Thinking of going veggie? Read this first
If the latest health scare has made you reconsider eating meat, this long-standing vegetarian has some advice
As a vegetarian of 25 years, I must admit to being a little bit bemused by all the attention given to this week's World Health Organisation (WHO) report that said eating processed and red meat can increase your chances of getting cancer.
I mean, haven't we long known that copious helpings of greasy rashers or bloody steaks are bad for your health and will increase the risk of heart attacks, diabetes, cholesterol problems, obesity, etc? Colorectal cancer, I'm afraid you'll just have to get to the back of the queue.
But it struck me that a lot of people reading the news this week may have been contemplating vegetarianism for the first time. As someone who can't remember the last time I ate anything that once had a face, I can tell you what it's really like to be a vegetarian. I won't try to convince you to stop eating meat, but rather share a few aspects of vegetarian life you can sink your teeth into.
You see, vegetarianism is like a curate's egg - there's good and bad in it... (with apologies to vegan readers).
1 Restaurants: While vegetarians are generally very well catered for in Ireland these days, going to some restaurants can be a rather tasteless experience.
Beware of the oxymoronic 'vegetarian option' on menus - what that really means is that you don't have any choice, there's only one thing you can eat. This will generally be some kind of pasta, invariably with lots of peppers. So eating out often has a functionality to it - you are fuelling up rather than really indulging your palette.
But on those occasions you get to a vegetarian restaurant, it's like all your Christmases have come at once - with n'er a slice of tofurkey in sight.
2 Why are you vegetarian? Vegetarians will be asked this question almost every time they go to a dinner party, or sit down to eat with people they don't know. It's natural that people are curious, and usually they are just making conversation, but it gets mind-numbingly repetitive for the vegetarian.
I confess that in the past I have made up ridiculous, straight-faced answers to amuse myself, such as: 'My favourite dinosaur as a child was the brontosaurus, which was a herbivore, so I gave up meat in the hope I'd grow up really big and strong like them and have a very long neck', or 'Once I was eating a donor kebab and I found a pair of woman's spectacles embedded in the meat'.
But then I moved on to rudely snapping: 'I became a vegetarian because I wanted to have the same conversation every time I eat with people'. And then I just stopped eating with people.
3 Meat-eaters' jokes: Possibly the worst thing about being a vegetarian is having to listen to the tired jokes and hoary stereotypes of some meat-eaters. The worst cliché is that vegetarians are smug. This is a terrible lie - we are not smug, we are simply more evolved. It's natural that some meat-eaters will mock us at every opportunity - they are jealous of our longer lifespans, moral superiority and general sexiness.
Meat-eaters often say vegetarians have no energy and are sickly and weak. The best response to this is probably to violently flog them to within an inch of their life using only a celery stick as a weapon, but you learn to just ignore it.
4 Guilt: Ireland is a traditionally Catholic country, so guilt is one of the things we excel at. So by giving up meat, you are removing with one fell swoop several things that might otherwise play on your conscience - the horrors of factory farming, the mismanagement of the Earth's dwindling resources, or even just clogging up your arteries because you are addicted to bacon-double- cheese-burgers.
But the morality of vegetarianism does not have to be absolute. Personally, I choose not to eat animals because it's not necessary. In different circumstances - say, for example, a zombie apocalypse or a plane crash in the Andes - I'd happily eat you, your children and your family pets.
5 Abroad: Ireland is relatively vegetarian-friendly - try doing it in France or Spain, where people treat it almost as a mental illness. Go outside the bigger French cities and in most restaurants you have as much chance of finding a non-meat dish as you do an LSD dish - it's that far-out to them. So the only refuge is the pizzeria.
The plus side in these countries is that the hot climate means that the fruit and vegetables are abundant and delicious, so it evens out.
6 Linda McCartney: Most people think of her as Paul's bemulleted late wife, but I believe that in centuries to come, it's Linda who will be remembered.
For she is the woman who introduced soy and vegetable protein-based sausages, burgers, mince, etc, to popular consciousness with her eponymous brand of frozen meat substitutes.
Back when I stopped eating meat, vegetarian meat substitutes tasted like cardboard soaked in powdered vegetable soup, but now they taste as good, and sometimes better than the real thing. Often, if my long-suffering, less-evolved, meat-eating wife makes a meat version and a Linda McCartney version of a dish, I find myself going back to the pot to check she hasn't given me the wrong one.
I like the Beatles as much as the next man, but Linda was the star in that family.
7 Hitler was a vegetarian: People will often remind you that old Adolf stopped eating meat in his latter years, as if this fact somehow confirms that all vegetarians are deviant weirdos. But that's a bit like going up to people with moustaches and saying: 'Hitler had one of them, you know...'
A quick glance at the long list of famous vegetarians on Wikipedia shows that the stereotype of vegetarians as sandal-wearing hippies is nonsense - included are people as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci, IMF director Christine Lagarde, footballer Phil Neville, actress Natalie Portman and hip-hop act the Wu-Tang Clan. Now there's a dinner party I want to go to...