A famous London restaurateur once boasted that he loved taking calls from vegetarians. "Do you have anything for us?" they would ask. "Yes," would be his reply. "Contempt."
Funny, isn't it? Nearly as good as this one from a radio phone-in. A vegetarian asked a cookery writer how she could liven up her lentils. "Add bacon," came the answer, with howls of laughter from the production desk. Ha. Ha. Ha.
It is a truth, fairly universally acknowledged, that chefs hate vegetarians. It's not about them refusing to eat meat, per se. Chefs, male and female, posh or not, see themselves as butch, no-nonsense, pragmatic types who will eat anything. All diets, therefore, are a load of girly nonsense. Customers can just about get away with one of those no-carb or glycemic-index type regimes without drawing attention to themselves. But the minute you ask the waiter if there is gelatin in your wobbly amuse bouche, the game is up. This is probably why I get looks of pity from people (or at least other chefs) when I tell them I live with a veggie. I have spent the best part of a decade with someone who will never appreciate the gory sinfulness of foie gras, blue steak or pork crackling. We will never be one of those couples that share Peking duck in a Chinese restaurant. We don't do Sunday roast lunches or full English breakfasts.Around one in 12 carnivores shares his or her home with someone who doesn't eat meat, whether it's a sibling, partner or flatmate. How easy is this alliance? My own insider information and some interviews with other vegetarians (who all, curiously, wanted to remain anonymous) has led me to some surprising discoveries. Here are some key revelations from my "veggie Babylon".
Any carnivore out hunting a vegetarian date might be in for a long wait. There are numerous vegetarian and vegan singles websites out there. "I simply couldn't kiss a man who had just eaten meat," said one subscriber. "He might have some stuck between his teeth." The same interviewee might have been scarred by an earlier encounter when one date had almost choked on a chicken bone. "Outwardly I looked concerned," she admitted, "but inside I was thinking it served him right."
If you manage to get that date, don't diss vegetarian restaurants. It will make you look very square. There are now award-winning establishments up and down the land without so much as a sliver of liver on the menu. The clientele is hardly likely to be exclusively herbivore. Neither is the staff. Celebrity chef Simon Rimmer took on Greens in Manchester 10 years ago despite being a consummate carnivore. "The site was veggie," he tells me, "so I kept it that way, and just ditched the stodgy wholefood side of things. Lots of customers fail to notice that we are meat free. One regular who has eaten here loads recently asked me why there was never any steak on!"
If you are going to discuss the ins and outs of being vegetarian, there are some traps you should avoid falling into. The most boring question in the world is: "But don't you miss bacon butties?" Furthermore, you don't impress a veggie by telling them you only eat "white meat". You will never convince them that roast potatoes taste better with duck fat and your relationship is probably doomed if you "veggie-bait". Pointing out the hypocrisy of wearing leather, drinking wine, eating cheese, or that the Dalai Lama's doctor has allegedly told him to start eating animals, won't get you far. Some people just don't like meat.
If you thought eating out was bad, wait till you get a vegetarian round to meet the family. Serving them "the vegetables" at a Sunday roast is plain wrong. Giving them cheese with the above is even worse. Expecting them to self-cater is worse still. One interviewee got hitched to a man who committed this very sin. "When we first married," says Julie, "my husband, who loves to cook, was a total neanderthal about me being veggie. He'd serve roasts and casseroles when we had people over, and expected me to cater for myself. Now I notice him eating far more vegetables and trying dishes such as risotto or stir fry."
If you get past Sunday lunch and on to dinner, let me tell you what food the veggies I spoke to hate more than any other: aubergine. I'm as shocked as you are. Fear and loathing of the eggplant seems to be equal among meat and non-meat eaters. Yet lots of the former think they are a nice, meaty thing to offer to the latter. The most dreaded aubergine scenario is the veggie kebab. By the time the hard heart of an aubergine has just begun to yield, the peppers, onion and courgettes are charcoal, and the tomato has exploded. To win hearts and minds you can do a lot worse than risotto, but watch what goes into that stock.
I could tell you it has been hell for me and my partner, but I would be lying. First, since we both work shifts (I'm a cook, he's a nurse), our domestic life is what you might call semi-detached. We probably only eat two or three meals a week together. The rest of the time I could be gorging on bacon sandwiches. At work, of course, there is meat everywhere and I love to cook and eat it. But, totally through my own choice, there is no meat in the flat bar a few tins of cat food. The cat is the biggest carnivore in the building. I have a mild horror of eating meat in front of my other half, even though I've been reassured a million times that it isn't gross. I've only convinced myself that he isn't fibbing a handful of times, usually in Spain. (It's the Serrano ham that does it.)
Second, I have a bit of veggie form. In 1985, the Smiths released Meat is Murder. At the time, everything about them was gospel to me. By my twenties, however, I was more agnostic than zealous about both Morrissey and meat. But two formative years working and travelling in south-east Asia gave me a taste for the region's food that I have never shaken off. Outside India, where many people avoid meat for religious reasons, there is little understanding of a nominally vegetarian lifestyle. But from China to farthest flung Indonesia the diet is rich in barely cooked greens, beansprouts, fruit and nuts. Then, of course, there is bean curd (oh, stop making that face). Tofu is delicious until you try to turn it into something po-faced like a veggie burger. If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then I got there via a lot of stir fries.
The verdant oriental diet has its roots in poverty more than anything else, of course, but if my time in the far east convinced me of one thing, it is this: in the developed world people eat far too much meat. Unthinkingly.
Our society's over-reliance on cheap animal protein, and the subsequent boom in intensive or battery farming, has been at the heart of nearly every food scare during the past 20 years. This has led to the rise of the farmers' market movement and a boom in the sale of organic and free-range meat. Even fast food is getting a makeover. If they haven't appeared already, guilt-free burger joints and sustainable chippies are coming to a high street near you. While most ethically concerned people choose to spend more money on meat or fish, and to eat less of it, few have given it up. Only a steady 4% of the population has been vegetarian for the past 10 years.
While it is easy for chefs to laugh at vegetarians, it is also easy to forget that, increasingly, meat-free cooking is a string to Britain's culinary bow. From the new wave of Indian eateries that are so much more than curry houses, to places such as Greens, our restaurant scene is one of the most diverse in Europe. It is also, like my home kitchen, one of the most vegetarian-friendly destinations in the world.