Ashley Davies: Sentimentality behind vegetarianism

Soppy sentimentality is just as valid an excuse for vegetarianism as principled objection. Picture: Getty
Soppy sentimentality is just as valid an excuse for vegetarianism as principled objection. Picture: Getty
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TO MARK Meat-Free Week, Ashley Davies explains why she’s a committed vegetarian while still admitting to cravings for crispy bacon.

I once took part in the ritual slaughter of a goat. No, it wasn’t a Beltane Fire Festival fringe event that got out of hand. I was lodging with a very poor family in semi-rural Senegal many years ago when I noticed that the number of goats in the area was multiplying. My host explained that they were preparing for the festival of Tabaski, the local name for Eid al-Adha. Just as in the Bible, the Qoran tells the story of God/Allah testing Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his (then) only son, Ishmael. (Spoiler alert: at the last minute, when God’s satisfied that Abraham has passed the freaky test, he says: “Just testing! Ha! Kill this goat instead.” Or something like that.)

Because our hosts had been so generous, we thought we’d repay their kindness by splashing out on a goat for them. We went to the local pop-up goat market, picked up a little cutie for about £30 and took him home in the back of a taxi. Over the next two weeks, despite all attempts to the contrary, we got attached to the chap, named him Andrew (due to his resemblance to a former colleague) and watched him putting on weight in his corner of the dusty garden, oblivious and happy.

Over the next few weeks the neighbourhood sounded increasingly like the rehearsal space for a thousand deluded Bee Gees tribute acts. Every compound contained at least one goat, and the main roads were packed with trucks and lorries transporting the creatures to their fates. And when the day arrived, bit by bit, the cacophony subsided until the panicky baaa noises gave way to the smell of cooking meat.

The men of the house dug a little hole in the garden, held Andrew down over it and cut his throat expertly, in accordance with Islamic rules. At this point I looked away but I know he kicked a little bit and his blood quickly drained into the hole, and within half an hour parts of him were on the barbecue.

The many kids in the family danced around with glee, as if the sand under their feet was on fire. They had no sentimental attachment to Andrew and thought it was a right laugh that I did. This was a rare treat for them – their usual meals consisted of gritty rice, overcooked root vegetables and (in my ungrateful view) some of the most revolting fish I’ve ever had the displeasure of being culturally obliged to force into my sorry mouth. A feast day in a poor country sure means a lot than it does here.

Andrew’s inedible insides were plonked into the bucket that 25 or so of us used for ablutions and everybody got to work on making use of all the remaining parts of his body. His hide was hung up to dry, eventually to become a mat for an old man who never spoke, and the meat lasted for two weeks without refrigeration.

The swan song was a throat-clenching soup made from Andrew’s head, garnished with his jawbone – a row of teeth tantalisingly visible under the oily scum creasing on the surface of the vile liquid – and one eyeball. I don’t know what happened to the other, but I thank all that is holy that the main breadwinner of the house got to pop that little beauty in his mouth.

I struggled to eat the meat in the first few days after Andrew’s death, not because it wasn’t delicious – it was the first food I’d had in ages that didn’t make me heave – but because I hated the idea of eating a creature I’d befriended. I wish I could tell you that’s when I became a vegetarian but it took a few more years. Although Andrew’s life (the last few weeks anyway) had been good and his death honourable, and no part of him was wasted, I still found it easier to eat meat when I didn’t have to think about where it had come from.

I don’t eat meat because I’m too sentimental about animals. I can’t bear the idea of killing a living creature so that we can eat something yummy, particularly when there are so many other ways to get protein (in the prosperous West, that is).

While I acknowledge that many farmers treat their livestock with kindness and respect, I just can’t stand the idea of thousands and thousands of trusting animals lining up to be killed. Some people blanche at the thought of eating horse or a bunny, but I don’t see a distinction between a horse and a cow in this regard.

Environment journalist Louise Gray has more solid reasons for (mostly) not eating meat. She stopped doing it because of the impact the meat industry has on carbon emissions, and thus the climate. But every time she was offered a delicious piece of venison by family in the Highlands, she knew it would be all right to eat it because these animals were raised and slaughtered in a humane way and, if anything, eating them was helping the environment. So now she only eats animals she’s killed herself, and is writing a book about it. You can read about her progress at www.louisebgray.com/blog.

While Louise’s approach, which I admire greatly, is for the greater good and mine is just soppy and hypocritical (I confess that I don’t live a leather-free life, for example), where we converge is in wishing that people were more mindful about where their meat comes from. If you are a consumer of any good or service, do you not have some responsibility to be aware of what happens at the supply side?

Having said all that, I still crave meat like you wouldn’t believe. I dream of cold roast beef on a fresh baguette with iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise, of spicy lamb koftas drizzled with lemon juice, and of crispy, crispy bacon, the downfall of many a lapsed vegetarian. But then I remember how intelligent – more so than dogs, some claim – and emotional pigs can be and put a bit more work into making my cruelty-free food more exciting. If only I could apply this will power to all areas of my life.

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