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.