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     Volume 4 Issue 23 | December 3, 2004 |

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Food For Thought

The Vagaries of Vegetarianism

Farah Ghuznavi

In recent years, I have often found myself flirting with the idea of vegetarianism. As an avid viewer of "Animal Planet", and a well-known sucker for small cuddly animals, it has become increasingly difficult to reconcile the fact that I can be reduced to a cooing wreck by the large brown eyes of a calf, while having no hesitation in taking a healthy bite out of a hamburger - meat from the adult version of that very animal!

Then of course, there are also the numerous health benefits we are assured will accrue from a blameless (joyless?) vegetarian lifestyle. And finally, as a development professional, there is the realisation that the cost of raising livestock makes it unsustainable for all of humanity to indulge in a meat-eating lifestyle, even assuming that income was sufficiently equally distributed for everyone to be able to afford meat. However, despite all these very good reasons for "going vegetarian", my flirtation has remained precisely that. So far, despite my best intentions, I have been unable to stick to a meat free lifestyle for more than 24 hours at a stretch (I know, I know, it's embarrassing!). My only hope is that if I can sustain these 24 hour sessions with greater frequency, I will gradually move towards a more vegetarian lifestyle…

This is not to imply that being vegetarian, despite the well-known benefits, is an uncomplicated matter. A Finnish friend of mine bewailed the fact that at the time that she became vegetarian, this was considered an extremely non-mainstream (possibly even socially hostile) kind of behaviour. Her parents accepted it grudgingly, no doubt hoping (as parents have through the ages, about so many things) that this was just a phase.The extent of their resistance can be understood from the memorable Sunday dinner where a complete melt-down ensued after my friend's mother served her the gravy and vegetables from the meat stew, after fishing out the chunks of meat. Since the bowl of stew no longer had any meat in it, her mother simply couldn't understand why my friend was so upset!

Perhaps her confusion needs to be seen in a wider context, since vegetarianism is also not without its contradictions (though purists will no doubt take offence - perhaps rightly - with the story I'm about to tell). A Japanese friend of mine, Miyako, remains infuriated over an incident that took place some years ago. She was out to lunch with a vegetarian friend, at a restaurant which served only a limited number of vegetarian options. To her amazement, her friend decided to order Mapo Tofu (a dish made from soy bean curd and mincemeat).

When she asked her friend why she had ordered something made from mincemeat, to Miyako's outrage, her friend replied - quite casually - that she could not see anything interesting among the vegetarian dishes on the menu, and so she would order the Mapo Tofu, eat the soybean curd and leave the meat! Frankly, like Miyako, I would be highly sceptical of the vegetarian credentials of someone who orders a dish that contains mincemeat, regardless of whether or not they actually eat the meat itself...

Mind you, a commitment to vegetarianism can involve a degree of inconvenience, boredom or even danger. The chances of the first two occurring are higher than the latter, I admit, since some cuisines and many restaurants offer limited options for vegetarians (though with greater enlightenment about healthy nutrition, this is changing). Thus, an American friend of mine, Lisa, is always thrilled to be back in Bangladesh, because as she puts it there is so much exciting vegetarian food on offer (even though many Bangladeshis prefer to serve their guests meat whenever they can afford it). The element of danger, however, comes in when you have a combination of a truly committed, purist vegetarian who encounters a culture or cuisine that offers very little to vegetarians - hence the comment by a travel writer that a vegetarian would only live for 40 days in Mongolia, where "food" is synonymous with "meat" - because that is how long it takes a healthy person to starve to death!

Finally, for those who feel that I am exaggerating the inconvenience of being vegetarian, let me point out that there are indeed occasions when the benefits outweigh the inconvenience. An Indian colleague of mine, who was not herself a vegetarian, decided on a South East Asian work-related trip to identify herself as vegetarian, in order to be sure of what she was eating (i.e. to avoid beef). Other colleagues who were also travelling teased her mercilessly about dishonesty and hypocrisy, until they were informed after one meal (upon asking), that what they had eaten was snake-meat stew. She definitely had the last laugh on that occasion!

Complications: Meat stew without meat
Contradiction: Mapo Tofu
Safety that goes beyond conventional wisdom: snake meat vegetarian



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