One of the nastiest dining experiences I have ever had was in a vegan restaurant. There was no interpretative dance, nor a vicious dining room fight involving sharpened broccoli spears, but there might as well have been.
First off the lighting was harsh, like an art gallery or something. The portions were tiny and the mood of the staff was a notch below sulky. But all of that was nothing in comparison to the biggest sin; this restaurant didn’t do bread.
Bread. I mean, come on, bread. The source of joy to billions. The only product that will happily be smeared in jam, margarine or hummus. Most crucially, bread is a product that need be made neither from bits of animal nor products derived from bits of animal. It qualifies as bloody vegan. But yet this restaurant didn’t stock it, for reasons they couldn’t explain but that I was happy to infer as having something to do with the fact that it contains carbohydrates and doesn’t immediately make you lose weight.
I wrote an article a few years ago about my wife making me eat vegan food — and how I liked it (apart from tofu). Now I’m not a vegan, nor indeed a vegetarian, even though a majority of the food I eat contains no meat and — breakfast apart, where I like butter — animal products. But I do believe two things: first, most people don’t realise how tasty a non-meat diet can be; and second, that there remains a strand of the meat-free community who revel in a form of self-regarding denial. Like not eating bloody bread.
I have benefited from eating a lot of vegan food. Thanks to all those mung bean salads, tofu satay rice bowls and coconut carrot curries, I’ve lost weight, feel healthier and appreciate a broader range of flavours and textures than I used to. I believe that anyone and everyone could enjoy such a diet on a regular basis and am struck by how little curiosity most people have about it. Sometimes I become convinced meat-eaters of my acquaintance are actually addicted to meat and have a little voice in their head warning them off carrots in case they love them too much and never touch a pork chop again.
So on the one hand, I believe in a sinister anti-vegetable conspiracy on the part of the carnocracy. But on the other side of the divide are people who are equally blinkered. Those who see their diet as something less of a delight than a discipline. Those who afford social status to their food and wear a wheatgrass smoothie as a badge of honour (it’s a big badge and it splatters easily over your shirt). This is the sort of person I understand the phrase “carrot cruncher” to be referring to, and the ideal diner at the restaurant I hated. It’s also the sort of inversely snobbish, dreadfully self-important nonsense that gives “liberal” causes of all stripes a bad name.
Persuading people of the virtues of a meat-free diet should be non-controversial. Without meat, you take a small number of domineering flavours and replace them with a huge range of other tastes instead. It’s a diet that’s varied, surprising and cheap, and most of all tasty. But until someone makes a case for vegetarianism in the mainstream, it will continue to be a badge for the righteous and a whipping boy for the traditionalists. It might need a TV show — perhaps one where Jamie Oliver travels the country trying to get fat kids to snack on kohlrabi — but I wonder if the answer might not be smaller, roughly about the size of a squash ball. If a national chain of smart, funky falafel restaurants didn’t turn the nation onto the drool-inducing possibilities of a veg-based diet, I don’t know what would. I mean, come on, it always comes wrapped in bread.
The views expressed by the author are personal