Meat is the Main Event

World Vegetarian Day and World Vegetarian Month* (that's 1 October and October for you oblivious dietary heathens) are meant, says the International Vegetarian Union, "to promote the joy, compassion and life-enhancing possibilities of vegetarianism.” 

Hmm. In this corner of cyberspace the event invariably ends up in a virtual bloody brawl. 

Every year I set out the benefits of a meat-free (or at least meat-light) diet, and every year the red-fanged carnivores descend on me and the few tender sprouts of readers who spring up in my defence.

It’s getting tiresome. So for a change I’m not going to punt the well-worn pro-veg arguments (health-environment-economy-ethics), but rather focus our energies – everybody, omnivores and herbivores all together please – on resolving the following issue: if vegetarianism is so great (you know it is), why are there still so few of us?

The stats aren’t too crisp on this, but estimates put the percentage of true vegetarians in the single digits. As for semi-vegetarians*, in the Western world they make up only around 10% . (Vegetarian figures in India, China and the East generally are a little healthier.)

The point being: even when we include people who make any sort of effort to avoid ingesting animals, the global numbers are pretty pathetic. (Particularly male numbers, I might add: there are more female vegetarians. One reason for this being no doubt that many men, and others, entertain the fanciful notion that meat is specially potent, and that eating other animals’ muscles -- especially other mammals’ muscles -- is necessary to make you big and strong.)

Clearly, the Word is not being heard by the billions of unconverted. And one important aspect of the Word is that choosing to avoid meat is not only worthy, it also has the potential to make you, and life, more interesting.

Let me explain what I mean by “more interesting”: when you make a conscious effort to step outside the conventional majority and make a fundamental change in how you live – whether it's about what you eat, how you commute, or which products you spend your mighty consumer buck on – you challenge yourself, you challenge the status quo, and your life inevitably becomes more textured and intrigueing.

Such a change often happens because something about the world suddenly strikes you as Just Not OK To Ignore Anymore. In my case, it was the veal calf encounter. Not even a real live calf either; a photo of one I came across in 1995 while flipping through my environmental science textbook when I was supposed to be studying the nitrogen cycle instead, was quite sufficient. 

The calf spent its short life confined to a small wooden crate that severely restricted movement, so that its muscles wouldn't develop properly and thus spoil the tender toothsome texture of the veal cutlet it would become.

Like some kind of animal rights virus, that image infected me, and triggered what has felt at times like a physiological progression: I gave up baby cows first (obviously), then pigs, then big cows and anything else vaguely related to that veal calf i.e. Class Mammalia in its entirety. And the longer I went without eating mammals, the less I wanted to.

I bade farewell to Class Aves similarly a few years later, helped along by finding a thing that strongly resembled a section of intestine in a Kentucky Chicken Burger. I still eat fish sometimes, but with increasing visceral unease: overfishing aside, sushi has just started to seem so fleshy lately.

Not that it's all motivated by emotion and gut reaction, of course. Apart from all the other cerebral reasons, it's plain illogical for me to eat something I'm too chicken to kill myself. This could be called the “hit-man” school of dietary philosophy: the crime lord who orders the slaughter is just as guilty as the guy he pays to do his dirty work – maybe more so.

All of which I believe makes me more interesting dietary-wise than someone who says: “I eat meat because it's what people have always done. Also I just laaaik it, hey.”

More than that: people looove it. A couple of weekends back I found myself in an odd context: clutching two trembling veggie burgers while I stood in the queue that runs past the ruddy bank of chops and wors at Mzoli's Meat and towards the roaring hellfires where your choice of flesh is expertly cooked.

For the unitiated, Mzoli's is a wildly successful converted butchery/shebeen in Gugulethu, Cape Town, popular with tourists and local suburbanites wanting to venture just so far but not much further into the township experience. It was at Mzoli's, masticating my tasty but greyish soya, that it really hit home: for everybody else there that afternoon, and for the majority of humankind and especially meat-struck cultures like South Africa's, when it comes to food, Meat is the Big Attraction, the Main Event.

And this is where vegetarianism fails: it's interesting, but pale. We just don't have the ritual, the pomp and ceremony, the culinary show-stoppers that the meat-eating world has. My “veggie patties” (which sound about as exciting as "lentil" or "sack cloth") simply did not have sufficient presence beside the mounds of savoury meat glistening in the sun at Mzoli's. There aren't vegetarian equivalents of those hideous but nonetheless ritualistically intense oxes on the spit, the roast suckling pigs, the turkeys with all the trimmings, the braais, the barbies, the slaughtering of the fatted calves, the Main Meaty Event.

Meat is the star turn in most cultures, with other foodstuffs relegated to bit players, or garnish. (Actually at Mzoli's even the garnish seems largely extraneous, unless you count beer as a garnish).

So what I'd like to hear from the vegetarians and serious semi's is how we can improve on this unsatisfactory state of affairs. How do we shake off the puritanical image that still clings to us and move our nut roasts centre stage? How do we infuse this undeniably worthy lifestyle choice with more of a sense of celebration, revelry, and, oh, I dunno, FUN? (Yes, I know we know we're having fun, but how do we get that across better?)

As for you omnivores: what is really stopping you from coming over to the nut roast side, or at least spending a bit more time here? (Anyone answering that it's because a nut roast tastes like **** will be swiftly censored.)

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, October 2010

*The month ahead is packed with Veg Days that we should be celebrating more successfully:

  • October: World Vegetarian Awareness Month
  • 1 October: World Vegetarian Day
  • 2 October: World Farm Animals Day and Gandhi's birthday
  • 4 October: Feast Day of St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals
  • 16 October: World Food Day (about world hunger and food security, not stuffing ourselves) 
  • 1 November: World Vegan Day

**A semi-vegetarian is someone who avoids meat by eating no mammals, or no birds, or just very rarely eating meat. A vegetarian is someone who eats no animal flesh at all. In other words, says the Vegetarian Society rather meanly, there is no such thing as a semi-vegetarian and you should really find something else to call yourself.

Read more:
How to annoy a vegetarian
Edible Earth. We're the most gluttonous humans in history, and we're weighing down the planet.
Health24's Vegetarian Diet section.

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