If you’ve got a few minutes, I want to tell you a quick story.
It’s unlikely that you’ve ever heard of me. It’s most probable too that you’ve never met me. But that’s fine because this story isn’t about me. For the most part anyway.
I think it must have been one of my birthdays in my early twenties when I was introduced to Cajun chicken. I was at a local restaurant with my then girlfriend and the food arrived on a sizzling hot slate plate. The searing waft of warm spices put my head in some kind of dreamlike trance. It was the best thing I’d ever smelt in my life. The chicken, cooked on a grill metres away from me, just fell apart when I slid my knife into its soft flesh. Every mouthful was heaven. I was hooked. Every time I went back to the restaurant, I ordered the same dish. Like most humans, I’m a creature of habit.
But that was 20 year ago. I’ve had that meal at the same restaurant for many years since.
I was at my sister’s house on New Year’s Eve not long ago and she reminded me that I’d gone vegetarian as a teenager. I laughed when she told me as I’d totally forgotten all about it.
My sister reeled off stories of me being a rebel and that going vegetarian was part of that phase. As a teenager, I did rebel against society – I wore a long coat and a trilby hat. That was as far as my rebellion went actually. I hardly changed the world.
Try as hard as I could, I could only muster up vague memories of going vegetarian but I couldn’t remember why I had tried it. I certainly don’t remember what I ate because we came from a home where meat was on the menu every day. And we never had loads of money either so I guess I ate what I could. I don’t think I did it for too long anyway. I was a skinny kid and eating scraps of things certainly didn’t help me put on any weight and become more ‘manly’. By the time I’d reached 17 or 18 years of age, like most teenagers, I had become very body conscious and I was very skinny. To counter this, I drank a lot of milk which was said to contain a lot of protein (to build me some big muscles like those men on the telly) and by wearing two T-shirts at a time to bulk me out. Eventually, I went back on to eating meat and everything was alright with the world once again.
This was all back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I’m in my forties now and I’ve never felt in better shape. But there’s a reason why that is. And it’s definitely not because I went vegetarian.
In 2012, Tesco launched a range of premium sausages. They came in all kinds of flavours and they were packed beautifully. They’d obviously done their homework because it was summer and before shoppers got to the meat section, they had to pass the barbeques that were on sale. The day I went there, I headed home with a car full of sausages, beer and a very large red and very shiny barbeque.
My wife and I had the most wonderful lazy summer’s afternoon sat in our garden that day. The fizz of the sausages on the barbeque was like listening to the gentle trickle of a sparkling stream; the soft billow of red pepper and chilli lazily drifted across the adjoining gardens. And as for the beer – it went down as smooth as silk. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the planes that were silently cutting across the summer’s sky as I lay back on my recliner chair.
But that was the last barbeque we ever had.
A few months later, my wife and I were at home over Christmas. We’d just got Netflix and I was upstairs working on my accounts. After several hours, I headed downstairs to make myself a cup of tea when I saw my wife sat on the sofa. Her face was all red, her makeup all over the place and she was sat in silence.
“You been crying?” I asked. She nodded. I looked at the TV screen and there was the paused picture of a cow lying on the floor of a barn.
“What you watching?” I enquired.
“I’m going vegan,” she said.
“Erm. Ok,” I said. “Do you want a cup of tea?”
“No. I just want to be alone.”
I made my cup of tea and headed back upstairs. I sat down and Googled what had upset my wife so much. Within minutes, I’d seen a dog being put into the back of a refuse truck and crushed alive (presumably considered vermin) and I watched as a cow had its throat slit by a man with a big knife. The cow thrashed around on the floor in its own blood for several minutes fighting for its life while the man started hacking at it with a blade. I clicked again, only to see a calf trying to jump out of a queue and over a metal barrier. The calf had seen others up ahead having electric bolts fired into their brains.
I sat there for a few minutes in silence. Locked away in my private office, I’d suddenly seen what really goes on in the world. And that wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg.
My wife went full vegan from then on. I’m not one for change and I continued eating meat but over time, those images played over in my mind every time I ate it. I’d often enjoyed walking up the meat aisles in the supermarkets and marvelling at all the body parts neatly packaged up. But the more I bought meat, the more I realised the difference between what those packages on the shelves looked like, and what the reality behind it all was.
Eventually, I decided to go vegetarian. It was quite exciting as I felt that I was being that rebellious teenager again. The world could do what it wanted and if I was a pain in the arse at functions and meals out then bring it on. I’ll be the awkward one.
But being veggie wasn’t straightforward. I’ll admit that within the first two weeks, I had to pull over into a Burger King and order myself the biggest Chicken Royale meal I could get my hands on. And it tasted divine. After that, I stayed veggie but meals became a chore, especially when eating out. Almost everything was served with cheese and before long, I was piling on the pounds. In 2008, I weighed just over 10 stone, which wasn’t much for someone who’s 6ft tall. I was still wearing two lots of T shirts to make myself look a decent weight. By the end of 2013, I was well over 13 stone. Part of it was probably my metabolism slowing but after going veggie in 2014, I put on another 2 stone which was fine with me as I’d finally shed the skinny lad look. The only problem was that the weight kept coming.
