Life, was, much simpler a few years ago. No I’m not talking just about pre pandemic but when there were just three categories of food consumer; carnivore, vegetarian and vegan. I shall ignore pescatarians, as however you want to dress up a crab it’s still a creature not a plant. People in recent memory have struggled with the concept or even definition of vegan, a word coined only 75 years ago. Just to be straight it means: A vegetarian who omits all meat products from their diet. So that means no dairy, animal fats, suet, eggs etc. Established by Donald Watson and five others ‘to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal by man’, essentially espousing ‘the principle of emancipation of animals’. So that seems quite clear to me. But what isn’t clear at all is people’s motivation for these three consumer groups.

 

In the early days of modern vegetarianism it was all brown rice, potatoes and fruit. Not much balance and offering little imagination. Carnivores were not fairing much better, the commonplace meat and two vegetables didn’t exactly excite the taste buds. But back then even though they existed, vegans didn’t really have a mouthpiece, they were if you like a rarefied beast that never broke cover in public. In London there was famously only one restaurant of renown called Cranks for many years. In today’s world of Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest to name only a few of the platforms, food is everywhere, relentlessly showing us how to be healthy, clean eating and smug with it.

 

This made me wonder what came first, the chicken or the egg so to speak? Have the trends we have seen in supermarket food and restaurant offerings providing vegan and vegetarian meals (in the retail sector conjuring up wonderful premade veggie and plant only concoctions that you can heat yourself at home and pretend you cooked it to your guests). It would be easy to think that the restaurants and food programmes lead the way here, showing us what we should be eating and why. To a certain extent this has resonance but by and large I think whether we like it or not we are responsible for most food trends. I’m not talking about fads like Lobster and Champagne only restaurants, we don’t need those, no I’m talking about awareness of health, that kind of emotionally led response to living that we find hard to control. Take a typical advert break on tv, you might have some kind of washing product, a car, a health food of some sort and chocolate. Now there’s our problem right in front of our eyes every night. Conflicting choice, often uncontrollable urges and ultimately dissatisfaction. Diets are another area that food has ironically dominated, eat this don’t eat this, bad stuff is good for you in small doses, good stuff is bad for you in larger quantities. It’s endless and frankly out of control.

 

This has led to an upgrade in the vegetarian and vegan dining experience in recent years. And I’m beginning to think this is a good thing. Sure, eating what you like is a personal choice but when that personal choice includes of lots of beef and means the planet is producing enough cows worldwide to kick a hole in the ozone with methane then maybe we shouldn’t have the choices we have been given? It looks like we are clearly not responsible enough to manage the planets husbandry.

 

The trends are clear, the UK meat free market is worth over £740m up from £539m just a few years earlier. And motivations are different, animal welfare is cited as the main reason among existing non-meat eaters and personal health as the reason for cutting back among meat eaters.

 

I will hold my hands up and state that I was a hard-core carnivore, there I’ve said it, meat pretty much every meal, every day I ate a piece of cooked flesh. But in recent years as age has crept up on me I’ve noticed it harder to shift those extra kilos mysteriously accrued at Christmas, too many meals out (I am a food writer after all) I took the decision to eat less meat. So now I might have three or even four meat free days in a week. Do I feel better? Well I think so but unless I had a doppelgänger as a measure I couldn’t accurately say, could I? But what has been evident in this ‘crossover’ period is a new love of fresh vegetables and their preparation, I’m paying more attention to the seasons. This I put down partly to magazines, TV programmes and restaurants that are responding to my (and millions like me) desire to eat less meat.

 

It’s a mixed up, confused world we are currently living in. Shopping has become a heightened experience (if only they had more toilet roll etc) but there have been some good outcomes I feel. A greater respect for cooking, family time and food preparation, there’s almost a spirituality about it. Meals are somehow more enjoyable at the moment and if you can’t get the ingredients you were after you’ll have to delve into new gastronomic territory, who knows you might want to eat more vegetables. So ignore the old temples of food worship and check out the baskets of vegetables, you’ll only have yourself to thank.

Neil Hennessy-Vass