Wednesday, 26 May 2010

When Is A Veggie Not A Veggie?

This is a question I've found myself contemplating lately. The answer may seem fairly obvious – someone who eats fish, poultry and meat is not vegetarian. Why then whenever I mention vegetarianism, do I frequently get people telling me that their friend, sister, brother, cousin etc is veggie, but eats fish, chicken or parma ham! Unfortunately, this has become a regular occurrence and one where I literally bite my tongue. Even the leading authority on vegetarianism, the Vegetarian Society, battles to dispel these popular misconceptions, but much to our and their annoyance, these still prevail. For 'true' veggies, it's a bone of contention, but one we have learnt to get used to. Those who loosely define themselves as such may wonder what all the fuss is about, but for veggies this conflict is no mere trifle. The term 'vegetarian' is the platform to ensuring our needs are met by society at large. Abusing this causes upset in the veggie community bringing out our holier-than-thou united front. Despite what you may have been told by those who love to oppose us, (celebrity chefs and public media figures shall remain nameless!), our objective in choosing this path is not to feel superior to others or to portray a right versus wrong mentality, it's often due to deeper issues concerning the environment, animal welfare, religion or health etc. How can we promote understanding of our needs, if these are continually undermined and misinterpreted?

To set the record straight, a vegetarian, as defined by the Vegetarian Society, is somebody who does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacean, or slaughter-by-products. It's a definition I adhere to and I expect others who call themselves veggie to do the same. I'm not one to believe in pigeon holing sections of society, but on this I stand firm. It's not that much to ask. The journey to vegetarianism for some can be a rite of passage, so any confusion over its meaning is frustrating. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rituals of eating out. It should be an enjoyable, relaxed affair and not the battleground that can so often result. Either the labelled veggie options are sparse, contain fish or slaughter-by-products, or are just plain insubstantial – being a veggie does not mean I eat less! Worse is yet to come when you're forced to drag your unwilling dinner companions on a trek across town on a restaurant mission of “Challenge Anneka” proportions. Yes, it may build up an appetite, but tempers frayed, more often than not it's us veggies that eventually admit defeat, either to return home hungry or accept whatever is offered. Eating out with non-veggie friends and family takes military precision - meals have to be planned and menus vetted. How many bona fide meat eaters do you know who are willing to dine vegetarian-style? What, no meat I hear them cry? I can count mine on one hand – they're an extremely rare breed! We're left then to compromise, negotiate with the chef or unwittingly eat meals which may not be strictly suitable, even though they might be described as such. The question is, why should I have to negate my beliefs to enjoy a meal in the company of others? Don't I, as a veggie, have the right to trust the food served before me?

My plea to all those wishing to support a more sustainable lifestyle is this – by all means try veggie foods and have meat-free Mondays, but I'm begging you if you're not veggie, lose the label. I understand that saying “I'm a vegetarian” makes you feel good and perhaps fills you with smug pride, but it's perpetuating the myth that veggies still eat food with a face or ingredients derived from them. We don't, so please promote awareness, but behave compassionately.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Delights Of Food

Growing up, baking cakes with mum or nan was quality time. I have the photos as proof – aged 4, hair in bunches, pinny on and taking childish delight in thoroughly cleaning out the mixing bowl with a wooden spoon. Often the cake mixture would get half eaten before it was even in the oven! The enjoyment was in the preparation with the obligatory messiness. If I wasn't in the kitchen “helping”, I'd be making mud pies in the back garden forcing them on anyone that dared approach. I had a love of anything domestic – an imitation cooker unit and a tiny toy hoover, which I loved to whiz around the house with. Food however has long been my passion and is associated with my fondest moments – nanny Miriam's famous macaroni cheese and salmon fish cakes, pop's homemade bread and curries, nanny Helen's rich fruit cake made every week without fail, and mum's corn beef hash. Even my dad's attempt at baked beans on toast (burnt, but edible) is not yet forgiven. I'm sure we all have childhood memories bearing a close resemblance to these. Where does such a strong association come from? Do our emotions have a sensory connection? Even now I can conjure up the smell and taste of foods I haven't touched in years just by thinking about them.

