Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Man's Best Friend.

Growing up I had one very loyal companion. With me from the moment of my birth, I considered him to be both a play-mate and an important member of the family. His name was Badger and he was a Staffordshire bull terrier. Gentle, lovable and fun, he was the best “older sibling” an only child could ever have. In fact, “Bah” was my first word! Our relationship was cemented from the beginning – I would hang on his neck, play nurse and wrap him in bandages, sit in his bed and read Beatrix Potter to him, and share his dog chocolates (so much better than chocolate buttons!) He was part and parcel of the family unit. Going anywhere without him was unthinkable. Many well-loved tales relate similar pairings – Lassie, My Dog Skip, Dorothy and Toto, Tin-Tin and Snowy, Wallace and Gromit, and not forgetting the adventures of the Famous Five. Where would man be without this best friend by his side? It would be a lonely existence I imagine...

The bond we share with dogs is unique. They are our protectors providing unconditional love and companionship, whom we confide in and share in our everyday triumphs and misfortunes, including presents and the Christmas Turkey! My grandparents' golden Labrador's favourite treat was a large milky bowl of tea with sugar at the end of a long day. No, it probably wasn't very healthy for his heart or his waistline, but it demonstrates how far we consider dogs for the most part as human, each with their own individual character and preferences. Yet it still saddens me that today we do not always offer the same unconditional affections in return. In some cases, even those living on the streets could be said to care for their faithful hounds better than other people who are undeniably better off. Dogs are known for their steadfastness to their Master's side, an attribute which at present is tested to the nth degree. Certain breeds are now purchased not only for their faithfulness, but also for the image of danger they portray. It has become less about the dog and more about promoting fear in others. Unfortunately the dogs chosen to represent this are the very ones who wouldn't ordinarily hurt a fly, let alone a human. Tarnished by the media and street gangs, these family friendly dogs have been ruined. The resolution lies not in a classified dangerous dogs list, but in an act calling for the abolition of dangerous owners.

As an owner of any pet, you have a responsibility to that animal in caring for and providing for its needs. It's not indebted to you for that provision and treated as you see fit. For a dog's nature to unexpectedly change something has to be amiss in its environment. I'm told by my parents that even before I was born, our pooch was being prepared for my arrival. They would carry and fuss over toy dolls at home and involve Bah as much as possible – like siblings dogs get jealous too! Extreme maybe, or perhaps my Mum's sly attempt to train my Dad. The shocked expression hasn't quite left his face since the wailing began! It may not be an advocate for fatherhood, but dog and baby became inseparable. Like a new baby, you sign up to the challenge, so lead by example and be a responsible dog owner. Don't abandon the best friend at your side when the novelty of a new “plaything” wears off, or abuse them as a honoured badge of coolness.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Argument For Animal Welfare

Animal welfare is assumed to be the pinnacle of vegetarianism or veganism, but is it? Choosing to abstain from meat wasn't always associated with this presumed compassion for animals, and I question this belief today too. In years gone by, vegetarianism had religious connotations – abstinence from meat implied staying pure in your connection to God or spirit. With vegetarianism increasing, there are many reasons for choosing this lifestyle and animal welfare may not be one of them. For some it may be due to their religious beliefs, cultural influences, upbringing, or health and environmental concerns. It is naive of us to think that all veggies have animal welfare in mind. I'm sure for many this was the deciding factor, but us veggies shouldn't consider it to be only our domain. We may like to think that others remain ignorant to the plight of animals, whereas they may just perceive welfare differently. There are many people in this world who demonstrate compassion for animals, but yet choose to eat meat or use items containing animal by-products. To veggies this stance appears hypocritical, but we are in no position to claim immunity from this either! There are limits to the moral codes we inflict upon ourselves.

My vegetarianism was initially rooted in animal welfare, most notably the BSE Crisis and the inadequate transportation of cattle. I remember being quite overwhelmed at the images at the time of cattle burning or sheep crammed into trucks with no space to move or breathe. Animal testing, blood sports, and culling are unspeakably appalling too – I don't care what any scientist or “pro” country citizen says. Man has to shout, stamp his feet, and force his superiority on those seemingly beneath him and by default that falls to the natural world. It hasn't always been this way though - many cultures, including our own, care for and respect the animals they raise and slaughter. This is my point – animal welfare has to be equated with respect. Growing up we are taught to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Why shouldn't this principle apply to those belonging to the animal kingdom too? Don't we all share the same basic anatomy? My ultimate conversion to vegetarianism came about due to the latter, rather than as a staunch supporter of improving animal welfare conditions. Animal welfare wasn't a lesser concern, but equal to my sudden realization that I was chewing on a living, breathing form of life. A fellow being composed of the same organs, muscles, tissues and blood vessels I was. Consuming meat or fish after that almost felt like cannibalism. Tucking into chicken legs, roast beef, lamb chops, and gnawing on bones made me feel like Judas. I couldn't justify my need for flesh and my indirect role in their “meat-fattening" fate to my dinner plate.

In Western societies, our relationship to animals has somehow gone awry. The basic assumption being that since animals cannot communicate with words they will feel less pain and suffering. Why should this be true? Or is it because they have no voice that we feel we can be ignorant to the facts? Any pet owner or animal lover will tell you that the expression in man and animals is the same. Even animal experiments have proven that. Our inhumane treatment of animals is no different (I believe) to mistreating and abusing our fellow human beings. Placed in similar circumstances, would we not display the same emotions and behavioural traits? You only have to look at jails and other institutions to get your answer. Animals are not lesser forms of life. Eaten or not, it is because they are so prized that they should be allowed to roam free and be treated with love and respect.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Can Veggies Have Non-Veggie Heroes?

