“Nobody listens to vegans,” a good vegan friend warned me. “People think Vegans come from Planet Vega. We are out there with people who are transgender.” Indeed, a couple of years ago, after telling somebody in Garies in the Northern Cape I was vegetarian they smiled and offered me chicken.
Now, I’m quite comfortable with being considered abnormal, unpatriotic, and a danger to animal husbandry. I’m less happy being considered an extremist, a borderline eco-terrorist, and a danger to myself. I’m definitely unhappy to be thought of as militant, wrong and illogical.
Going vegan has been almost like a second coming out. You sit at a typical suburban gathering, ribs and sausages sputtering on the braai nearby. People are offering beer to their badly behaved dogs. Everyone is salivating at the sizzling smells.
Do I tell them now? Start gently, you think. “I forgot to say,” you apologise to your hosts, “I’m vegetarian.”
Cutlery falls into paper plates; you are the party pooper. You get looks that say: you think you’re superior to us, don’t you? How are we supposed to enjoy ourselves, knowing you are looking at our fatty fingers and the grease around our mouths? Why must we feel we have to defend ourselves in our own backyard?
Someone laughs. Somebody always says how much they love their meat and how they could never give it up. One of the men gets up in disgust and goes and pokes the fire. He gives a chop to the dog; something he’d never normally have done.
“Well, there’s salad,” says a maternal person taking pity on you, nudging the mixing bowl filled with iceberg lettuce in your direction.
You thought you’d get away with salad, but absolutely nothing has been left untouched by feta, mayonnaise, shavings of parmesan, and tiny bacon bits. Even the baked potatoes were dolloped with butter the second you turned your back to fetch a drink.
“Actually, I’m vegan,” you reply timidly, “and that has blue cheese and yoghurt dressing.” It takes them a while to clock the problem.
Someone cracks a joke – why does vegan cheese taste bad? Because it hasn’t been tested on mice.
Most vegans sit quietly and don’t evangelise, yet they are thought of as humourless and extremist. In my experience, it is the meat eaters in this situation who usually become aggressive and defensive, who pick your beliefs to pieces and try and persuade you that you’re actually barking mad. Isn’t it enough just to be punished by airlines?
After school, I went vegan for five years and vegetarian for a further nine years. And then, there was a burger in New York. Since that fateful day, I ate meat but was never really at peace with it. For the last 15 years then, I’ve lived in a kind of false consciousness, the not too closely examined life. After all, everyone is advertising and eating meat around you all the time and on a vast scale, so how can there be anything wrong with it? Right?
I compromised. I tried to always eat “ethical meat”, “free range” and whenever given the option, I picked venison. I’d seen first-hand what lions do to buck in the wild and a bullet seemed like a mercy killing.
And mostly I blamed the health risk. True, towards the end of my 14 years of not eating any meat or fish, I seemed to get every bug, cold and flu that came along. But instead of interrogating my diet, I jumped to conclusions. I thought of myself, perhaps disingenuously, as a vegetarian trapped in a meat-eating body. Only recently, I realised why my health became an excuse for eating meat.
It goes back to when I was six years old and living in Belgium in the 1970s, a country that back then had never heard of an avocado pear never mind a vegetarian. Our family had just moved back to Antwerp and we were vegetarians. After two years, my mother, who had a long history of schizophrenia, lapsed back into psychosis. It was a terrifying experience as a child in an alien country. We had to fly back to South Africa for her to be hospitalised. We kids were told it was her diet. She was anaemic. The connection must have stuck.
Eating eventually became a profession. Writing, researching and thinking about food forced me to re-examine the issues. I could no longer live in denial.
“How are you going to review restaurants?” asked a friend when I finally came out to him as vegan.
I explained that in the last couple of years I had steadily progressed to pescaterian (I’m still not convinced of the sentience of oysters) to vegetarian to vegan. Readers hadn’t it seemed noticed that meat was hardly ever mentioned in my reviews – from the 5-course vegetarian tasting menus at Azure, Mount Nelson Hotel, and Makaron, to places such as Hemelhuijs and the obliging chef at Haute Cabrière. It was easy to get away with dim sum. Then there were columns on raw food, Krishna temple food, veganism, foraging, eating seaweed, mushroom hunting, health food cafés, sprouting and so forth.
At promotional events, I’d have to notify the PR people. Other food writers started to give me suspicious glances at table. One astute blogger, eyeing my plate, asked what was going on. I said all would be revealed in time, and here it is – my swan song.
I haven’t nearly run out of things to write about for Once Bitten – there is still a cornucopia of worthy subjects – the many vegan options presented by the cuisines of India, South East Asia, Mexico and the Levant; the meaning of the vegan revolution in Israel; the new, intriguing vegan artisanal food movement, including fermented and age-matured vegan cheeses.
But readers expect reviews of the latest places, chefs and trending foods, and I’ve largely exiled myself from that world. My inbox is full of invitations for steak, but I’d rather tell you about seitan. I wonder if you’re interested.
This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian on 15 May 2016