Vegetarians and Pescetarians, Freegans and Vegans – a few decades ago they’d all be considered crackers, but these days you’ll know many of them, and might be one yourself.
I don’t want to debate the rights and wrongs of vegetarianism, after all people become vegetarians for all sorts of reasons – medical, moral, and appetitive. What strikes me as interesting is the tension between the preferences of the individual and the nature of food as a mechanism for social bonding.
The balance certainly seems to have shifted in recent years, as demonstrated by the Vegetarian Society’s ‘Fishconceptions’ campaign, launched last month after
“a survey… revealed that a shocking 85% of vegetarians have visited eating establishments that are labouring under the misconception that vegetarians eat fish” (emphasis added)
The campaign clearly aspires to a future in which vegetarians will never face the prospect of being offered food they don’t want to eat, and it seems like they are fighting a winning battle.
Of course, the trend towards tailoring yourself an idiosyncratic diet isn’t an exclusively modern phenomenon (Tolstoy was a fan, as was Pythagoras, who forbade his followers from eating beans, believing that their resemblance to the human foetus indicated the presence of a soul), but its prevalence, and the way it is treated by society certainly is.
Take this anecdote by Thinking Girl, in which she encounters a person unsympathetic to her vegetarianism:
me: “I’m vegetarian.”
me: “So why should my personal decision not to eat meat, according to my personal moral code be overridden by your opinion? I should really be, like, forced to eat meat against my will?”
The personal, the individual, and the private, trump all other concerns. Her conclusion is startling in its venom: “fascist pigs”.
Contrast this to the days when a vegetarian who was served steak at a dinner party would smile and eat what was on their plate, rather than object and offend their host.
This behaviour was rooted in a culture of profound respect for the value of food, and for the time and effort behind acts of hospitality. Before the Affluent Society, food was scarce, and not to be rejected or wasted lightly. Even in times of plenty, the months effort involved in farming, harvesting and cooking food were something that was appreciated by everyone around the dinner table.
Of course today many of these concerns are void. Your chef might have spent a few hours at the supermarket and in the kitchen, but probably didn’t rear and slaughter the chicken on your plate themselves. That, along with the rise of a culture of individualism, has made people far more comfortable in providing those catering for them with a (sometimes very long) list of forbidden foods. In fact, today it is the host that makes the faux pas if they neglect to ask about special dietary requirements.
But, as we sit around our tables, a different meal on each of our plates, will we have lost some of the convivial nature of our former eating habits? The ability to discuss the food we’re eating, and to share in a communal experience perhaps?