Food is my downfall, although you wouldn't think it to look at me. It borders on the obsessional, but at least I know I'm not the only one. Many others are in the same boat. As a result, I struggle to understand the joys of online shopping – I like to examine the produce I'm buying firsthand and its ingredients where applicable. Food is for me the ultimate shopping experience much to my girlfriends' disgust. Fashion is my nemesis. Trying on clothes and finding matching accessories is my idea of hell, but take me to a health food store and I'll browse happily for hours. It's just unfortunate for those who happen to be with me on these little expeditions. Attempts to get me to leave, even by the management, are fruitless once I've set foot through the door. Of course, not everyone sees the joy, as I do, in discovering new products, checking out nutritional information and packaging, and exploring aisle changes, but there are weirder pastimes, so this passes as pretty normal if you ask me.

Turning to vegetarianism hasn't dulled my appreciation of food, if anything it's been greatly enhanced. I love planning my menu for the week, shopping for it, preparing and cooking the ingredients on a budget. Yes, I live a frugal existence, but I'm not a culinary food snob or a vegetarian with bland taste - a common assumption made by celebrity chefs. Being a successful vegetarian requires experimentation, which some celeb chefs fail to fully comprehend. We don't constantly munch lettuce leaves or chow down on lentils, nor do we necessarily crave exquisitely prepared gourmet meals or the fine dining experience. A tiny creation on the middle of an over sized plate would elicit a gasp of horror from some of us. My immediate reaction is where's the rest of it and how do I get more? A spoon sized portion is far from adequate, even if it is expertly presented. Most veggies I know enjoy their food, are creative in the kitchen, and like to see a hearty plate of nosh. Old fashioned comfort foods are also high on the wish list. Sometimes nothing more than a simple jacket potato stuffed with baked beans, coleslaw or sweetcorn will suffice. Once standard pub grub, the humble spud is now virtually extinct on the menus of newer gastro-style establishments. My message to such enterprises is this – veggies are not dull, fussy, or devoid of taste buds. Provide us with simple nutritious fare and we'll thank you with repeat custom and spread the word. Don't cater for us and you'll be the ones missing out.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A Tax On Fat?

Since the Second World War, our love of food has escalated to high proportions. Supermarket shelves are heaving with produce from all over the world, high streets are overcrowded with restaurants, bars, cafes and fast food outlets, and cookery programmes fill our TV screens nightly. Everywhere you go, cities and towns basically look identical. You could be anywhere in the world and still mistake it for the UK! Do we really want the developing world to fall under these same influences? It's fast becoming a reality... The popularity of the 99p meal deal says it all. Our senses are indulged beyond our level of comprehension and control. With this unfortunately comes choice, and for some of us it's proving to be too big a responsibility.

Why have we become a nation so obsessed with food and convenience? Has food become entertainment rather than an essential requirement for life? We bow down to the powers that be – supermarkets chains and celebrity chefs, but fail to want to cook ourselves. Glossy recipe books piled high on the coffee table to show that we are indeed connoisseurs of food and know our Gordon Ramsey from our Delia Smith, but actual cooking commands far too much precious time and effort. Why bother when you can order a takeaway or pop a ready meal in the microwave for 2 minutes? The satisfactory knock at the door or ping from the oven providing that all important full-up-feeling. I admire Jamie Oliver's ministerial efforts, but the nation's willpower to follow through is wavering. Vegetarians are not exempt either. We too fall into the same trap, especially when convenience foods and restaurant meals are smothered in cheese. It's seems most aspiring chefs are informed at cookery school that you can never offer veggies too much pasta or cheese with everything – enough already! I'm all for making vegetarian products and meat alternatives more accessible, but some of these come at a price. They're not much healthier than their meatier counterparts. Being a veggie should be an effort and an education, not a slippery slope to fat filled pasties, pizzas, meat free burgers and chips.

