Thursday, 25 November 2010

Bones & All

With a rich history dating back to biblical times, some of us may deliberate whether vegetarianism is in our blood, DNA, or ancestral heritage. A link to the past when abstention was common. In my case, to claim this was so would be a fallacy. I know of no other vegetarians within my immediate family circle. My clan is and will always be carnivorous. I was not brought up with an abhorrence of meat. On the contrary, meat or fish was the backbone of many an 80s TV dinner. There was nothing I wouldn't eat – on or off the bone, as a meat-eater I didn't really care. Vegetables were unheard of, unless you count the odd carrot and mum's buttery mashed potatoes. Veg was the enemy and nothing could induce me to eat them, not even Cadbury's chocolate buttons. Becoming a veggie years later was nothing short of miraculous!

Even now, I don't despise myself for my meat-eating ways. I remember such meals with fondness and gusto. Forming my personal history and a burgeoning relationship with food. Regarded with suspicion, fruit and veg were forbidden from ever touching the plate, but flesh was a feast for the fork. Steak and kidney pie, liver, bacon butties, hamburgers, sausages, lamb chops, and even spam were firm family favourites. Gnawing meat straight off the bone, like Henry VIII, was such a simple pleasure, that even a salted chicken leg would suffice. This confession is not meant to offend fellow veggies or vegans, but to educate those in their continued meat-glutton. Unlike youngsters today, I wasn't oblivious to where meat came from. I knew its origins weren't as vacuum-packed slabs in the supermarket chiller. Raised in South-East London, working farms were not on my doorstep, but I was taught to appreciate food and the farm animal alphabet. Holidaying with my grandparents was a culinary adventure. Meal times governed the day, so sourcing ingredients from local suppliers was a daily quest. All the encouragement I needed to immerse myself in the rich tapestry of food, tuck in and tickle my taste buds.

My point in relating this journey from meat to veg is that perfecting the palate is an education. A part of the curriculum sadly neglected today, in the home, school and general public arena. Knowledge led me to vegetarianism, which given the above was a considerable leap of faith, but there it was. Am I a better vegetarian for it? In all honesty, I think so. Like two sides of a coin, I can empathize with both – vegetarians and carnivores, as I'm sure many other veggies will testify. The squeamishness and ignorance surrounding meat however remains a mystery. To eat meat is not a sin, but it could be perceived as such if you are uneducated about an animal's fate or refuse to use the sum of its parts.

Britain needs more reformed eaters and carnivores who will care about the animals destined for their plate. Until then, meat is meat, slaughter is slaughter. A rich man's meat to some, poison to another.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Eating Bunny

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Once a much loved Beatrix Potter tale, Benjamin bunny is now more likely to adorn our tables rather than our bookshelves. Mr McGregor with his gun has returned bunny to the pot, along with offal and other discarded cuts, for stews, pies, and all manner of wonderful creations a la Heston Blumenthal. Rabbit is back in vogue as fashion would say. The “Meat Is Murder” vegetarian doctrine surely suggests all slaying is barbaric, but is it? There are some who would disagree. Environmental veggies argue killing for food can be justified, provided it's sustainable and the animals roam free. As this new breed of vegetarianism testifies, should wild meat be considered fair game?

The logic behind such an argument remains unclear. Slaughtering meat not intensively reared could at a push be reasoned as kind to the animals and the environment. It doesn't support or contribute to factory farming – its appalling conditions or environmental impact, but it does condone eating meat as both a human entitlement and a necessity. Isn't this just another form of killing in the name of sport? Yes and no, there is a fundamental difference – the corpse is at least used for food and not stuffed, mounted and displayed for all gentry to admire. That being said, I'm still not persuaded killing and eating wild meat is somehow ecologically or ethically sound. Demand engenders productivity and industrial-scale manufacturing. In layman's terms, plundering our natural resources leads to factory farming and all that it stands for – inhumane conditions and slaughter of animals. The food industry, driven by profit, is literally at like it rabbits with new farms for game popping up all over the place. The fact that any vegetarian could abide by this logic and contribute to it seems both implausible and a little naive.

This abandonment of veggie principles is startling and those that adopt this stance are frankly irritants, like finding a fly in your soup. Is this the reality we now have to confront? A world where vegetarianism is mocked even by our compatriots? I hope not. Giving others the illusion we are weak-willed and easily drawn to the allure of meat is a slap in the face to genuine “full-time” vegetarians and all that we believe. Is authentic vegetarianism dying out? Possibly so. With the advent of new technology in the West and shortages of food elsewhere, humankind has no choice but to adapt and adopt new eating habits. We are in the midst of change, where not even the vegetarian movement is exempt. It might be that “semi” or “mock” vegetarians are both a man-made and natural occurrence.

Should we welcome this change with open arms? I honestly don't know. Being a veggie is like following a faith, and I'm reluctant to let the waters be muddied by those who wish to continue eating meat. I believe we should eat, question and consider, but ultimately it's how you choose to define yourself that counts and not the philosophy of others. In the case of eating bunny, the mantra for me remains: Run rabbit, Run rabbit, Run! Run! Run!

