Rachael Oliveck was a committed vegetarian and animal rights activist for 14 years. But on Christmas Day she finally cracked, and tucked into some turkey - and she hasn't looked back since
Wednesday January 29, 2003
It wasn't specifically the thought of roast turkey that changed my mind, but this year's Christmas dinner was notable for marking the moment I gave up vegetarianism after 14 long, virtuous years. And, to save me answering the same three questions over and over again, yes it was delicious, no my body didn't seize up in shock and, yes, I have eaten meat at least once a day since.
Apparently, I'm in good company, Madonna and Julia Sawalha have both given up being veggie lately (and if it's good enough for Julia Sawalha, it's certainly good enough for me). I originally gave up meat for ethical reasons, and have always missed the taste of it. As an animal-rights activist, I was primarily concerned about the conditions of animals reared for meat, and I was also put off by the routine feeding of antibiotics and growth hormones to livestock.
In 1989 these were not widely understood views, and spreading the word on animal cruelty was perceived as scaremongering at best and downright bonkers and unnatural at worst. Being vegetarian was solely the preserve of the crank, hippy and the misguided but well-intentioned teenage girl. Supermarkets stocked "veggie grills" (yellowish, cutlet-shaped minced vegetables) which were a barbecue staple in the summer, and restaurants routinely offered plates of vegetables as the meat-free option.
Since then, meat, and indeed food production, has changed enormously, as have eating habits in general. Humanely reared meat is widely available, eating less meat is the norm, supermarkets offer huge veggie ranges and restaurants have wised up to what non-meat eaters want (although goat's cheese tart with a red pepper coulis remains horribly ubiquitous). Following the public furore surrounding BSE and to a lesser extent the foot-and-mouth outbreak, the horrors of modern meat production have become widely known, and vegetarians feel they have been proved right. Meat is now much more traceable and, it is hoped, of higher quality. The public now realise that cheap food, in the form of mechanically recovered meat or intensively produced meat, has a far higher cost. In one sense then, I feel the battle has been won.
That said, I wish I was noble enough to claim that it was simply a question of ethics. If I am honest, it was just as much a question of gluttony. I have always loved food, and my cookbook obsession was being stalled by my (ever more resentful) refusal to eat meat. I had taken to staring at the meat sections of my favourite Nigel Slater book and watching food programmes in a desperate attempt to sate a growing desire for the flesh of defenceless animals. Meat didn't repel me any more. I wanted to eat it, wanted to cook it, wanted to fill my kitchen with the smell of a garlic-roasted chicken. And, in the end, after a conversation with the only meat-eating member of my household, I realised that I was no longer making a principled stand that I was proud of, I was simply missing out. My stomach may have been meat-free but, in my heart I was a ravenous carnivore. And that was that.
So, along with the nut roast, I had turkey and ham. And sausages and bacon. And the next day my mother welcomed me back into the fold with sausage casserole. And it continued. My meat-eating friends are delighted for me, although many of them still find it odd to watch me eating animal flesh. As far as cooking meat is concerned, I have less kitchen expertise than a first-year student just off to university, and I am enjoying learning anew. My pork in marsala sauce was, frankly, a triumph. And, having given up meat so long ago, I am very much enjoying catching up on everything I have missed. Food trends have moved on massively in 14 years and I want to taste it all. The only difficulty so far was parma ham, which tasted slightly raw and chewy, but I think that might have been simply a case of too much too soon. I have yet to eat a Big Mac (although a Whopper went down a treat); KFC is delicious, and also very addictive. Spaghetti bolognese tastes infinitely better with real meat, and nothing can compare to the relief that comes from a bacon sandwich when suffering a hangover. And, if we are talking base desires (which the craving for meat surely is), eating meat is, quite simply, sexier than chick peas and tofu. It implies a lust for life, a healthy appetite, and a hot-blooded, racy, taste for flesh. It is no coincidence that fiery-tempered Latin countries with reputations for passion think vegetarianism is a bizarre anomaly. Why deny yourself?
I cannot imagine that I will ever go back to vegetarianism, but I used to think I would never eat meat again. I am hoping, however, that my diet will balance out, and I will be able to combine meat and meat-free. What is undeniable is that the physical effects of eating meat have been striking; I have more energy, feel much better and, according to friends, I look much healthier. I went back to meat for reasons of taste, to be able to enjoy roast meat, chargrilled steak, braised lamb, and I am pretty sure that, had my choices been restricted to cheap, greyish cuts and mechanically recovered meat I would have stuck with the vegetables and soya.
Some ethical principles remain - so far I have tried to buy humanely-reared meat wherever possible (with the obvious exception of my new fast-food habit, and yes I have read Fast Food Nation, thanks). I still find the idea of veal or foie gras distasteful, and doubt I will be tempted by them for some while yet. I don't feel as if I failed at vegetarianism, or that I have condemned poor ickle animals to a life of ending misery to satisfy my stomach. We are all much better informed as consumers now, and the rise in popularity of organics, for example, shows how shopping wisely has a huge influence on food production. Essentially though, I did not go back to make a point, but for my own selfish, personal satisfaction, and I am sure other meat-returnees would say the same thing.