In our culture of succumbing easily to 2 for 1 deals and eat more for less, who do we blame for our lax discipline and judgement? Ourselves? No, why should we take responsibility? It's not our fault the government, schools, hospitals, food manufacturers etc don't provide compulsory food education, healthier options and more nutritious food at affordable prices. After all, even some hospitals have on-site fast food facilities endorsed by Micky D, so if it's okay for patients to scoff then it must be okay for the rest of us too. What are our options then? For the next generation, education is essential, but for the majority of the population more drastic measures are required. It's tempting to advocate a tax on fat and unhealthy choices, but would this be enough and would it make a difference? It hasn't curtailed smoking. How about actually taxing the fat? I don't wish to promote discrimination, but it could be interesting from an incentive point of view. In all seriousness though, I think we should bring back rationing. During the war years, enforced food rationing was the only means of survival. People may not have enjoyed it, but combined with their war efforts they were all the more healthier for it. Nobody wants to return to a country under siege, but rationing may be the only viable solution to winning the war on overabundant choice and supersize portions.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Our Hidden Conflicts With Food...

“Please Sir, may I have some more?” These famous words from Oliver Twist have been echoed the world over. A sentence which the developing world could be accused of taking to the extreme with its permanent feast of overindulgence. For those in famine, food is the basis of survival, often linked to the provision of others in more affluent nations. There's no getting away from it, food is big business. Feast or famine, all of us are driven by our need for it. Why then do our attitudes towards food differ so greatly? Are these governed by nature or nurture?

I have always been fascinated by food and people's relationship to it. I don't think I know anybody who doesn't have a dysfunctional relationship with food – men , women and children. It's a phenomenon seeming to affect us all. The Channel 4 series, Supersize vs. Superskinny serves to confirm this affliction further. I however have a problem with this lightweight programme and their feeding clinic. For those who haven't seen it, two individuals from either end of the weight scale – over and under, swap diets for a week supposedly to learn from each other. One gets to eat like a bird, while the other is usually forced to gorge themselves silly on all the wrong foods. After a week, they are supplied with a healthful food plan and sent away for 3 months before returning to report their weight loss or gain. I understand the objective, but can anyone tell me what stands to be gained from swapping extreme diets? Is it really necessary? Yes, it highlights unhealthy attitudes and disordered eating patterns, but surely other tactics could be employed. The programme content doesn't attempt to inform you what a healthy moderate diet actually consists of or show the contestants, sorry participants, following their new diet plans. The recent series also reports on a group of recovering anorexics alongside methods of achieving the impossible - the perfect body. A notion which is further compounded during the ad break. I'm left confused as to what the programme's trying to be. Am I missing the point here? On the one hand Supersize vs. Superskinny emphasises our most extreme eating habits and the physical impact of these, and on the other it promotes the body beautiful. Where's the balance? As a viewer and an aspiring holistic nutritionist, I find this practice dangerous and greatly lacking in educational value. Yet for some reason, like so many of us, I'm still compelled to watch.

Our relationship with food is like the chicken and egg debate – what came first? Are our habits formed by our upbringing and genetic influences? Or do we get corrupted by societal influences, such as mass marketing, convenience foods and the must-have, must-be lifestyle? The answer has to be both. At its core lies perfection and self-worth – those under eating striving for flawlessness and those battling the bulge using food as compensation for their perceived inadequacies. Despite these hidden conflicts and guilty pleasures, we have to realise that food doesn't have to be our nemesis. Where we choose to draw the line is a matter of personal responsibility, although often it's our state of health that is the wake up call. Drastic measures, such as fad diets, or surgery are not the answer to making ourselves feel better, nor should it fall to healthcare to correct the error of our ways. The buck stops with us. Understanding our shared intimacy to food is an education benefiting us all. The question I ask of you is, why wait to reap the rewards tomorrow when you can start today?