Run Rabbit Run - Flanagan & Allen

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Food Not Fit For The Fork

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The food we buy off the supermarket shelves, we assume, is always fit for the fork, but what happens to food deemed past its best? Originally, thrown away without a second thought, Waitrose has recently been congratulating itself on its new schemes to reuse so-called waste. From January, unwanted food is to be transformed into renewable gas, which is hoped will produce enough energy to feed the national grid and power a brewery. In North Wales, the story is a little different. Here the local Waitrose regularly supplies fruit and veg past its best to a zoo in Colwyn Bay. A feast fit for a King, but deemed suitable only for a captive non-human market. Other branches of its stores send their food waste to eco-friendly anaerobic digestion plants to be converted into green energy. Is this a pat on the back for Waitrose and others following suit? I'm not so sure...

What bothers me is the comments that accompany these proclamations. Some of them are frankly laughable. Zoo animals it appears have more of a nose for food than we do, and are developing a taste for supermarket fruit and veg. The Welsh Mountain Zoo animal collection manager, Peter Litherland, said the scheme made the animals' lives a bit more interesting and provided a varied diet. He later added, “The chimpanzees know that they are getting something different and special”. A sad truth, implying that as part of this animal kingdom we don't appreciate the food we have been given. As consumers, have we fallen prey far too easily to industry imposed standards? Are we being denied the chance to purchase fare that still packs a nutritional punch?

As a vegetarian and a foodie, I'm not only concerned with the welfare of animals, but how we use our natural resources. That said, some of you may be wondering what I'm complaining about. As a result of supermarket waste, zoo animals get to tuck into a healthy nutritious diet, and renewable energy can be easily obtained. These schemes do their job and prevent food going to landfill, so what's the problem? Not eating is my answer. If the food's still edible and only the quality is at fault, why are these schemes necessary in the first place? Why can't supermarkets put aside their strict standards, forget their profit margins and let the consumers decide? Why shouldn't I buy knobbly fruit and veg, bashed up tins, or produce slightly past its best? The proof is surely in the taste and not it's irregular appearance.

Yes, I may sound like a broken record, but tackling society's food waste monsters, including us as consumers, would do much to reduce our global ills. The efforts of Waitrose to be a green, ethical and compassionate retailer, along with their new-found transparency, is to be admired. It fails however to silence my inner critic. Transparency is the “buzz” word of this century. Frequently cropping up whenever big business or the latest public scandal is discussed in an open forum. All past actions, such as the MP expenses blunder, the Iraq/Afghan war nobody wanted, and the current economic recession, can apparently be redeemed by this very word. Is transparency what the public wants or is this an idea we've been sold? If by transparency we mean honesty and openness, then it's for the good, but do any of us really believe that will be the outcome? Transparency will never be for our benefit – it's all about being one step ahead of the competition. Is it power to the people? No, it's corporate ammunition.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

All In Your Genes

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As a child I was told by well-meaning relatives you're got the Ralls thighs or your father's nose. Never sure whether to accept these as compliments or insults, I would ruminate on them in silence. Puberty was an ugly word and these comments would hit hard, often for days on end. Allusions to my appearance made for an ever-growing list of unflattering features. I didn't want to resemble any member of the family. I wanted to be me – a person in my own right and not an amalgamation of others. Now all grown up, my views have altered. I'm fascinated by the person staring back at me from the mirror. What features and traits do I share with that of my common ancestors? Looking through old photographs, the likeness to those on my father's side is uncanny. The family connection undeniable. I ponder the significance of this - do I own my genes or do they in fact own me? Do your genes define who and what you are, and what role might they play in the future?

These are the big questions science challenged itself to decode, and their progress has been duly noted. The human genome successfully mapped, the focus has shifted to genetic profiling and gene therapy. The prospective gold standard of healthcare. Those three letters of potential – DNA, have been much written and spoken about, but are we too quick to assume this is our miracle cure? DNA profiling and gene therapy may eradicate old ailments, but isn't it possible that new mutations will only spring up in their place? A world free of disease is not within our reach. I don't wish anybody ill, but couldn't it be said that disease is also a teacher, a healer, and a controller of population growth? In denying this element of life – a force governed by the law of nature, aren't we saying that disease holds no purpose? I would have to refute this claim.

That said, this new-found intelligence has led to a combined state of awe and pessimism. Nature versus nurture is the classic debate on everybody's lips from scientists and researchers to doctors and psychologists. It has not escaped public attention either, where our genes, it seems, can be held accountable for every imperfection. Like the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, “It's all in my genes” has become the new fashionable excuse. Researchers have discovered genes for this and genes for that - breast cancer, diabetes, smoking and alcohol to name but a few. This predisposition permits us to blame our defective genes and ignore other contributing factors. These are however of equal import. The environment we live in and the lifestyle we lead unlocks the code to our genetic profile. Genes, it is said, can be switched on by diet, pollutants and stress. We are, therefore at fault if we do not take the appropriate measures to help ourselves. Just having the gene does not determine the outcome.

The blueprint to life is a scientific destination. Some mysteries however are best left unravelled. In your genes or not, we can know too much and not always to our advantage. DNA screening may provide clues to our genetic inheritance, but stating those three little words - “I don't know” is often the greater insurance.