I'm a vegetarian. I don't eat lots of things that other people eat. I don't eat bits of dead animals. However, I am not a church and I'm not here to preach or persuade. I won't tell anyone that my way is the shining path to righteousness and theirs is the road to ruin. I won't say that the way I think is right, that the things I do and the way I do them is right. I don't know what's right so I can't possibly suggest that I am to anyone else, it wouldn't be, um, right.
I'm not writing this to proclaim virtue over others or to convert and gather souls (so many people assume that vegetarians are evangelicals, determined to point out the failings of others and change their cruel ways); I just want to point out that 'The Way of the Veggie – Glorious Enlightenment Through Cruelty-Free Food' has changed. Perhaps that isn't so surprising in a world that refuses to stay still and which won't let those of us older than seven draw breath and catch up; a world that expects instant delivery, instant results and instant gratification. Perhaps I buck the trend by not expecting instant anything, believing that anticipation is often better and more fulfilling than the thing itself. In a world that is a glossy veneer away from having absolutely no substance whatsoever, why would 'The Way of the Veggie' be any different?
I am vegetarian. If I were Vegetarian, as some people would have it, I would be able to tell you what the weather was like in Vegetaria at this time of year, what the gross domestic product was and how life has changed in the provinces of this little central European country whose biggest export seems to be people who don't eat meat. But I don't consider it important to have a capital 'v', so I'm just vegetarian. I share that distinction with between seven and eleven percent of my fellow country people (Brits, that is, not the population of the People's Democratic Republic of Vegetaria). That equates to between just below five to just over six million people.
It seems to me that only a few short years ago the food industry in the United Kingdom had embraced us and was catering for us in an exciting and wholehearted way. Choice was the watchword and we were being given more and more of it at every turn. Restaurants, pubs, supermarkets were falling over themselves, and each other, in an effort to satisfy the growing needs of these really nice people who had chosen 'The Way of the Veggie' over carnivorousness. Even those hateful, ubiquitous globalised chains of purveyors of filth and fat, let's call them (for they are litigious) MacBurger and Donald King and their ilk, got in on the veggie act. We mattered; we were seen as an untapped market, and probably untrapped as well, a whole slab of the population that had been overlooked. Within reason you could think of a dish and you would be able to find a vegetarian equivalent or variant. Chefs saw us as a challenge to their creativity, in a good way, and they were coming up with all kinds of twists and treatments to present time-honoured standards in a new and exciting way. Veggies had arrived, wrapped loving arms around the world’s ankles and were cuddling it to within an inch of its bloodlust.
But what happened? What has gone awry? Well, I spent a long week-end staying in a small town on the Welsh-English border with my mother and my aunt. On Friday evening we went out for a meal. We went somewhere that my aunt had been many times before, a bistro-style (whatever that means) restaurant in town. When she made the booking I asked my aunt the usual question about whether veggies were catered for. She told me that the last time she had eaten there, only a few weeks before, there had been lots of vegetarian dishes on the very extensive menu. I clapped my hands with exaggerated glee. This was going to be a treat.
When we arrived at the appointed time on Friday evening, as we were being shown to our table, we were regaled with the 'Have you eaten here before?' question. My aunt said she had. 'Well', said the waitress, 'You will notice that we have chopped the menu down a bit, we found that we were giving people too much choice.' Ever so slightly alarmed at the comment and its potential knock-on effects, I looked at the menu very carefully and eventually found, at the bottom of a short, unimaginative list, vegetable lasagne.
Now, I have no problem with lasagne, vegetable or otherwise, but it can't in any way be considered interesting. It seems to have become the staple concession to those of us who have chosen 'The Way of the Veggie' - the thinking being, I'm sure, 'Well, it's got the word vegetable in it, how can they refuse?' Every pub these days, if it caters for veggies at all, will have some gloopy, slimy variation on the vegetable lasagne theme.
It has to be said, my lack of choice didn't turn into an overarching lack of meal, and the veggie lasagne in this particular 'bistro-style restaurant' was really good, very little of the cheesy gloop, not much slimy sheety pasta stuff and lots of well-chosen, well-prepared, well-cooked Mediterranean vegetables in a wonderful tomato and basilly sauce. Nothing to complain about except the choicelessness.
For some reason the choice has gone from our Central European Republican lives, we vegetarians and Vegetarians are no longer the flavour of the month. We've been done and someone else has slipped in to take our place. We must now bumble along fending for ourselves in a shallow world as best we can, waiting it out until we become the bandwaggon once again. With his comment that all vegetarians should be shot on sight, I blame Gordon fffffff Ramsey.