has had a little update – in fact, our additions are a nod to our festival background complete with bunting and grass! Let’s go on a virtual tour…
Happy birthday to Not Dogs Birmingham! Our doors have been open at the Bullrings LinkStreet for just 12 weeks now and what fun we are having!Our fantastic Crew have welcomed many people (veggies, vegans and meat-eaters!) into the restaurant, seven days a week and were looking forward to seeing many more of you. Over the course…
Three weeks ago was (give or take a few weeks because we’ve never bothered with accuracy) the end of Ruth and I’s 8th year together, and we marked the occasion with a mini-break away for a few nights. We spent the first two nights in a ‘showman’-style gypsy caravan in Herefordshire, and it was amazing enough that I wanted to share it with you:
The place we went was Wriggles Brook, a ‘glamping’-style site in the shadow of the Forest of Dean. In a long field that twists its way alongside a babbling brook, the owners have set up a trio of traditional horse-drawn caravans, each in a wooded clearing that isolates it from the others. Two of the caravans are smaller, designed just for couples (who are clearly the target market for this romantic getaway spot), but we took the third, larger, (centenarian!) one, which sported a separate living room and bedroom.
The bedroom was set up so that children could be accommodated in a bunk under the adults (with their own string of fairy lights and teeny-tiny windows, but after she bumped her head on the underside of the beams Annabel decided that she didn’t want to sleep there, so we set up her travel cot in the living room.
So yeah: a beautiful setting, imaginative and ecologically-friendly accommodation, and about a billion activities on your doorstep. Even the almost-complete lack of phone signal into the valley was pretty delightful, although it did make consulting Google Maps difficult when we got lost about 20 minutes out from the place! But if there’s one thing that really does deserve extra-special mention, it’s the food!
Our hosts were able to put on a spectacular breakfast and evening meal for us each night, including a variety of freshly-grown produce from their own land. We generally ate in their mini dining room – itself a greenhouse for their grapevines – but it was equally-nice to have pancakes delivered to the picnic table right outside our caravan. And speaking as somebody who’s had their fair share of second-rate veggie breakfasts over the last… what, four and a half years?… it was a great relief to enjoy a quite-brilliant variety of vegetarian cuisine from a clearly-talented chef.
So yeah – five stars for Wriggles Brook in Herefordshire if you’re looking for an awesome romantic getaway, with or without an accompanying toddler. Ruth and I later palmed the little one off on JTA so that we could have a night away without her, too, which – while fun (even if we didn’t get to try all 280+ gins at the restaurant we ate at) – wasn’t quite so worthy of mention as the unusual gypsy-caravan-escape that had preceded it. I’m hoping that we’ll get out to Wriggles Brook again.
This is the first in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.
2012 was one of the hardest years of my life.
It was a year of unceasing disasters and difficulties: every time some tragedy had befallen me, my friends, or family, some additional calamity was lined-up to follow in its wake. In an environment like this, even the not-quite-so-sad things – like the death of Puddles, our family dog, in May – were magnified, and the ongoing challenges of the year – like the neverending difficulties with my dad’s estate – became overwhelming.
In the week of his death, my sister Becky was suffering from an awful toothache which was stopping her from eating, sleeping, or generally functioning at all (I tried to help her out by offering some oil of cloves (which functions as a dental contact anesthetic), but she must have misunderstood my instruction about applying it to the tooth without swallowing it, because she spent most of that evening throwing up (seriously: don’t ever swallow clove oil).
Little did she know, worse was yet to come: when she finally went to the dentist, he botched her operation, leaving her with a jaw infection. The infection spread, causing septicæmia of her face and neck and requiring that she was hospitalised. On the day of our dad’s funeral, she needed to insist that the “stop gap” surgery that she was given was done under local, rather than general, anasthetic, so that she could make it – albeit in a wheelchair and unable to talk – to the funeral.
Five weeks later, my dad finally reached the North Pole, his ashes carried by another member of his team. At about the same time, Ruth‘s grandmother passed away, swamping the already-emotional Earthlings with yet another sad period. That same month, my friend S******suffered a serious injury, a traumatic and distressing experience in the middle of a long and difficult period of her life, and an event which caused significant ripples in the lives of her circle of friends.