The Vegetarian Society has launched an initiative to celebrate those who actively promote vegetarianism, inspiring others to follow suit. Called “Veggie Achievers”, nominations can be for prominent figures in the media or for unsung heroes closer to home. Celebs such as Joanna Lumley, or the McCartney clan immediately spring to mind. I commend the society for choosing to recognize those who lead by example, but what about rewarding role models not of the veggie persuasion? I can think of plenty of non-veggies who are just as instrumental for their animal and environmentally friendly convictions. Don't they too deserve recognition of their achievements? As a committed veggie, is it hypocritical of me to also want to celebrate those who don't aspire to a vegetarian path? Does it make me less of a veggie in the eyes of others?

If this category were allowed, who then would I choose to nominate? My first choice would have to be marine biologist, Monty Halls, and his faithful companion Reuben. Who could fail to be won over by this lovable duo? The honour and respect Monty demonstrates to the natural world – its resources and many forms of life, is commendable. I am inspired by his efforts to learn, to educate others, and to nurture and live sustainably off the land. This, the breathtaking scenery, and Reuben and his love of pebbles, has made these documentaries a joy to watch. Reuben deserves an award all of his own! I gather this choice may be controversial to many veggies due to the rearing and slaughtering of animals, but I find Monty's attitude to this refreshing. He develops close-knit and endearing relationships with them, (particularly the pigs – Gemma from the first series, Smoky and Streaky in the latest), which shows an appreciation of their being. If people can raise animals humanely and still be comfortable with their decision to kill and eat meat, then who am I to judge? I couldn't do it, which is precisely why I'm a vegetarian. Does that make me weaker than those that can or does it imply I hold a deeper reverence for life?

As runner- up, Anglican Vicar Peter Owen Jones gets my vote. I value his attempts to live a simple life and the way in which he communicates this to others. It reaffirms my belief that compassion and generosity are still prevalent in the world. Perhaps marginally so, but it's inspirational to know that should you choose, you too can lead a simpler existence free of any unnecessary consumerism. Neither would I wish to dismiss the influence of those who have a more intimate connection to my life. People who have supported my vegetarianism and personal development. We all have “teachers” in this world who contribute to our path, be they vegetarian or not. They might be family members, friends, work colleagues, school teachers etc, who shape our lives and encourage us to take great strides that we would otherwise not have thought possible.

My point is this – as veggies we do need fellow role models, but we can also take inspiration from others whose beliefs differ to our own. Vegetarianism is not meant to be divisive. It is not a platform to preach to the dissenters below, nor should it be asserted as the right and only way. Veggies should be the pioneers of tolerance – to promote vegetarianism as an alternative lifestyle whilst still respecting the choices of others.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Dining In - The New Restaurant Experience...

Attending or hosting a dinner party quite literally fills me with dread. A bizarre and irrational fear, considering my background in hospitality and catering, but nonetheless it continues to plague me. Both roles have their drawbacks – being the only veggie guest at the table singles you out for special attention, while as the host you're confronted with a list of your guests' likes and dislikes. My past attempts at the latter have been unsuccessful for the simple reason that my meat-eating companions have been surprisingly fussy about their fruit and veg. Frankly for them, the thought of coming to a veggie residence for tea is both exotic and alarming! What if I try to feed them tofu? Or a vegetable, bean and lentil concoction without prior warning? Some people have even prepared a contingency plan in case they go hungry, such as stopping for a pizza or a kebab on the way home. Apparently, it's not a meal without the meat, just an ample snack. There's also the clash of different tastes to consider. I like my food bursting with flavour – spicy, sweet, tangy etc., colour and different textures. My cupboards overflow with all sorts of spices, herbs and condiments. The mere hint of chilli and for some reason olives, however, has sent a few of my invited guests into a full-on anxiety attack and that's just over the phone or via email.

Acting as a veggie host is a risky business. How far do you go to please your carnivorous diners? I know some fellow vegetarians who will cook meat when catering for others not of the veggie persuasion. In my earlier years this would not have been an issue. As a student, I worked at a local B&B preparing the cooked breakfasts, while at catering college I remember one occasion having to gut and descale salmon. I reeked of fish for days! Back then I didn't have a problem cooking or handling meat and fish, as long as I didn't have to partake in the actual eating. Now this seems almost inconceivable, particularly in my own kitchen. Yes, I still take perverse pleasure sometimes in the smell of a roast or joint cooking, but it's of memories gone by and not one of denial. I don't believe veggies should be expected to cater for meat-eaters in their own home. Controversial you might say when it's assumed others will cater for us. Dining in may be the new restaurant experience, but it puts vegetarian hosts in a bit of a pickle. Scoring points is the name of the game, so patrons feel it's within their rights to be vocally critical and unappreciative of veggie cuisine – an unsatisfactory entrĂ©e to the evening ahead. I would never dream of being picky and openly judging someone's attempts to cater for me, but perhaps naively so. Maybe subconsciously I form lower expectations or overly acknowledge others efforts. Perhaps in the company of others I make discretionary compensations for my veggie needs...

Failed attempts to get others to embrace a meat-free experience has led me to abandon the invitation altogether. It saps my enjoyment and creative skills. I'd rather eat out and deal with the veggie assault course in a restaurant than in the confines of my own home. Dining in is now selfishly reserved for one. I don't profess to create masterpieces, but I'm a competent cook and I savour my own tasty creations. There are no rules. I'm free to experiment as I please and there's nobody, apart from myself, to judge the outcome. I scoff my own modest endeavours whilst “Come Dine With Me” provides the necessary background entertainment. Pure selfish indulgence without constraints and real-live guests to contend with. Even as veggie, I refer to this as my “Aaahh, Bistro...” moment – it puts a smile on my face and stomach!