**Thanks to Simon from Simon Food Favourites for the use of your images in this post.**
The weekend before last was the culmination of months of hard work, long nights and learning. Adelaide’s first attempt at a Food Bloggers Conference, Eat Drink Blog, took place and it is safe to say it was a roaring success. For a round-up have a look at my previous post and then head on over to the conference website for the full listing of coverage. I want to spend some time now focussing on a session that has sparked a significant amount of debate post-conference, it’s a departure from my usual content but is an important conversation that needs to be had and I’m keen to hear your thoughts at the end of the post, too.
One of the sessions that was held at the conference over the weekend was somewhat controversial. When designing the program, selecting the hosts and crafting the questions we knew it would be. We expected it to be confronting and challenge many of our conference goers deepest held ideologies and ideas. The session was entitled ‘Local and Seasonal’ and hosted by well-known chef and vegetarian, Simon Bryant, and Tammi Jonas, a cultural theorist and pig farmer with a focus on ethics in food production. The premise of the session was clear, the decisions we make about what to eat each day can have an impact on the world around us. The decision to eat chicken that is not free-range, to eat food that is out of season and imported from another country, while seemingly insignificant, is one that ultimately encourages cruelty and damage to the environment so can we continue to turn a blind eye to it? But what about the decision to turn down food from someone who has taken the time to prepare it for you? If you are vegetarian and served meat, would you eat it? I’m not talking about a situation where someone is being deliberately awful, serving you meat despite knowing full well you don’t eat it, I’m talking about those situations, however rare they may be, where someone has genuinely not been aware of your vegetarianism.
This was perhaps the most controversial element of the talk and certainly sparked an internal dialogue that kept me tossing and turning long after the delegates had returned home. I had intended not to write about it, it seemed the kind of debate that could get out of hand – like politics and religion, perhaps this subject is one of those we only talk about with our nearest and dearest, safe in the confines of our shared ideas and ideology. Late last week I saw that Tara from VegeTARAian had posted a response from her perspective and I was instantly drawn to the debate unfolding over on her own page, I encourage you to read it and weigh in. I started out writing a comment over on Tara’s page and it turned into a bit of an essay so I decided I would post it over here and call it a conversation between friends.
For me this particular dilemma became a reality a few weeks ago at the Good Food and Wine show. I attended a food and wine matching session hosted by Maggie Beer’s chef, Chris Wotton, and Oxford Landing Estates flavour specialist Olivia Barrie. I signed up for the class not really thinking, I suspect the result of an earlier wine tasting session that had lessened my sense of reasoning *ahem*. I wandered in to the spectacularly decorated room, sat down and was promptly served a stunning platter of food, carefully plated. The thing is, there was meat on that plate. What the hell was I thinking? My first reaction? Run. Anxiety built inside but it was difficult for a range of reasons, not least the prospect of eating meat. I had started up a wonderful conversation with the couple next to me about their farm down south where they are almost completely self-sufficient, to the point of raising and killing their own rabbits. Across from me was Maggie’s chef whom I had been chatting to about local produce, growing your own and eating by the seasons. They were the kind of people who would have an open mind, be accepting of my decisions and grounded enough to know not to take it personally and yet in front of me was a plate of food that I knew to have been created using quality, ethically sourced ingredients – the chicken, Saskia Beers for example. So, you know what?
I ate it.
I didn’t hoe in, I pushed a lot of it around my plate, and mostly ate around the meat but I tried it. I sipped the wines and ate the food and participated fully in the exercise all the while knowing that people around me would be shocked, appalled perhaps. So when Simon started talking about how he has eaten meat when served to him, I found myself nodding away in agreement. I see my decision to give up eating meat as a lifestyle choice, I know others see it as much more than that, I respect that, I honour that, but at the same time it is not how I view it. Part of the decision-making process for me was my love of animals and not being able to reconcile this with consuming their flesh, I am also passionate about the environment, love vegetarian food and found it harder and harder to source ethically produced meat, so I gave it up. I don’t miss it and have never found myself going hungry. But I don’t see that my decision to ‘go vego’ is necessarily anyone else’s responsibility, nor is it their responsibility to cater to my needs. My dear friends and family always offer vegetarian food for me when I go their place for dinner and I love them for it, often I will bring a plate to lighten the load – it seems unreasonable that they should go without their lamb roast, for example, because I’ve decided to give up meat. When I am invited out to dinners by a PR company I tell them that I am vegetarian and ask if that will be a problem – I get that a chef is preparing a meal based on the story he wants to tell, it doesn’t feel right to turn around and say you should construct an entirely different menu for me because I’ve decided to give up meat. I’ll ask and if they can’t do it, I probably wouldn’t go. Someone who wants to eat meat should take my place. I wouldn’t be insulted, I wouldn’t feel outraged, I’d probably just feel bummed because I’d missed out on an awesome meal.