Cheese was my crutch. I work from home so for lunch, I’d have cheese on beans on toast – four slices of thick white bread, piled with grilled cheese (usually more than half a block) and a tin of beans. Not surprisingly, I’d need a lie down after that but by God, it was tasty.
By the summer of 2015, I was actually feeling fat and overweight. I refused to have any photos taken because I’d morphed into a fat middle-aged man. I’d developed a huge pot belly and worse still, I’d developed pretty bad eczema. I’d often scratch my face and have flakes falling off, much to my embarrassment. Tiredness was playing havoc with my daily work routine too. For a while I thought I had some kind of horrible disease but it soon became apparent that my vegetarian diet was to blame. I’d often need to have a lie down several times a day, overwhelmed by my lethargy. The veggie option, as moral as I thought it was, was ruining my health.
“What vegetables do you eat?” someone asked me once.
I had to think. I had to think because I wasn’t eating any.
“Erm. Not many.”
“So what do you eat?”
“I have Quorn and stuff.”
“Not a good vegetarian if you’re not eating vegetables are you?”
I wasn’t. Vegetarianism, for all its moral rights, was ruining me.
Early in 2016, I was offered the chance to interview a guy called Mathew Pritchard as part of my job. Back in the early half of the 2000s, he starred in an MTV show called Dirty Sanchez which at the time, rivalled Jackass in the TV ratings. Both shows featuring people performing various dangerous, crude, self-injuring stunts and neither show really appealed to me. But Pritch was a renowned celebrity and he had relevance for the publication I was writing for so I went along to meet him at the Cardiff International Pool. He was there because he was in training for a charity challenge he’d set himself. Pritch was to undertake a half ironman event for 30 consecutive days. To put that in context, he was attempting to do a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile half marathon run – every day for 30 days.
We did the interview and we got talking about how nutrition was helping him in his challenge. Pritch said that he was a vegan which surprised me and I thought I’d impress him by telling him that I was vegetarian. I doubt very much whether he was impressed – here I was looking fat and scaly and out of breath just lifting a pen.
I asked him why he’d gone vegan and he said that he’d seen videos of animals being slaughtered, in the same way that both my wife and I had several years earlier.
“Animals get a really rough time of things don’t they?” he asked. I nodded in agreement and took a sip of my latte.
After the interview, I headed down the poolside where I wanted to take some picture of Pritch for the magazine I was writing for. He appeared like some kind of Adonis, tattooed to the tits and not an ounce of fat on him. Surely he can’t be vegan? I considered going vegan for a few minutes but then realised that I’d have to give up cheese. Haha. No chance.
Later that afternoon, I was taking my dog out for a walk when we reached the footbridge that leads over the railway line to my house. My dog bounded up the steps but I couldn’t take one step up. Without a word of a lie, it took my about ten minutes to climb about 30 steps.
Panting and struggling for breath at the top, I wondered what had become of me. Here I was, a forty year old man, struggling to climb 30 steps. I was an embarrassment.
Spring was coming and I wanted to look good for the summer so I was determined to get in shape. I started working out twice a week but I was very much out of practice. I was trying to put on muscle but before I could do that, I’d need to burn off all the fat I’d put on. Predictably, the results were minimal and depressing and I was still fat in the summer. It got to a point where I resigned myself to my fatness – that was just the way things were to be if I was going to stay vegetarian. It was a pretty miserable feeling.
During those summer weeks, I was sat in my garden drinking wine and being fat when I saw a picture on Facebook that changed things forever. It wasn’t a particularly stunning photo but it was one that made my brain snap. The picture was of a young calf. This young cow was in a steel pen, on his own as he’d been taken from his mother. You see, young male cows are no good to the dairy industry so they’re taken from their mothers, locked away in dark barns on their own, and slaughtered young and alone so that we can eat veal. Veal is young cow. That’s right – you’re eating a dead youngster.
This young cow in the photo was looking at whoever had taken the photo with a look in his eyes. It was a look of resignation, a look that I’d seen in my dog when he was a young puppy after I’d accidentally caught him in the face with a swinging arm. This calf was no longer with his mother. He’d never see her again. He was being pumped full of food and hormones that he’d not normally take on – and for the sole reason that humans could eat his dead flesh on a plate and pontificate about how wonderful the chef had made it taste.
I remembered what Pritch had said down at the pool:
“Animals get a really rough time of things don’t they?”
