I was vegan for five years and vegetarian for nine years. When combined with a stint of teetotalism, it turned me into a loathsomely supercilious, aloof and holier-than-thou twit.
But perhaps it’s time to rethink the diet and work on the personality. As the environmental problems facing an inexorably burgeoning human population become not only undeniable but unavoidable; as we start to interrogate our food production and consumption and the slow food movement gains traction; veganism is growing in popularity in the West, most notably in America. Gone are the days when it was seen as a British eccentricity.
Mike Tyson (ears excepted) is a vegan. Bill Clinton has recently publically embraced a non-meat diet. Olympic athlete Carl Lewis has attributed his best performances to his veganism. There are meat-free Mondays and, as popularised by the New York Times, vegan till 6pm campaigns. Is human conscience fundamentally shifting?
Most of us are speciesists. People intuitively believe that a single human life (often merely its physical comfort) is more valuable than the lives of other creatures. When it comes to the rest of the animal kingdom, we often make finer distinctions, the ethical arguments for which on closer examination seem pretty flimsy. You have probably heard claims that whales and dolphins are sentient beings with well-developed emotional and nervous systems. Few people relish the idea of a harpoon being stuck into a creature with the intelligence of a human child. But many save-the-whale campaigners will happily have bacon for breakfast. Yet the pig we are learning is most probably no less sentient than the whale.
Much of this is simply cultural. In the West, people who adore steaks cut from beautiful doe-eyed cows, will recoil in horror when offered a piece of cuddly bunny, a dim-witted little rodent that doesn’t experience nearly as much stress as a cow going into the abattoir.
Some Asian cultures are more consistent philosophically; they eat most critters – cat, dog and creepy-crawly.
Of course most of us also value certain humans, such as our own children, well above the lives of other humans. Yet, humans are attributed innate rights, most sacredly the right to life (with exceptions like abortion and warfare). The end result in the West is the rather odd situation, from a philosophical point of view, that you can kill animals with impunity, but you should not hurt them.
Most of us would agree that you shouldn’t eat people. Vegetarians of principle, as opposed to those who are in the camp for health reasons, simply draw the line further down: nothing with a face or a nervous system should be eaten.
Vegans go even further; they oppose any oppression or exploitation of non-human animals, not only their killing, but the “theft” of their eggs and lactic reserves (milk). My vegan friends in London won’t even touch honey. Vegans who eat honey are rather sweetly called “beegans”.
Micro-organisms are animals too, and they are present in everything we eat. But in this instance we have no choice. Their consumption is unavoidable if we intend to live. The Jains in India take vegan philosophy to its limits. You may have thought the story about the monk who walks with a broom to prevent him accidentally stepping on the smallest ant is apocryphal. It’s not. At the temples of Ranakpur, the monks also pray with cloths over their mouths so as not to inhale any living thing. The lights are covered with gossamer cloth to prevent moths from killing themselves. Root vegetables are not eaten because creatures may be killed when digging them up. Despite these restrictions, the canteen at Ranakpur offers a very tasty four course vegan meal for 17 rupees (about R2.60).
It takes some imagination and skill, but veganism can be perfectly satisfying.
Since I subscribe to the view that those of us who do eat meat are living in false consciousness, I was looking forward to sitting down to some non-violent food in the form of the only five-star, six-course vegan chef’s menu I know of in the Cape at the newly renovated (and in this context aptly named) Planet Restaurant (formerly the Cape Colony).
Chef Rudi Liebenberg was not in the kitchen that night, but wine steward Carl Habel was in charge. He started us off with a complimentary glass of cap classique Genevieve 2008 (a maiden vintage), which is vegan friendly. Habel explains that often in winemaking egg white, isinglass (fish collagen) or gelatine may be added, leaving “trace amounts of these organic compounds”.
Although both Munchkin and I ordered the Vegan Journey menu (R380 per person; R630 with matching wines), we were brought as an amuse-bouche canapés with lamb. The butter was left on the table throughout the meal. The waiter should check if patrons are vegan or only experimenting.
To start: a tomato variation – slices of yellow, red and kumato tomatoes with a shot glass of gazpacho. Constantia Uitsig Chardonnay 2009 has just the right acidity and that earthiness associated with beetroot to make it the right partner for the alternative starter: paper-thin slices of delicately pickled beetroot, slightly sweet and sour, served with rocket.
Next, a spiced chickpea toasted fritter and a warm bean salad with spring onion and corn, a baby marrow stuffed with olives, and – having an almost bacon-like flavour – nut and seed quinoa with dried fruits in a skinned, red bellpepper. The other option: watercress and potato tortellini, thyme and pumpkin seeds, and a strip of butternut purée across the plate.
The third course was a light and fluffy pea risotto with green beans, topped with shredded, cooked celery, partnered with vegan friendly Waterkloof Circle of Life 2009.
Habel certainly likes his earthy wines with this particular menu, and the Strandveld First Sighting Pinot Noir 2008, also vegan friendly, was well suited to the fourth course – mushroom terrine and mushroom samoosas with salad, brinjal and polenta roulade.
Penultimately, Cashew “cheese” with a pepper crust and slices of wafer thin pineapple.
Dessert consisted of chocolate and banana in pastry parcels; chocolate mousse (made with oily whip), dark chocolate and soy milk vegan cake. A vegan Waterford Heatherleigh Non Vintage, with its slightly candied aromas, brought the evening to a rousing close.
Overall, this considerable meal is gentle on the digestion, full of surprise and innovation, and certainly not just for vegans.
Planet Restaurant, Mount Nelson Hotel, 76 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Open for dinner: 6.30pm – 10.30pm, Monday to Sunday. Tel: 021 483 1000.