Such is the life of a vegetarian food blogger.
When we travelled overseas recently, I was acutely aware that finding vego food was probably going to be a difficult exercise. On the way out to a rural town where dinner was likely to be ‘village chicken’ I was obviously worried about the food situation. I told Paul that I would look for a vego option but if I couldn’t find it, I would eat meat. Do does that make me a ‘bad vego’? Absolutely not. What is a bad vego anyway? Are we doing this to score points? To be in some kind of holier than thou club where we judge each other for the decisions we make. The decisions I make about what I put in my mouth are mine alone. I have no desire to go back to eating meat full-time, and next time I’d probably check in advance about the options available for vego’s before signing up to something like that. But make a scene, refuse a perfectly good meal because I’ve made a decision to give something up? I’m sorry, I can’t, I won’t do it. As Simon said, the act of cooking for another is a beautiful and generous act. In the case of the meal at the GFWS, I knew that the selection of produce was important, I knew that the chef was as passionate about ethical produce as I, it’s just that our passions had taken different forms. Had the situation been different, had it been factory farmed meat and out of season produce I might not have been so hasty. The dilemma becomes in that instance whether ideology overrides that generous act and this, in many ways, was at the heart of what Simon was talking about – for me, it does not, it should not because life is not black and white – there are varying shades of grey. To me it is not about being offensive, I agree with other commenters who have said they would be horrified to know that they had served meat to a vegetarian, but would I feel comfortable about knowing I had caused that reaction in another? Especially given they had gone to so much effort? I don’t think I could and this is what has kept me awake at night – what is more important in that instance, sticking to your ideology or being kind?
After the session Simon told me that he was being deliberately provocative, a troublemaker, if you will. It is something he is known for and as I lay in bed, tossing and turning, pondering whether I am a bad person for having consumed some meat after making a decision to give it up, Simon’s admission played in my mind as a kind of inadvertent baseline. It occurred to me at that point that the true purpose of this conversation was not a matter of who is right and wrong, clearly the decision needs to be a personal one made on an as needs basis, judgement is inevitable but you make a decision and then you own it. What does define this debate is the importance of the conversation itself. I ask myself and I ask you to consider also, how many people are even discussing this issue? Is this something you had thought about much before this session? How many people are sitting back and thinking about the issues of factory farming, the moral and ethical dilemmas of eating meat and sourcing free range only, for example. Is this a concern for the population at large? Is this something you could strike up a conversation about at the water cooler? Seeing such passionate and reasoned responses to a deliberately divisive statement, while confronting, is reassuring. It reminds me that the debate is important and that there are people who are passionate about these issues and willing to go down that road. It also reminds me that there needs to be more of it – an objective discussion of the issue of ethics, an acknowledgement that these issues are important and are worth getting fired up about, that it is important to take a position and be proud of it, willing to defend it if need be. That to be lax in our approach to eating is to be lax in our moral and ethical approach to life.
So, Tara, I salute you, I love your blog, I think you are wonderful and kind and I admire your passion. Thank you for continuing this conversation, I’m not sure I agree with everything you’ve said but I really appreciate your insight and, above all, thank you for the opportunity to take this out into the public arena.
What do you think readers? If you were offered a meal containing something you don’t eat/like would you still eat it? Do ethics play a role in your food choices?
Please play nicely.
Edited to add: There are a couple of great posts I’ve read since this has gone up that I encourage you all to have a read of yourself if this subject interests you.
Good Food & Where it Comes From – The Facts About Feedlotting in Australia by Amanda from Lamb’s Ears & Honey