I turned my phone off, grabbed my wallet and went to the local supermarket. I filled my trolley with everything non-meat and non-dairy. I told myself that I was going to try and be vegan for three days. I bought a juicer. For the first time in years, I ate fresh vegetables. My body didn’t know what had hit it.
A week later and I was still vegan. Two weeks passed. Three. Before long, a whole month had passed. And then guess what happened?
My pot belly disappeared. My eczema vanished. I could stay awake for more than two hours at a time. I could run over the footbridge. The weight melted off me. I felt cleaner, healthier. My God, my body soaked up that proper nutrition like a dried up, withered old plant. When I was working out, I wasn’t working off fat – I was adding on pure muscle. It felt as if I’d taken off a pair of sunglasses and could see the world in all its true, kaleidoscopic colours. A huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was free.
I did some more research into veganism. I was surprised by the amount of athletes who have adopted it as part of their lifestyle – the Williams sisters, Novak Djokovic, Patrik Baboumian, David Haye and a lot of UFC fighters and endurance racers. These guys know their shit.
I had a friend contact me saying that she had considered it too but that it was too much of a life change. I pointed out that it was simply a case of buying different things at the supermarket.
Just before Christmas, I bumped into a business associate. We got talking and he said that I was looking good and trim. I told him I’d gone vegan and his face dropped.
“Oh,” he said disappointingly. “That’s miserable isn’t it?”
But that’s the point. I’m far from miserable. I feel in control and I feel as if I’ve got part of my life back. I taste new and exciting things every day and I’ve got lots more to discover. And yes, I still get grief from those who haven’t taken the time to even know what it’s all about before commenting.
“You need to eat a balanced diet,” they say.
“When I was a kid, I was always told to eat my greens.”
“Yes, but you need your protein from somewhere.”
“I do. I get it from the same place that bison, buffalo and gorillas get it from – from greens.”
Why would I want to eat what’s effectively second-hand protein? I’d rather eat it from source thanks. The World Health Organisation have, in the last few years, highlighted the dangers of eating too much processed meat. Look it up.
I often get asked why I eat fake meat and it’s a good question which I think has a lot to do with how we are all brought up. A few days ago, I got into a car that belonged to a smoker. As soon as I fell into the passenger seat, and without thinking, I took in a great big lungful of air. I did it because the car smelt exactly the same as my parents’ car did when we all piled in as kids. It reminded me of days out, car rides through the country on balmy summer evenings. But as I breathed out, I realised that I’d just inhaled a lungful of fumes. The smell was comforting, reassuring even. But ultimately, it wasn’t good for me. The same as meat. The same as eating and drinking diary. Humans are creatures of habit.
The smell of a barbeque or a roast dinner still brings back cosy childhood memories for me. But then I remind myself of what it actually is and how it’s got to be on the plate. To me, a chicken dinner is a carved up bird that’s been dead for several days at best. The aroma of roast beef suddenly turns into the reek of burning flesh. I wouldn’t eat a dead pigeon in the street so I won’t eat a dead turkey that’s been nicely packaged up.
So in answer to those who ask ‘why eat fake meat’, most of us have been brought up on meat. It’s part of our culture. Those sanitised packs of meat on the shelves to me now are like a grotesque horror show of body parts. As a society, we berate the Asians for eating dog meat and we try and sign petitions to get it banned. If another country told us that we should be ashamed of ourselves for eating cows, we wouldn’t be too happy about it. Would you chop up your pet and eat it? I read a Facebook status a few weeks ago about a ‘friend’ who saw an injured pigeon, picked it up and took it to the vets. He was very upset about the pigeon and was quite proud of the fact that he’d saved it and given it comfort. The following day, he posted a picture of his Chicken Royale meal.
Why do we never question anything in society? I recently watched a video by James Aspey who said that the only reasons he could find for people eating meat were taste, habit and tradition. I agree that none of these are justification for the horrific cruelty to animals that take place every day behind closed doors – just to satisfy us humans. We love tradition and for some people, the thought of not eating turkey at Christmas is unthinkable. Creatures of habit see, whether it’s good or bad.
I’ve been awoken to the arrogance of man who places himself above everything else in this world. Going vegan has meant that I feel happier in myself and I also have less weighing on my conscience.
I’m not trying to preach to you here. I’m just trying to make you question things. A very large proportion of the world’s population really don’t care about much that goes in the world apart from what goes on in their own lives. Some people are more interested in beauty, celebrity or even just having a good time.
But remember, in order to have a good time, nature has to have a way of balancing that out. There has to be a payoff. Unfortunately in this world, it’s the animals who lose out so that we can enjoy our way of life. They just get a rough time don’t they?
And the reason I will never be a vegetarian is because of what that picture of a calf in a steel pen stands for. Whoever he was, whatever happened to him, wherever and whatever his body parts were used for, he probably saved countless more like him because I refuse to be part of that nasty world.
Question what you eat. Research it for yourself but be warned – it’s not nice.