Shortly afterwards, Paul moved out from Earth, in a situation that was anticipated (we’d said when we first moved in together that it would be only for a couple of years, while we all found our feet in Oxford and decided on what we’d be doing next, as far as our living situations were concerned), but still felt occasionally hostile: when Paul left town six months later, his last blog post stated that Oxford could “get lost”, and that he’d “hated hated 90% of the time” he’d lived here. Despite reassurances to the contrary, it was sometimes hard – especially in such a difficult year – to think that this message wasn’t directed at Oxford so much as at his friends there.
As the summer came to an end, my workload on my various courses increased dramatically, stretching into my so-called “free time”: this, coupled with delays resulting from all of the illness, injury, and death that had happened already, threw back the release date of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest update to Three Rings. Coupled with the stress of the 10th Birthday Party Conference – which thankfully JTA handled most of – even the rare periods during which nobody was ill or dying were filled with sleepless nights and anxiety. And of course as soon as all of the preparation was out of the way and the conference was done, there were still plenty of long days ahead, catching up on everything that had been temporarily put on the back burner.
When I was first appointed executor of my dad’s estate, I said to myself that I could have the whole thing wrapped-up and resolved within six months… eight on the outside. But as things dragged on – it took almost six months until the investigation was finished and the coroner’s report filed, so we could get a death certificate, for example – they just got more and more bogged-down. Problems with my dad’s will made it harder than expected to get started (for example, I’m the executor and a beneficiary of the will, yet nowhere on it am I directly mentioned by name, address, or relationship… which means that I’ve had to prove that I am the person mentioned in the will every single time I present it, and that’s not always easy!), and further administrative hiccups have slowed down the process every step of the way.
You know what would have made the whole thing easier? A bacon sandwich. And black pudding for breakfast. And a nice big bit of freshly-battered cod. And some roast chicken. I found that 2012 was a harder year than 2011 in which to be a vegetarian. I guess that a nice steak would have taken the edge off: a little bit of a luxury, and some escapism. Instead, I probably drank a lot more than I ought to have. Perhaps we should encourage recovering alcoholic, when things are tough, to hit the sausage instead of the bottle.
Becky’s health problems weren’t done for the year, after she started getting incredibly intense and painful headaches. At first, I was worried that she was lined-up for a similar diagnosis to mine, of the other year (luckily, I’ve been symptom-free for a year and a quarter now, although medical science is at a loss to explain why), but as I heard more about her symptoms, I became convinced that this wasn’t the case. In any case, she found herself back in the operating room, for the second serious bit of surgery of the year (the operation was a success, thankfully).
I had my own surgery, of course, when I had a vasectomy; something I’d been planning for some time. That actually went quite well, at least as far as can be ascertained at this point (part three of that series of posts will be coming soon), but it allows me to segue into the topic of reproduction…
Because while I’d been waiting to get snipped, Ruth and JTA had managed to conceive. We found this out right as we were running around sorting out the Three Rings Conference, and Ruth took to calling the fœtus “Jethrik”, after the Three Rings milestone. I was even more delighted still when I heard that the expected birth date would be 24th July: Samaritans‘ Annual Awareness Day (“24/7”).
As potential prospective parents, they did everything right. Ruth stuck strictly to a perfectly balanced diet for her stage of pregnancy; they told only a minimum of people, because – as everybody knows – the first trimester’s the riskiest period. I remember when Ruth told her grandfather (who had become very unwell towards the end of 2012 and died early this year: another sad family tragedy) about the pregnancy, that it was only after careful consideration – balancing how nice it would be for him to know that the next generation of his family was on the way before his death – that she went ahead and did so. And as the end of the first trimester, and the end of the year, approached, I genuinely believed that the string of bad luck that had been 2012 was over.
But it wasn’t to be. Just as soon as we were looking forward to New Year, and planning to not so much “see in 2013” as to “kick out 2012”, Ruth had a little bleeding. Swiftly followed by abdominal cramps. She spent most of New Year’s Eve at the hospital, where they’d determined that she’d suffered a miscarriage, probably a few weeks earlier.
Ruth’s written about it. JTA’s written about it, too. And I’d recommend they read their account rather than mine: they’ve both written more, and better, about the subject than I could. But I shan’t pretend that it wasn’t hard: in truth, it was heartbreaking. At the times that I could persuade myself that my grief was “acceptable” (and that I shouldn’t be, say, looking after Ruth), I cried a lot. For me, “Jethrik” represented a happy ending to a miserable year: some good news at last for the people I was closest to. Perhaps, then, I attached too much importance to it, but it seemed inconceivable to me – no pun intended – that for all of the effort they’d put in, that things wouldn’t just go perfectly. For me, it was all connected: Ruth wasn’t pregnant by me, but I still found myself wishing that my dad could have lived to have seen it, and when the pregnancy went wrong, it made me realise how much I’d been pinning on it.
