Hugh Reilly: The life of a born-again vegetarian

Happiness, health and an exaggerated moral superiority are among the many benefits of meat-free living, writes Hugh Reilly

Forget five-a-day, continental markets make 15-a-day a gastronomic treat. Picture: Getty
Forget five-a-day, continental markets make 15-a-day a gastronomic treat. Picture: Getty

From an early age, I knew I was different from the other boys. However, such was the peer pressure to conform that I hid my innermost secret for many years. During a 25-year marriage that produced four children, there were several times when I almost made a dinner-table confession about my latent feelings. To be honest, I think my wife long suspected that something was awry. Even after our sad divorce, I continued to deny my body’s basic instinct, its guilty lust, if you will. Last year, however, I realised that a life lived in fear is a life half lived, hence I took a deep breath and outed myself to friends and family at my cousin’s wedding. “I’m a vegetarian,” I said.

A few of my east-end of Glasgow mates were visibly shocked, stopping mid-quaff on their manly pints of lager and staring in disbelief; after all, I was the man who, a few years earlier, had publicly mocked a middle-class woman who’d chided me for chomping on meat. She had remarked that she “couldn’t eat anything that had a face” and I had replied that “mince didn’t have a face”, my immature riposte causing much mirth among the throng.

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Society has always undervalued vegetables and poultry. For instance, medieval hoi polloi pelted scoundrels and beggars with humble tomatoes, not meat products. This discriminatory practice persists to this day: just last week, Jim Murphy was hit by an egg rather than a gigot chop.

Gluttonous fools are blissfully unaware that their meat-eating habit is contributing to a worsening global environment and endangering the future supply of food, if experts from Aberdeen and Cambridge universities are to be believed. According to these scientists, the world’s population will be around 9.6 billion by 2050 and a food insecurity problem will exist.

As Jesus needed a miracle to feed just 5,000, it would be a mistake of biblical proportions to place faith in him (or his dad or the spooky bloke of the trinity) being up to the task of providing nutritious meals for billions of humans. No, mankind must change its red-meat eating proclivities – The End of The Whopper is Nigh.

The university research points to three causes of an estimated 80 per cent rise in greenhouse gases. Firstly, deforestation as a result of “slash and burn” activity, whereby trees and bushes are destroyed to make way for agricultural production.

This brutal landscaping intervention makes Israel’s biennial “mowing of the Gaza lawn” appear a sound example of progressive urban planning. Secondly, the increased use of harmful fertilisers that pollute the air. Thirdly, and rather delicately put I must say, the marked rise in livestock methane emissions.

Unlike humans, who, due to social conventions (especially in confined spaces such as lifts), are restricted in disposing of unwanted internal gaseous material, cows and other farm creatures are free to vent their colons as nature intended. However, unless drastic action is taken, we are flatulence-lining towards an increase in greenhouse gas.

Lead researcher Bojana Bajzelj – whose name would attract an amazing 39 points if proper nouns were allowed in Scrabble – stated that “food production is a main driver of biodiversity loss and a large contributor to climate change and pollution, so our food choices matter”. He does concede, however, that cutting food waste is also key to reaching environmental goals. My old teacher of English, Dick Lynas, wrote a wonderful book entitled Pies Were For Thursdays, a nostalgic look at his childhood in Glasgow. On the eve of payday, it was the custom to throw any remaining morsels into a baking tin and concoct a pie of some description. Masterchef it wasn’t. Today, it’s estimated that at least one-third of food purchased for the home ends up in the pedal bin or inside Rover’s digestive tract system.

As a veggie – and, OK, a man whose thrift makes Silas Marner seem a drunken sailor on shore leave – I’m loathe to throw out anything that could be eaten without a subsequent speedy visit to the supermarket to replenish rapidly depleted toilet tissue stocks. For example, plant life showing some signs of early decay can be scrubbed up and used to make a hearty soup. Since embracing a Mediterranean diet, my food bill has plummeted. Here in Spain, it’s possible to buy a week’s shopping at a fraction of the cost in the UK. On a recent trip out to see his dad, my son couldn’t believe the prices: £2 for five kilos of oranges, 40p a kilo for water melon, 50p a kilo for potatoes, 80p for a kilo of grapes. Unlike peaches purchased in UK supermarkets, peaches on the Costa Blanca don’t have the texture of poorly mixed concrete. Juice explodes out of pears. Put succinctly, it’s easy to be a vegetarian in southern Europe.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that my new-found love of fruit and veg is not shared by everyone. My best mate, Frank, made a sojourn to Casa de Shug last April and has since announced to our shared acquaintances that he will never return. He is someone I’d describe as an aggressive carnivore fundamentalist, thus he did not take kindly to the plant life on offer.

After two days of sampling Torrevieja-grown cauliflower, broccoli and lettuce, he insisted we dined at an expat restaurant serving animal flesh. He chose rump steak, ignoring my titbit of information that this cut is a euphemism for “cow’s bum”. Next morning, he accompanied me to the local supermarket and gloatingly tossed a packet of chorizos (spiced sausages, for non-Iberian gastronomists) into the trolley. Perhaps emboldened by my impassive response, he also threw in a packet of processed meat.

Heck, we are all adults and it was his choice to stick MRM (mechanically recovered meat) down his throat. He is an intelligent individual who is fully aware that chickens do not have nuggets any more than fish have fingers, yet he gleefully put this bizarre, calorie-filled confection on his to-scoff list.

I admit that I do wake up the odd morning ready to murder what my father referred to as a “snarler” – that is, a fat-sparking square sausage on a heavily buttered Morton’s roll. But, truth be told, I’ve lost more than a stone and feel fantastic eating my 15-a-day. I’m so happy to be the only herbivore in the village!