It’s fairly cliché to bemoan the fact that 1999 doesn’t feel like twenty years ago, so I won’t dwell on that. But even though it’s hard to believe it’s two decades since Easter Sunday, 4th April 1999 – the day I became vegetarian – I think twenty years is something worth marking.
I was fourteen then. A child to my eyes now but a fully-fledged adult as far as I was concerned at the time. I’d been weighing up the pros and cons of vegetarianism for about two years, and took the leap because it seemed there weren’t many cons left worth considering. I’d always been uncomfortable with the fact that meat was actually just rotting animal corpses. I didn’t like most red meat dishes anyway, hated seafood, thought poultry was utterly cardboard-tasting. Pretty much the only remaining drawback was that I wouldn’t be able to eat gummy sweets because of the gelatine, and that seemed like a small price to pay for having a good excuse not to eat burgers (blech) or anchovies (double blech) whenever I was out for a meal.
I wouldn’t say it was hugely difficult to be vegetarian in 1999. Restaurants did always have at least one veggie option on the menu, even if it was usually lasagne. But it was a world away from 2019, where even vegans have a range of choices in many restaurants, and dishes are clearly marked. The most difficult thing was eating out in continental Europe, which was not (and is still not particularly) veggie-friendly, and threw up the side challenge of attempting to make a successful meat-free food order in a different language. I ended up developing a list of standby options that I knew were safe: spätzle in Germany, galettes and crêpes in France, tortilla española in Spain, margherita pizza in Italy. These have served me well to this day.
It’s funny how vegetarianism has become so second nature to me over time. I never feel deprived from not eating meat, or like there’s something missing, and it actually feels quite jarring when I have to explain to somebody new that I’m veggie – because it feels like such a normal thing not to eat meat. Standing in the meat aisle at the supermarket when Geth is choosing bacon feels like looking into a subculture I don’t understand – the animal flesh on display looks cold and clinical and completely unappetising – and because I’ve never eaten meat as an adult, I’ve never learnt how to cook it, so it just feels like something completely removed from my world.
I’ve been thinking about the above a lot over the last few months, because I’ve been trying to compare it to the experience of giving up alcohol. It would be nice to think that in twenty years’ time, I won’t miss alcohol at all or even think about its existence most of the time. However, I’m not quite that optimistic, as it’s not a totally comparable situation. I was never the biggest fan of meat anyway, and it’s not an addictive substance. I’m hopeful that sobriety will get easier, but I don’t think it will ever be as easy as vegetarianism.
I know I said I wasn’t going to dwell on the ‘where does the time go?’ stuff, but it is weird to think that I’ve not eaten meat since the 20th century. I still remember vividly the taste of the meatstuffs I did like – bacon, salami, real haggis – and maybe that type of memory won’t fade, but I’m happy for it to remain a memory.
Over the last twenty years of vegetarianism, I’ve been stricter sometimes and looser sometimes. I’ve occasionally had gelatine lapses, though I can say for certain that I’ve not eaten animal flesh since the 4th of April 1999. I’m not as strict with rennet-derived cheese as I used to be. Sometimes I’ve eschewed leather products, sometimes not. I’ve occasionally considered going fully vegan due to my increasing discomfort with the dairy and egg industries, and I’ve occasionally considered dialling it back to pescetarianism (despite my dislike of seafood) in an attempt to get more protein into my diet.
But on the whole, right now, I’m very happy being a common-or-garden lacto-ovo vegetarian, and I think that’s where I’ll stay for the foreseeable future.