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Nearly undone by a pastrami bagel

by
02 November 2006

7466-turnip

THIS YEAR is the first time I've really got Shrove Tuesday. A big meaty curry with all the trimmings, all those flipping pancakes - it had a true carnival atmosphere (carne meat, vale goodbye).

I'm not a big Lent person. Once, after having failed dismally with chocolate, then alcohol, I gave up sweetcorn. It went very well, but then what? This year I became a 40-day vegetarian, more out of curiosity than any very spiritual motive. I long ago realised that I have no satisfactory moral justification for eating flesh that satisfies me (the justification, that is - the flesh satisfies me only too well). I just do it. This was to be an experiment, to find out what it was like and how I coped, forcing me to think through these meaty issues.

What kind of veggie was I going to be? I thought hard about whether to include fish. I have no great ethical objection to eating seafood - I don't believe a prawn is going to miss its life as much as a pig is - and I really couldn't see how I was going to last 40 days and 40 nights on vegetation. But then, what would be the point? I love seafood, and six weeks of it would be more feast than fast. I came up with a compromise: fish was my emergency get-out clause. I could have it once or twice when I really had to.

I also decided I wasn't going to be scouring the ingredient lists for gelatine and chicken stock. I quit meat, that was enough. And, as the family cook, I was still cooking meat, because I didn't want to impose my voluntary abstinence on anyone else; and I used the same utensils and pans, because I was not worried about being contaminated by meat juices.

IN FACT, what amazes me from the start is how little I miss meat. I expected a terrible struggle, and it's a piece of cake. (Insert your own cake joke here.) Aubergine and okra curries, mushroom and cheese parcels, seasonable veg soup, unseasonable veg risotto, goat's cheese and roast-pepper panini. . . Going out for a Chinese is a low point: cooked lettuce and slimy mushrooms are a poor alternative to crispy beef. But by and large I've found myself wondering why I ate meat so much.

The hard thing is the practicalities rather than the willpower. Keeping a stock of fresh vegetables, finding new recipes, just thinking what to eat. The two times I have fish are both a matter of getting to eight o'clock and having nothing in the house to make a decent meal out of but tinned tuna.

The toughest trial is the first Saturday morning. We've got into the habit of having eggs and bacon most weeks. "Mmmm," is my first thought on getting up, "eggs and . . . Oh no, just eggs." As I heroically dry-fry bacon for my loved ones, I find myself absent-mindedly chewing the end of the spatula. Forgive me, Father. Bacon seems to be the one that vegetarians have most problems with. I don't think it is most people's favourite meat - it's just that it smells so good.

Such lapses in concentration are my downfall. I am passing a pub at lunchtime, see a very good offer on a burger and a beer, and go and order. It is only when the barmaid asks whether I want beef, chicken or veggie that I recall I am a vegetarian and have a packet of crisps instead. I spend a day in the British Library and buy my regular pastrami-and-dill-pickle bagel. It is only when I nearly do the same thing again a week later that I realise what I had done.

I HAVE FOUND myself with a clash of ethics, too. Like many people, I am trying to eat more seasonally, to buy fruit and vegetables that are being harvested in Britain now. Why should gallons of aviation fuel be burnt to put New Zealand apples in my fruit bowl, or Peruvian asparagus in my fridge, when all I have to do is wait a few months and I can have yummy locals in season?

It turns out, though, that this is much easier when your vegetables are merely a foil for meat. There is a limit to how long you can carry on trudging through the grey days of March on a diet of carrots, parsnips, and swedes. English root vegetables are fantastic, but cheery they certainly are not, and I have grave reservations about the psychological effects of facing a plate of tuber stew too often.

All in all, though, vegetarianism has been a revelation to me. More than other forms of renunciation, such as celibacy, it is not so much a going without as a having something else instead, and something rather nice, if you do it right.

ALL OF WHICH has given me a lot to think about as I emerge from my Lenten experiment. I don't feel - though nothing could be further from my expectations when I set out - that I can go back to my old ways. Then again, it's hard to see myself keeping on as a card-carrying vegetarian, not least, for the lousiest of all reasons, that it doesn't seem to be "me".

Why do I feel uneasy about my roast lamb and ham sandwiches? There are, of course, eminently plausible, biblical justifications for them (though more for the former than the latter, perhaps). But to my mind, these are no safer than the biblical justifications for slavery and genocide. The Bible clearly and explicitly condones meat-eating and prescribes religious rituals that require animal slaughter, such as sacrifice and the Passover meal. But when the same scriptures, in the same way, consistently allow slaveholding and occasionally command mass murder, a more sophisticated reading than "The Bible says it's OK" is called for.

What is remarkable, considering the ubiquity of meat-eating in the ancient world, is the way in which the Bible unexpectedly presents it as less than perfect, as a shortcoming of the fallen world, and not what God intended for creation. In Genesis, all species, including ours, are herbivores; only after the flood is Noah granted a butchery licence (though, confusingly, Abel is a shepherd and sacrifices sheep to the Lord; so the picture is not entirely consistent).

Perhaps we might say, then, that the Bible presents vegetarianism as an unrealistic ideal. We might then ask whether it is more realistic in our age of plenty than it was 3500 years ago.

BUT other factors have changed our view of the world, too - or ought to have done. Humans have traditionally seen themselves in an entirely different category from "the animals", but various branches of science have thrown their weight together to demolish that distinction. Genetics, neuroscience, evolutionary zoology, and others have uncovered such essential similarity between humans and our beastly relatives that whatever gulf we see separating us is clearly the vanity of small differences.

This is why eating meat troubles me. We can't claim that the human brain has a unique capacity for pain and fear. Its size in proportion to the rest of our body makes it the most powerful thinker on the planet, but that puts us only at the top of a sliding scale. Our tasty cousins clearly have enough sense to feel very unhappy about a trip to the abattoir.

Christian talk about souls and being made in the image of God is often used to justify the distinction between meat and murder. But this seems terribly vague to me. No Christian who has made this point to me has turned out to have any very clear idea what he or she means by "soul", or what difference it's supposed to make. Perhaps it means "immortal consciousness", but other animals clearly have consciousness, too, and the bare fact that theirs may be mortal hardly justifies taking it away from them.

Perhaps it means that we and God are persons, and they are not. But what makes us persons other than having a soul, which would be circular reasoning? All possible answers are things that we share, to greater and lesser degrees, with other species. So, again, personhood is a sliding scale, and we and our meat are both on it. Perhaps we have a moral conscience they lack - but then shouldn't we prove it by being less bloody?

So, am I going to return to my twice-a-day meat habit, or attempt full-time vegetarianism? Time will tell, but my feeling is that this is a false choice. Those are two extremes, and I don't see the need to be fundamentalist about butchery any more than theology. What I intend to do from now on is to eat much less meat, say one cadaverous platter a week, have much more seafood, and have much more properly vegetarian meals, too. And if that sounds a bit half-hearted to you, to me it looks like a big improvement. Ask the chickens.

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