I don’t have a positive pick-me-up line to put here. But it feels like I should.
And so there we were, at the tail of 2012: the year that began awfully, ended awfully, and was pretty awful in the middle. I can’t say there weren’t good bits, but they were somewhat drowned out by all of the shit that happened. Fuck off, 2012.
Here’s to 2013.
Edit, 16th March 2013: By Becky’s request, removed an unflattering photo of her and some of the ickier details of her health problems this year.
Edit, 11th July 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s personal details have been obfuscated in this post so that they are no longer readily available to search engines.
Edit, 26th September 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s photo was removed from this post, too.
What’s no joke, though, is the human population explosion. There’re just too damn many of us, as I explained last year. That’s the primary reason behind my decision, held for pretty-much the entirety of my adult life, to choose not to breed.
I’m fully aware that the conscious decision to not-breed by a single individual – especially in the developed world – makes virtually no difference to the global fate of humanity. I’m under no illusion that my efforts as a vegetarian are saving the world either. But just like the voter who casts a ballot for their party – even though they know it won’t make a difference to the outcome of the election – I understand that doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily have to have a directly quantifiable benefit.
That’s why I’m finally taking the next obvious step. Next month, after literally years of talking about it, I’m finally going to put my genitals where my mouth is (hmm… maybe that wasn’t the best choice of words)! Next week, I’m getting a vasectomy.
I first asked a doctor about the possibility of vasectomy about a decade ago. He remarked upon my age, and said – almost jokingly – “Come back in ten years if you still feel the same way!” I almost wish that I still had the same GP now, so that I could do exactly that. Instead, I spoke about a year ago to my (old) GP here in Oxford, who misled me into thinking that I would not be able to get the surgery on the NHS, and would have to have it done privately. Finally, a second doctor agreed to sign off their part of the consent form, and I was good to go. The secret, it seems, is persistence.
I’m sure that this is a decision that won’t be without it’s controversies. And believe me: over the course of the most-of-my-life-so-far that I’ve hinted at or talked about doing this, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard all of the arguments. Still: I feel like I ought to pick up on some of the things I’ve heard most-often –
What if you change your mind?
Even despite medical advances in recent decades in vasectomy reversal, vasectomy should still be considered a “one way trip”. Especially when I was younger, people seemed concerned that I would someday change my mind, and then regret my decision not to spawn children.
I suppose that it’s conceivable – unlike my otherwise potential offspring – but it’s quite a stretch, to believe that I might someday regret not having children (at least not biologically: I have no problem with adopting, co-parenting, fostering, or any number of other options for being involved in the upbringing of kids). I honestly can’t see how that’d come about. But even if we do take that far-fetched idea: isn’t it equally possible that somebody might ultimately regret having children. We take risks in our lives with any choice that we make – maybe I’ll someday regret not having taken my degree in Law or Chemistry or Rural Studies. Well then: c’est la vie.
Do you just not like children?
Children are great, and I’d love to get the chance to be involved in raising some. However, I don’t define myself by that wish: if I never have the opportunity to look after any kids, ever, then that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world: I’d just spend my years writing code in a house full of cats. I have no doubt that raising children is great (for many people), but just like there are plenty of people for whom it’s not great, there are also plenty of people – like me – who could be happy either way. No biggie!
There are those who have said that this laid-back “take it or leave it” approach, especially when coupled with the more-recent act of rendering myself infertile, will make me less attractive to women. Leaving aside the implicit sexism in that claim, wouldn’t a fair retort be to point out that a woman who is looking for monogamous breeding probably isn’t my “type” to begin with!
But you should be breeding?
This argument’s usually based on the idea that I’m somehow genetically superior and that my children wouldn’t be such a strain on the world as somebody else’s, or that mine would have a significantly better-than-average chance of curing cancer, solving world hunger, or something.
And let’s face it, any child of mine would be just as likely to be the one to build a really big bomb. Or create a super-virus. Or just engineer the collapse the world’s economies into a prehistoric barter economy in a technophobic future anarchy. Attaboy.
