Historically, not a great many people wanted to emulate vegetarians. They were seen as cranky dinner party pests, also sentimental, moralistic, and only attractive to each other - the men with their wispy beards and sandals, the hairy women. And their taste standards for food were low, with reliance on nut loaves and mushy pulses. Leopold Bloom’s thoughts express the everyman view in Ulysses as, spotting a vegetarian bore on a Dublin street in 1904, ‘[h]is eyes followed the high figure in homespun, beard and bicycle, a listening woman at his side. Coming from the vegetarian. Only weggebobbles and fruit. Don’t eat a beefsteak. If you do the eyes of that cow will pursue you through all eternity. They say it’s healthier. Wind and watery though. Tried it. Keep you on the run all day’.
However… that was last century. Now, reasons to reconsider giving up meat are inescapable and multiplying all the time. First is the brutality of turning very sentient creatures into food through factory farming and cruel abattoir practices. Next come energy use and pollution implications that give meat eaters a much larger carbon footprint than vegetarians - apparently a meateater with a bicycle produces more carbon than a vegetarian Hummer driver. Then there are the dodgy practices of the meat industry highlighted with horsemeat found in cheap mince. Clearly unmedicated horsemeat in itself is no worse than pig or cow, but the unaccountability, indeed criminality, of parts of the meat industry threaten people’s health. Journalist John Harris clarifies things here:
Add to this the way the immensely depressing state of fish stocks from the predations of unsustainable fishing industries around the world also rules out fish-eating as a decent option. And finally, some powerful new evidence shows that vegetarians are a third less likely to suffer from heart disease: http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2013/130130.html.
On the positive side, delicious veggie fare is more accessible than ever. On the go, good sandwich, sushi and soup options are readily available. For home cooking, Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, to give one example, is crammed with delicious, special recipes that banish for ever any idea that going meatless equals some kind of suffering. And a new alternative is due to be released in mid May , Elizabeth David’s On Vegetables. This is a collection of classic sans-meat dishes made with generally much shorter ingredient lists than Ottolenghi’s, according to no-nonsense European traditions. It is also sumptuous looking – so not a hair shirt in sight. At the very least why not have a couple of meat free days a week (and keep your mind open to extending this)?
Becca, my wife, came up with the idea for the book last year after she had gone vegetarian. We sat down at our kitchen table, with Felix our second son, who had been one for some time and compiled the recipes together. We then passed on the list to Jill Norman, my aunt’s literary executor, who acted as editor for the book.
I was vegetarian for the last nine years of Elizabeth’s life and enjoyed cooking many vegetarian meals with her. She was not vegetarian herself but had no objection to the principle. She was interested in simple, honest, local cooking and many of the recipes in her early books were vegetarian - reflecting the diets of the regions of the Mediterranean. What would she have thought of her recipes being published as nearly vegetarian compilation? I believe she would have moved with the times and been keen to help promote vegetable based meals, perhaps have been happy to define herself as a flexitarian - the new term to define those who wish to eat meat very occasionally or in special circumstances.
We left the recipes untouched and some contain small amounts of meat, fish. With a little skill and imagination you can keep the essence of the dishes and cook vegetarian meals, and hence the name of the book, Elizabeth David on Vegetables.
The book is published by Quadrille.