Wednesday 13 December 2017

Why I became a vegetarian... despite craving a nice steak

As news breaks of the latest health scare involving chicken, Steven O'Rourke reflects on his decision to give up meat

Steven O'Rourke

It was two days after Christmas when I made the decision I'd been agonising over for years. Finishing my Eggs Benedict, I placed my knife and fork down, took a final sip of orange juice and told my wife "that's the last time I'll ever eat meat".

As news broke last week that a European Food Safety Authority report had found 98pc of Irish chicken was contaminated with the dangerous bacterium campylobacter, it was difficult not to feel vindicated.

The bug, which could cause up to 180,000 cases of food poisoning in Ireland every year, spreads when people fail to cook chicken properly.

Research has also shown that vegetarians are 50pc less likely to develop heart disease and have 40pc of the cancer rate of omnivores.

Despite knowing all of this, becoming a vegetarian was not an easy choice. Indeed, it was the most difficult decision I have ever taken.

For a start, I've never been keen on vegetables. From an early age my diet revolved around little more than meat and potatoes. Carrots, celery and cabbage were more likely to end up in the bin than in my mouth.

If I'm honest, even after two years as a vegetarian, not much has changed.

This, unfortunately, has led to some embarrassing situations in restaurants where I've had to convince the person serving me that the food was fine when, in fact, the thought of having to wade through a mountain of mushrooms just to reach the pasta beneath was enough to make me physically ill.

Weddings are also difficult. Two months after turning vegetarian I was confronted with the nightmare wedding menu of a goat's cheese salad starter and roasted aubergine stuffed with goat's cheese for the main course.

There are few foodstuffs I hate more than goat's cheese and aubergine.

One thing that makes me different from most vegetarians is that I still miss meat. There are few vegetarian-friendly foods that taste as delicious as a perfectly cooked steak.

Another meat I miss is turkey, which is why I chose to turn vegetarian two days after Christmas -- I wouldn't have to think about Christmas dinner for 363 days.

Still, during my first Christmas as a vegetarian, I came very close to providing myself with a meat amnesty. However, with my wife Amy's help -- both mentally and through the cooking of a delicious nut roast -- I managed to get through the festive period unscathed.

The nut roast -- made from onions, celery, peppers, carrots, pumpkin seeds and mixed nuts, accompanied by garlic potatoes -- is perhaps the only vegetarian food that can make my mouth water in the same way as steak.

So, what makes someone who doesn't like vegetables and misses the taste of meat want to remain vegetarian for the rest of his life?

For a start there's Amy. Having flirted with vegetarianism since her teens, she committed fully in her early twenties. To be fair, she has never been a militant vegetarian and never commented on my diet but I never felt comfortable eating a dead animal in front of her.

It was also through Amy -- a microbiologist -- that I developed a fascination with biology, and found myself re-assessing my attitude to the animals I placed in the oven.

According to Jonathan Safran Foer -- whose book Eating Animals is rocking the American meat industry -- at this stage in my conversion to vegetarianism, I was engaging in 'anthropomorphism'.

Foer says that 'anthropomorphism' is the projection of the human experience on to animals.

But why shouldn't we project our own emotional experiences on to animals. Anyone who owns a dog knows that their pet can experience these feelings. Why then do we fool ourselves into thinking cows, sheep, chickens or pigs don't?

The more I considered this question, the more I found myself asking: If I can't justify eating my dog, how can I justify any other animal having to die just so I can eat?

At the same time I was becoming very aware of the effect the meat industry was having on not just the well-being of animals but the well-being of the planet.

Indeed, a 2006 UN Report decried the production of meat as "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems" we face.

This was the tipping point for me. Having seen how easily Amy had coped as a vegetarian, having considered the suffering animals go through and finally realising the effect every Big Mac was having on our ecosystem, I decided to make a stand.

Of course, I'm only one person and I'm sure the meat industry hasn't even noticed my commitment, but my conversion has had some knock-on effects.

My mother -- after initially questioning my sanity -- has become a pescetarian, meaning that she avoids all meat except fish.

It has also improved my health, reducing both my cholesterol and blood pressure. Having a diet consisting of high-energy nuts and seeds also provided me with enough fuel to run my first marathon last year.

Today, no matter how much I miss steak, I can't see any reason for me to return to my omnivorous ways.

To paraphrase Kate Moss, nothing tastes as good as not killing an animal feels.

Irish Independent

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