In any case, I’m pretty sure that my personal contribution to the betterment of the world ought not to be a genetic one. I’d like to make a difference for the people who are around right now, rather than hypothetical people of the future, and I’d far rather leave ideas in my wake than a handful of genes. I’m sure that’s not the case for everybody, but then – it doesn’t have to be.
Or are there some arguments that I’ve missed? If you’re among the folks who feel really strongly about this, then you’ve got about seven days to make them, and then it’s off to the clinic for me! Just remember: what’s right for me isn’t necessarily what’s right for you, and vice-versa. Just because I use Emacs doesn’t mean that some other, inferior text editor might not be the right choice for you.
I wonder what my surgeon might say to the possibility of me live-tweeting the process? Would anybody be interested? (I promise not to include any photos.)
(with thanks to Nina Paley for permission to use the comics)
First up was Domestic Science, with “real life – for now – partners” Helen Arney and Rob Wells. This pair brought science to life, opening by re-enacting an event from one of their first dates when they discovered that turmeric contains curcumin, a pH indicator, and demonstrating how this can be used (by first dying noodles with turmeric, and then dipping them into acidic and alkaline solutions to observe their colour change). Later, they’d go on to perform audience-participation demonstrations of gravitational wobbles (as a mechanism to detect extrasolar planets), AM radiowave reflection off the ionosphere, and more. They also used us as a live experiment, having us listen to jokes written by comedians of different genders (but recorded in both male and female voices) and rate them, in order to see if the gender can be determined by the listener. All in all, a really enjoyable first show for the day.
Ruth and I took our lunch in David Bann’s vegetarian restaurant, here in Edinburgh, which was delicious, although I probably should have stopped at two courses and not also had desert, as I then spent most of the afternoon waddling around like a fat penguin. I can particularly recommend the aubergine, chick pea and cashew koftas.
Next up, we went to see Yianni‘s new show, Numb and Number. We’d first seen Yianni in 2006 (we had him take a photo of us with Peter Buckley Hill), and he was even more brilliant now than he was back then. In this new show, he talks about autism, numbers, and rainbows, in exactly the right order (any other order would be wrong, right?). Poor JTA was picked on and tricked into coming across as racist, but in the most hilarious possible way.
You might remember that yesterday, Matt was invited on stage to separate currency for magicians Young & Strange? Well: coincidentally, Yianni asked Matt what was significant about the sum £88.88, and quick as a flash Matt responded that it was the sum of all of the denominations of currency (1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, £1, £2, £5, £10, £20, £50). He denies it, but I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have been able to pull off this trick if he hadn’t have been reminded of this just the previous day.
We retreated to the flat for a haggis dinner and a round of whisky before heading out again. My stomach was already bloated from my huge lunch, and I’m not sure that a large dinner really agreed with it: I almost required help to roll me up the street to the next show.
We finished our day with Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians, still probably our go-to Free Fringe show. This evening, his line-up featured Phill Jupitus of Never Mind The Buzzcocks fame, who talked about the week that he met a Beatle and two Rolling Stones, leaving the audience laughing themselves to tears. Also in the line-up was Wil Hodgson, a heavily-tattooed former wrestler with a shaved head, who talked mostly about his hobbies of collecting My Little Pony toys. He won JTA over, I think, when he finished his set shouting “Fuck Laughing Horse!”
I’ve been a vegetarian for a year and a bit, now, and it’s not significantly easier than it was to begin with. There are lots of meats that I miss. And there are some meats that I expected to miss, that I don’t. Here’s my experience:
The things I miss the most:
Fish finger sandwiches. I know they’re not to everybody’s taste, but these things are just delicious.
Chicken in convenient things. What do you mean, I can’t have the dupiaza unless it’s with chicken? You do other dishes with vegetables!
Having a wide variety of choice. If I grab myself a lazy pre-made sandwich from the supermarket, my choices are – at best – limited to cheese-and-tomato or egg mayo. There are plenty of great veggie sandwich fillings: like falafel and hummus, roasted peppers, brie and pickle, curried tofu and lettuce, carrot and rocket, or even QuornTM. But I’ve had to get used to many supermarkets giving me a choice of one or two (and this is also the case in a shocking number of restaurants, too).
And things I don’t miss as much as I expected to:
Bacon. I’ve had the ocassional craving for crispy, well-done bacon. This is odd, because as a meat-eater I generally preferred my bacon barely cooked at all. But I’ve not missed bacon as much as I’d feared, and that’s great, because JTA‘s still liable to cook it, and the smell might otherwise have been intolerable.
