Nigel Slater’s collective guilt

Let me begin rancorously, progress mildy, introduced a bitter note about competing agendas against the eating of animal, then end with optimism in the face of Jay Rayner. First the rancour.

I took in Nigel Slater accusing his readers of collective guilt in today’s Observer Food Monthly. Many cows eat better than many people do. I frequently wonder what urbane animal-eaters will say when the penny drops and they realise that their barely-disguised primal, mind-blowingly violent, table habit is to stop.

And I take myself by the scruff of my neck and order myself, be nice, encouraging, welcome the positives, ignore the lateness, the herd-following, the whiff of modishness, be tolerant of bad reasons. Whatever the reason, Nigel Slater’s proposal means the death, agony and environmental wreckage lessens, even only partially. Of course a celebrity meat, fish and dairy eater is not going to abandon these things overnight. Welcome the positives.

In just that ill-fitting but determined frame of mind I read Nigel Slater’s piece.

It commences with a panegyric to vegetables. In it he lays the groundwork for what is to come, an opposition between vegetables and meat. “Vegetables beckon and intrigue in a way no fish or piece of meat possibly could” is a statement that diverted me for quite some time, and which is followed by what might aptly be described as veg porn (though not of the sexist PETA variety) replete with references to “beauty and tactile qualities” and “even greater sensual pleasure”, a “deeper connection”. So far, so good – Nigel Slater doesn’t want to fuck bits of flesh. More interestingly, he wants us to know he is sidling away from eating them too. Let us tread carefully though – he is not renouncing meat – he’s just more interested in his own (though not animals’) “well-being”. And then comes the crunch:

“…those implications that go beyond me and those for whom I cook.

Every little helps

We have damaged this planet. We have plundered its natural resources, emptied its seas, scorched its earth, turned its beating heart into a toxic rubbish tip. There have been decades, if not centuries, of take rather than give. I do not wish to relinquish entirely the deep sense of fulfilment I get from eating meat and fish, but I now place less importance on them in my diet than I did. It is the meat and the crackling rather than the vegetables that are now on the side. When you lift the lid of my casseroles, peer into my pots or read my plate, it is the veggies that play the starring role.

And yes, it is worth “reading” our plate before we tuck in. Where did that food come from? Does it sit comfortably with our conscience and what we believe good food to be? What, other than our immediate appetite, does it benefit, and crucially, what damage is that plate of food doing?”

Food as sensual pleasure; food as “damage”. (But not damage in the form of an animal life violently ended – who are the brutes, again?)

Possibly the strangest part is this:

“If digging up our gardens, getting an allotment, shopping at farmers’ markets, growing organically and eating sustainably is seen as a sign of our collective guilt for what we have done to the planet, then so be it.”

I don’t understand this defiance. Was he browbeaten and nobbled by the environmentalists, rather than reaching this conclusion off his own bat? If so, good for them.

Anyway, Nigel Slater is right. Not wholly right – growing our own is not the pinnacle of ethical eating, and ethical eating is not the pinnacle of ethical living. He’s right, with some more right stuff omitted. But basically right. Eat more greens. I am going to grow more, as part of my commitment to 10:10 (which is only a brandname for an earlier commitment to reducing waste / emissions). But it’s going to take a lot of my time. Definitely not for everybody. Economies of scale shouldn’t be sniffed at.

And on a final optimistic note, a quick sketch of vegan London today. This afternoon I met a woman from overseas, an acquaintance of a friend who thought we should meet (isn’t it lovely when people do this for each other?). We lunched at Tidbits in Heddon St off Regents Street, a vegetarian, largely vegan buffet where you pay by weight I’d not heard of but highly recommend, before chatting our way through a few errands. In Soho there was a street market and Manna had a stall. Vegan cupcakes? But Manna’s a vegetarian restaurant, not a vegan restaurant. Well, now it’s vegan, give or take some butter and cheese in the kitchen in case of diner requests. You don’t know how odd and welcome it was to hear that – dairy eaters accommodated rather than assumed. Manna doesn’t make too big a deal of it though because, like the fantastically creative ShoHo restaurant Saf, they probably realise it currently doesn’t pay to big up being vegan. There’s a lot of prejudice out there inspired, among others, by Jay Rayner, The Observer’s meat champion. But times are changing. And then to Lush for new shampoo. Not only is the shampoo I buy from Lush solid and unpackaged, it is also vegan and made in this country – even, one sales assistant told me, down to the shelling and processing of the coconuts. Then I went and got some of that filthy Cheatin’ pepperoni by Redwood. Man, it is good. My new acquaintance said the afternoon was turning into the secret life of a vegan. We parted and I made a rogue purchase of some sunflower margarine from the last M&S before Chancery Lane tube. For some reason my phone’s barcode scanner couldn’t make sense of the QR code, but I couldn’t see any problem ingredients. It is lovely.

I think London is moving veganwards.

I said final, but one last thing – I wonder what Jay Rayner will say when he gives up meat? I think he’ll say he did it at the very earliest opportunity without doing violence to his palate, his wallet or his health, and I predict he’ll attribute his foot-dragging to the tardiness of restaurateurs, farmers, buyers and wholesalers to get their shit together. He’ll stand firm on behalf of ordinary people without as much time for thinking or money in their pocket as I have. And just as he has grudging respect for vegans while despising our food, I have more respect for him and his talk of flavour, cost and nutrition than I have for Slater’s collective guilt and leisured DIY.

Jay Rayner’s position looks like it will lead to a settled commitment. Nigel Slater’s is particular, modish, and superficial.

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