Who cares if you’re ve­gan, car­ni­vore or om­ni­vore? In today’s di­verse culi­nary world, surely a bal­anced ap­proach to diet is what mat­ters most

The Guardian Weekly - - Sport - Gaby Hinsliff

The cus­tomer is al­ways right. Or to be more pre­cise, you tell the cus­tomer that they are al­ways right to their face; but be­hind their back it’s of­ten a dif­fer­ent story. For, as any­one who has ever wait­ressed for a liv­ing knows, some­times all that gets you through a long, fraught shift with­out scream­ing is look­ing for­ward to the com­pan­ion­able mo­ment when the kitchen door swings shut, and every­one can let off steam about the pompous id­iot at ta­ble nine. If the price of work­ing in a ser­vice in­dus­try is con­tin­u­ally hav­ing to smile and bite one’s tongue in pub­lic, then with it comes the un­writ­ten right to moan like hell be­hind the scenes.

Which must, pre­sum­ably, have been what chef Laura Good­man thought she was do­ing when she posted on Face­book about how a “pi­ous, judg­men­tal ve­gan (who I spent all day cook­ing for) has gone to bed still be­liev­ing she’s a ve­gan”, adding that she had “spiked” their food.

What ex­actly she meant by that is now shrouded in mystery. Good­man’s part­ner says she was just cross af­ter spend­ing hours whip­ping up ve­gan dishes to ac­com­mo­date a party with strict di­etary re­quire­ments, only for one of them to order a margherita pizza with (de­cid­edly non-ve­gan) moz­zarella from the nor­mal menu. There was, they in­sist, no il­licit meat smug­gled into any­thing.

Even so, the cou­ple have re­ceived the in­evitable death threats that now ap­pear to be some peo­ple’s de­fault re­ac­tion to pretty much any­thing posted on­line, and that – how­ever un­fairly for those very many ve­g­ans who are happy to set­tle moz­zarella-based dis­putes with­out re­sort­ing to mur­der – do noth­ing to dis­pel the dis­mal rep­u­ta­tion of some self-styled an­i­mal rights ac­tivists. When mil­lions around the world don’t have enough to eat, there’s some­thing ob­scene about threat­en­ing to kill some­one over a pizza top­ping. No­body’s body is that much of a tem­ple.

But if ve­g­ans don’t have the right to im­pose their moral cer­tainty on oth­ers, then om­ni­vores don’t have the right to shove their culi­nary choices down other peo­ple’s throats ei­ther. We’ve moved on from the days when meat and two veg was the de­fault op­tion, and veg­e­tar­i­ans were lucky to be of­fered an omelette. But the culi­nary free-for-all emerg­ing is not with­out its ten­sions.

It goes with­out say­ing that peo­ple should be able to trust that what’s on the plate cor­re­sponds to what’s on the menu, even if their sup­posed lac­tose in­tol­er­ance was self-di­ag­nosed from a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle.

But if you re­alise only while dish­ing up a nut roast that you ab­sent-mind­edly cooked it in the same goose fat as the rest of lunch, is it un­for­giv­able to keep quiet? What if they’re one of those veg­e­tar­i­ans who eats fish, and some­times chicken when they fancy it? Does it make a dif­fer­ence if they’re only do­ing it be­cause it’s Jan­uary (aka Ve­gan­uary), or be­cause they’re 15-year-olds who switch from scoff­ing Big Macs one day to pi­ous lec­tures about meat be­ing mur­der the next?

It’s the piety that seems to have an­noyed Good­man; that and the in­con­sis­tency of call­ing ahead to dis­cuss ve­gan menus and then ap­par­ently fan­cy­ing a cheesy pizza on the night. Ei­ther you’re making a con­scious moral choice not to take part in the killing or ex­ploita­tion of an­i­mals for food, which in­evitably car­ries with it the tacit im­pli­ca­tion that every­one else’s mo­rals are rather lack­ing, or you’re not.

And yet this cheer­fully pick-and-mix, eclec­tic ap­proach to eat­ing is prob­a­bly where west­ern di­ets are head­ing. Th­ese days I find my­self eat­ing more and more vege­tar­ian food. That’s not an eth­i­cal choice but a greedy re­sponse to the fact that meat-free cook­ing is just more ex­cit­ing than it used to be, plus a vague sense that eat­ing more veg­eta­bles must be good.

But there’s an un­de­ni­able sense of smugness that comes with go­ing veg­gie even once or twice a week. No won­der “flex­i­tar­i­an­ism” – eat­ing less meat, but not giv­ing it up com­pletely, and then bor­ing on con­stantly about how much more en­ergy you have now – is sud­denly so fash­ion­able.

It’s ar­guably the foodie equiv­a­lent of os­ten­ta­tiously re­cy­cling in order to save the planet, while still driv­ing a diesel 4x4. But eat­ing this way is man­age­able, and not an­ti­so­cial, and grad­u­ally the re­al­i­sa­tion that vege­tar­ian food isn’t nec­es­sar­ily aw­ful can lead to a fur­ther mo­ment of truth; the queasy un­der­stand­ing that there’s no righ­teous, self­less case for meat-eat­ing. We just do it be­cause it tastes nice.

And that’s per­haps the real rea­son some car­ni­vores are so quick to cry hypocrisy, in­ter­ro­gat­ing ve­g­ans about whether they wear leather watch straps or use medicines that have been tested on an­i­mals or break the rules when hun­gover. Hunt­ing for “gotcha” mo­ments can be a con­ve­nient way of duck­ing the is­sue, which is the pang of con­science that even the most ar­dent ba­con sand­wich lover feels when fac­ing a real live piglet.

How­ever bad we feel about eat­ing an­i­mals, most of us just aren’t pre­pared to live off tofu, which is why all-or-noth­ing food zealots do their move­ment no favours. But mil­lions could man­age meat-free Mon­days, or be­ing a lit­tle bit vege­tar­ian. Mad­den­ing as part-timers are for chefs and home cooks alike, it’s a lot eas­ier than go­ing cold (non) turkey, and ar­guably more likely to lead in the long run to the more sus­tain­able eat­ing habits a crowded planet prob­a­bly re­quires. Just don’t in­sist on hav­ing your flour­less ve­gan cake, and then not eat­ing it.

‘Flex­i­tar­i­an­ism’ is the foodie equiv­a­lent of os­ten­ta­tiously re­cy­cling while driv­ing a diesel 4x4

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