Steak. I occasionally feel like I’m missing out, but this is more-often because I’m stuck with a limited choice on a restaurant menu than that the steak in itself looked particularly tasty. I guess I wasn’t as attached to lumps of beef or mutton as I suspected!
Cooking with meat. I expected to have some difficulties here: I cook a variety of different things, some of them well. And of those, the vast majority had a meat component. Meat-substitutes aren’t always suitable (even where they are adequate), so I’ve had to discover a stack of new things that I can put together in the kitchen. But this turned out to be simpler than I thought… perhaps in part thanks to the number of vegetarians I’ve lived with or dated over the years.
So there we go. There are things I miss more than I thought, and there are things I’ve missed less. And there’s not a particularly strong pattern between them.
If you’ve restricted your diet (e.g. by choosing to be vegetarian), what do you miss? Or if you haven’t, what do you think you’d miss the most? I think we all know how Adam feels, at least…
There’s something that I just don’t understand about vegetarians. It’s something that I didn’t understand when I mercilessly teased them, and it’s something that I still don’t understand now that I am one:
You know the stuff I’m talking about: stuff made out of mycoprotein or TVP or soya that’s specifically designed to emulate real meat in flavour (sometimes effectively) and texture (rarely so). Browse the chilled and frozen aisles of your local supermarket for their “vegetarian” section and you’ll find meatfree (although rarely vegan) alternatives to chicken, turkey, beef and pork, presented here in descending order of how convincing they are as a substitute.
Let’s be clear here: it’s not that I don’t see the point in faux meat. It has a few clear benefits: for a start, it makes vegetarianism more-approachable to omnivores who are considering it for the first time. I’ve tried meat substitutes on a number of occasions over the last couple of decades, and they’ve really improved over that time: even a meat-lover like me can be (partially) placated by the selection of substitutes available.
If we’re really trying here to make “fake meats”, then why are we setting our targets in-line with the commonly-eaten “real meats”? Why stop at chicken and turkey when we might as well make dodo-flavoured nut roasts and Quorn slices? Sure, they’re extinct, so we’ll probably never have real dodo meat: but there’s no reason that the manufacturers of artificial meats can’t have a go. There are dozens of accounts of the preparation and consumption of dodos, so we’d surely be able to emulate their flavour at least as well as we do the meats that we already produce substitutes for.
Why stop there? We might as well have tins of unicorn meat, too, a meal already familiar to those of us who’ve played more than our fair share of NetHack. How about dragons, or griffins, or the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary? If we’re going to make it up as we go along when we make artificial bacon, we might as well make it up as we go along when we make basilisk-burgers and salamander-sausages, too.
There’s a reason, of course, that we don’t see these more-imaginative meat substitutes. Many of the most loyal fake-meat customers are the kinds of people who don’t like to think about the connection between, for example, “chicken” (the foodstuff), and “chicken” (the clucking bird). To be fair, a lot of meat-eaters don’t like to think about this either, but I get the impression that it’s more-common among vegetarians.
But seriously, though: I think they’re missing a trick, here. Who wouldn’t love to eat artificial pegasus-pâté?
To those of you that don’t know already, I have a confession to make. After years of picking holes in and finding flaws in their various ethical or other arguments and of mocking their dietary choices, I’ve become… a vegetarian.
For some, however, this change has been a gradual one, beginning with dropping beef from my diet in January, and other red meats in March (making me, technically-speaking, a lacto–ovo–melo–pollo–pescetarian, which is quite a mouthful). Poultry and fish disappeared from my diet in April and May.
For a brief stint, I tried to remove milk, too, aiming for ovo-vegetarianism, but it turns out that – while oatmilk is a perfectly reasonable alternative to the white stuff, and there are some great soya-based dairy-free deserts – there really are no adequate vegan substitutes for cheese… and I’m just not quite capable of coping without it.
Why, Dan? WHY?
My decision to adopt a vegetarian diet is based on a few different influences, but the principal one amongst these is one of environmentalism and sustainability. Over the last few years it’s become increasingly apparent to me that the Western Pattern Diet has a hugely damaging effect in the following areas:
Water usage sustainability – studies consistently show that it takes an order of magnitude more water to produce beef than wheat, rice, or maize, by weight of food produced. Other meats fare somewhat better, being only three or four times less water-efficient per unit of weight of food, but are still unacceptably water-expensive, to me. Milk and eggs are really quite water-efficient, being (respectively) about as efficient as soybeans/rice (depending on the region they’re grown in) and maize (note, of course, that beef and dairy cattle are almost always separate breeds, so the counter-argument that beef is a by-product of milk production or vice-versa is not valid).
