‘I’ve decided to become a vegetarian. Starting tomorrow.’ This was the announcement I made to my mother one day when I returned from school. I was in the fifth form (as it used to be called), sixteen years old. Although it took my mum by surprise, the decision to become vegetarian had been a while in the making. This was no fad: I’d thought about it carefully. This post looks at where — and why — it all began.
To be honest, I’d dreaded my mother’s reaction to this latest news. All kinds of scenarios raced through my mind on the bus ride home from school, all of them loud. But she didn’t hit the roof or dismiss my decision as a teenage whim. Instead, she calmly asked me a simple, serious question — why. The answer was just as straightforward: it was wrong to keep and kill animals for food. This conviction had begun to take shape years earlier. As a child, I recall asking my parents whether the lambs we saw in fields were the same as the lamb we sometimes ate on Sundays. The answer was something along the lines of ’No, they’re different, a special kind of lamb’. Hmmm. Even at that early age, something felt off. But I couldn’t understand what and said nothing more.
Fast forward to my mid teens. A Saturday morning. I was walking along the street when a man approached me. He was carrying books in his arms and, from his appearance, I recognised him as a Hare Krishna devotee — at school, we’d learned a little about the movement and its beliefs, as well as its connection to George Harrison. The man explained the philosophy of reincarnation and that animals, too, had souls. I wasn’t sure what I thought about reincarnation, but the part about animals made perfect sense: animals are living, sentient beings and it’s morally wrong to kill and eat them. The man gave me a packet of energy balls, a book called The Higher Taste and an open invitation to visit Bhaktivedanta Manor (the house Harrison had donated to the movement) one Sunday. It’s fair to say it was a brief, but life-changing encounter.
animals are living,
sentient beings and
it’s morally wrong to
kill and eat them.
A couple of weeks later, a friend and I were at a loose end one Sunday morning. He’d become involved in a church and wanted to go to a morning service. But church wasn’t my thing at all — in fact, spending the day in Camden was more what I’d had in mind. As the morning threatened to slip away, we decided to do something completely different. So we took up the devotee’s invitation and headed over to the Manor, set in the countryside north of London. The atmosphere was peaceful and gentle, sometimes vibrantly joyful, and we enjoyed a fantastic vegetarian feast, sitting in rows on the floor of the main temple room. That evening we headed home with wooden meditation beads, sandalwood incense and vegetable samosas — and, for me, absolute clarity about what I had to do. It was a few days after that visit that I made the announcement to my mother.
All of this took place in the mid-late eighties. Back then it wasn’t so easy to be vegetarian, especially if you wanted to avoid cheese. I didn’t particularly like it and my mother, who truly went above and beyond to make sure I ate healthily, had found out that many types of cheese were not even suitable for vegetarians (because of the rennet). But so often it seemed that ‘vegetarian’ food meant mountains of cheese. Or eggs. After a week in Germany, where every meal consisted of eggs served so many different ways, they were banished from my diet for about a year.
Today, of course, vegetarianism is completely mainstream. Gone are the days when a meal out with non-veggie friends involved calling the restaurant in advance or asking the kitchen to throw something together. Now you expect a choice of vegetarian, if not vegan, dishes. Having said that, desserts can still be a challenge. How many times have I had this kind of conversation: ‘Excuse me, is the cheesecake suitable for vegetarians?’ Answer: ‘Well, there’s no meat in it!’, accompanied by a bemused (or condescending) laugh. At this point, you might engage in a conversation about gelatine. Usually, you decide life’s too short, roll your eyes and settle for the fruit salad.
I really can’t thank my mother enough for everything she did to support my vegetarianism. She always used separate pans, plates and utensils for my food to ensure that nothing was ‘contaminated’ with meat or fish. She educated me about by-products and went out of her way, on a very modest budget, to create delicious, nourishing vegetarian meals that the whole family would enjoy, despite token grumbles about ‘rabbit food’. Later on, things would sort of come full circle. During my international student year in Heidelberg, I took her for lunch at the local Hare Krishna temple restaurant and, on her insistence, we went back there nearly every day of her visit. She loved it (admittedly it was far better than my efforts). I wonder if she might have become a vegetarian one day?
I remained a committed vegetarian for well over thirty years. But eventually, just like the response to my childhood question about the lambs, something felt increasingly wrong. The unease and sense of guilt wouldn’t go away, no matter how much I tried to rationalise the problem. That problem — a horrific one — was the dairy industry. And so a few years ago, I announced to my partner, ‘I’ve decided to become a vegan’.