Food scarcity – despite worldwide crop yields increasing faster than population growth, year on year, food security is becoming a growing issue owing to desertification of equatorial regions, increased uptake of the wasteful Western Pattern Diet, and an increase in the production of biofuels. A still-growing population, the depletion of fish stocks, and a rapid increase by developed nations in biofuel demands as oil supplies dwindle will only aggravate these issues. While a widely-adopted vegetarian/vegan diet would not in itself alleviate these problems (many of which are caused by political and economic constraints), it would help to ensure that it is possible to feed our booming population in the decades to come.
Overfishing – most of those reasons, of course, are only applicable to the farming of mammals and birds, but it’s hard to deny that there are huge problems with our consumption of fish, too. We’re already reaching the point where the consumption of many species of fish is ethically very dubious, and an increasing number of species are threatened with extinction. To ensure that fish stocks remain available for future generations, we need either extremely restrictive multinational agreements on fishing quotas (unlikely), or dramatic reductions in the demand for fish.
In short, I could probably best be described as an economic environmentalist vegetarian: I’m concerned primarily with making sure that our agricultural practices are sustainable for the benefit of humans, whether currently existing or future. More on that, little doubt, in the Frequently Anticipated Questions, below.
So… how’re you finding it?
Man, I miss bacon.
Giving up beef, it turned out, was reasonably easy. Ditto lamb. But bacon: that’s something I miss. When my co-worker Liz had a bacon, mushroom and cheese jacket potato at an office lunch the other week, I could have almost drowned in my own drool. I find myself envying those vegetarians I know who don’t eat meat because they don’t like it: those guys have it so easy…
Chicken’s been challenging, too, because it’s always been a go-to base ingredient for me, and I’ve had to learn to substitute other sources of protein into my diet. Thankfully, I’ve been in a strong position: many years of cooking for vegetarians, at one point or another, has given me a pretty good understanding of what’s good for what and a decent repertoire of already-vegetarian dishes.
I tried to give up milk and milk products after realising that the ecological impact of milk production – while significantly less than beef, for a variety reasons – is still higher than I’d like. Sadly, it turns out that milk turns up in just about everything, and cheese and cream are remarkably hard to do without. Maybe some day I’ll give that another go.
On the up-side, though, I’ve discovered a reasonable number of things that I didn’t think I liked, that actually I do… or at least, that are perfectly adequate substitutes for meat products.
I also routinely slip up on the likes of isinglass (used in the production of many of my favourite beers), and gelatine (which appears in a surprising number of things), and I try not to kick up a fuss where food is being prepared for several people, of which I’m only one, in a non-compatible way. For example, I tolerate the addition of Worcester sauce (containing anchovies) as an ingredient where a meal is being prepared for several people – it’d be incredibly inconvenient to require a separation of the food at this point during cooking, and I’m happy to compromise a little where the chef’s convenience collides with my ethics.
Frequently Anticipated Questions
In order that I jump the gun and answer you before you ask:
You consume products made using isinglass, gelatine, and occasional small quantities of fish sauce… you’re not a vegetarian at all!
I guess not. But the label’s for my convenience, not yours. I use the word vegetarian because it’s the simplest-common-denominator. If I ask in a restaurant “what have you got that’s vegetarian, or would be but that it contains trace amounts of isinglass, is made using gelatine, has Worcester sauce in, etc.” I’d never get my meal. Plus, the staff would be confused. To take a mathematical model: the set of things that better-vegetarians-than-I eat is completely contained within the set of things that I eat, and the two are very nearly the same, so to call myself a vegetarian is closer to a convenient rounding error than a lie.
Also; that wasn’t a question.
Do you expect to make a significant difference?
No. But, like many moral decisions, this isn’t about making a significant difference but about doing the right thing.
If there’s a riot in your town and an out-of-control crowd begins damaging and looting the shops in the high street, you might be tempted to go out and steal a nice laptop or television yourself, too. Regardless of whether or not you do so, you won’t make a significant difference – Currys will be just as empty in the morning whether you partake of a little ransacking or not. But that doesn’t change the fact that it would be wrong of you to rob them.
On the other hand, over the course of the rest of my life I’m liable, under ideal circumstances, to make a miniscule but measurable net decrease in the demand for meat products, which might, under ideal circumstances, have an impact on meat production, thereby coming some way to achieving my ideals. Moreover, I’d like to think that my dietary choices go some way to making those dietary choices more palatable (hah!) for others, which may influence others to reduce their meat consumption too.
If the aim is to reduce meat consumption, why not simply eat less meat?
Because I can’t trust everybody else to play along.
My gut feeling is that this would work (although I haven’t read any research to either confirm or deny that suspicion): that if we all just cut down our meat consumption so that we were eating meat only once every few weeks, that we’d have a huge impact on sustainability for the future. But I can’t make everybody do this. The best I can do is to do so myself.
However, if I go just a little bit further and stop eating meat altogether, then I also help to “make up” for other people’s meat-heavy diets.
For every animal you don’t eat, I’m going to eat two!
Well, I hope you enjoy it, because you’ll probably not live too long after consuming all the saturated fats of all of the animals I don’t eat.
You mentioned that the economic/ecological reasons were the principal cause for your vegetarianism. Are there other reasons, too, like the health and longevity benefits or the cost saving?
Yes. But they’re not the principal reasons.
Incidentally, removing meat from my diet made it far easier for me to lose the second of my three 10kg weight loss goals (as part of my ongoing effort to get down from 110kg to 80kg; I’m currently at about 89kg), because it’s far easier to avoid fats when you’re already avoiding meat.
How does JTA feel, being the only non-vegetarian in the house?
He’s not… so much. These days, Ruth eats a reasonable amount of a select few different varieties of meat, and Paul… well, I’m not sure I can keep up with our favourite pepperoni-eating vegetarian, but I think that right now he’s abstaining from meat entirely, but I’m not sure.
I have a hypothesis that perhaps the world can only tolerate a certain number of vegetarians at once, so as I became one, Ruth had to stop.
What about sustainably-farmed fish/synthetic meat/a survival situation/some other hypothetical situation?
I’m pragmatic, first and foremost, so if somebody wants to demonstrate that a particular farmed fish is environmentally sound, to my satisfaction, then great: it’s back on the menu! I’m not going out of my way to look for any, though, because I was never a big seafood fan to begin with! It’s not a high priority for me to make my life more complicated by coming up with some kind of complex list of what’s okay and what’s not, when the simple rule “no meat” seems to be perfectly workable.
Survival situation: sure, I’d chow down on whatever was available to stay alive. I’m not stupid!
And synthetic meat? If it was economically-sound, environmentally-friendly, safe, and tasty… sounds like a win to me. Fetch me a plate!
Isn’t this quite a turnaround for somebody who was once quoted on the BBC as describing vegetarianism as an “eating disorder”?
Yes, I suppose it is. I’ve always prided myself, though, on what I call “correctness over consistency”: that is, I’d like to think that I’m able to do the right thing, even where it means contradicting my previous attitudes or behaviour. I believe that we’d all do a lot better if people were less attached than they are, on average, to appearing consistent, especially when they’re faced with new information. There’s no shame in saying “I was wrong then,” so long as you can show that you’re learning.
But yes, I’ve been quite mean to many vegetarians for many years, as if I needed reminding. And so yes, this really is quite a turnaround. And I’m proud to be capable of that.
Last week, I was invited to a barbeque with Oxford’s Young Friends. Despite being neither a Friend (in their “capital-F” meaning of the word: a Quaker) nor young (at least; not so young as I was, whatever that means), I went along and showed off my barbecue skills. It also gave me an excuse to make use of my Firestick – a contemporary tinderbox – to generally feel butch and manly, perhaps in an effort to compensate for the other week.
Anyway: this is how I discovered halloumi and mushroom skewers. Which may now have become my favourite barbeque foodstuff. Wow. Maybe it’s just the lack of mushrooms in my diet (we operate a cooking rota on Earth, but Paul doesn’t like mushrooms so I usually only get them when he or I happen to be eating elsewhere), but these things are just about the most delicious thing that you can pull off hot coals.
Aside from meat, of course.
Update: we just had some at the Three Rings Code Week, and they were almost as delicious once again, despite being hampered by a biting wind, frozen mushrooms, and a dodgy barbeque.