Last night, Viv and I had to go to a Christmas function for a volunteer organisation that he’s a part of. It was the kind of function where you had to tell them your “preference” in advance for what you wanted to eat, but they only gave you two options: “meat” or “vegetarian”.

As I’ve mentioned in passing before on this blog, I’m not a vegetarian, but I strongly prefer not to eat any kind of meat that came from a mammal (beef, pork, lamb, etc.).1 I’ve kept up this dietary preference since moving out of home six years ago, and have three main reasons for doing so:

  1. I never really liked the taste or texture of beef, pork, lamb or veal anyway; to me they all taste bland, with beef and lamb having the added unpleasant flavour note of chomping into a metal fence, to the point I have to drown them in sauces to make them bearable, and even then they have a gross, tough, chewy, stringy texture
  2. I really hate the meat industry and am profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering our fellow mammals for food. I don’t think it was wrong for humanity to ever start hunting or eating meat, I just don’t like it and hate its industrialisation under capitalism. You might well tell me that chickens and fish also feel pain and I should stop eating them too in that case, but I’ve found those a lot harder to replace in my diet (it turned out I’m mildly intolerant to legumes…) and honestly, I’m a lot more disturbed by the slaughter of mammals. I had to settle on an approach that was sustainable. In the long term, I’m kinda hoping that lab-grown meat becomes enough of a viable product that I can switch to eating that.
  3. Reportedly, poultry-farming and aquaculture create a lot less carbon emissions than the farming of mammal meat. I don’t have any exact figures or citations for you, and honestly I didn’t even know about this until I had already switched to a diet free of mammal meat so you could say it wasn’t a decisive factor, but it’s definitely something that helps reinforce my preferences.

So, I don’t eat mammal meat. I feel like that’s a pretty simple thing to understand and I don’t think it makes me a “vegetarian” in any way. The fact that I’m still eating meat most days makes my preferences pretty incomparable to an actual vegetarian’s, I think. What weirds me out is that there a number of people who somehow do struggle to understand this simple concept. Even my own dad, for example, will describe me to people as a “vegetarian”. To him, an actual vegetarian, one who doesn’t eat any meat, is an “extreme vegetarian”. And I just kind of cringe every time he does this because I feel like it inevitably leads to confusion when people later see me serving myself some chicken or whatever. I think it must be a generational thing, because I’ve met other Australians about my parents’ age who do describe themselves as vegetarian when I would call them pescetarian or whatever, and I’m sure my dad isn’t trying to purposely mischaracterise my preferences… but it’s still awkward for me, regardless.

When I describe my own diet, I usually say I “don’t eat mammal meat”. But even this confuses people sometimes. And yet my experience trying to make things “easier” for people is I end up getting served food I’d prefer not to eat – like if I say I “don’t eat red meat” people serve me pork, or if I say I “don’t eat pork or beef” just because they’re the most common ones (and which many members of Viv’s Indian-South African family avoid as well) then I get served lamb (…because they’re not eating those meats for religious reasons which don’t apply to lamb). So these days, when I see confused faces and people starting to go, “Ummmm… what’s a mammal…?” I just tell them affirmatively that I do eat chicken (or other poultry) and seafood. That seems to help, especially because it gives them something concrete that they can serve to me that I’ll be happy with.

But of course – to come back to where I started this post – not every event is the kind where I get to have any input on the menu, and there are times when I’m just faced with a stark choice, “meat” or “vegetarian”. This seems to happen a lot with functions at fancy restaurants, for example, which is just one of the many reasons I have no love for fancy res­t­au­rants. The res­t­au­rant we went to last night wasn’t even that fancy (it was just kind of… Texan-ish food?), but they enforced the same choice. And it always makes me really nervous having to make it, because sometimes the vegetarian meal is something I genuinely can’t eat (some vegetables, like peas and cauliflower, smell disgusting to me and make me gag if I try to eat them), and then I’m just kinda screwed. Now, thankfully, the place we went to yesterday actually served an amazing vegetarian meal (bean chilli, cornbread, tortillas 😋), so in this case my story has a happy ending. But that’s not always the case!

Vegetarian airplane meals, for example, are regularly atrocious. I wouldn’t have had any personal experience of this myself, but when I joined Viv’s family on a trip to South Africa, his sister-in-law booked everyone’s flights, and for some reason unfathomable to everyone except her decided to order me a “special” vegetarian meal for every flight. Cue half a dozen South African Airways meals of like… plain-boiled green beans with a teaspoonful of cooked tomato on top… or cauliflower with some white sauce that I guess was supposed to be cheesy. The first crew was obliging about changing my meal out for something edible (especially because I was certain the “special” meal was a mistake, seeing as I would never order such a thing), but as I took further flights I encountered crews who were a lot more reluctant and, in one case, I got thoroughly chewed out by a stewardess insisting I “can’t just change [my] mind and say [I] don’t feel like the special meal [I] ordered any more” (despite me trying to explain I had not chosen it). I asked this sister-in-law so many times to change the booking but she just outright refused to, which is pretty typical behaviour for her tbh, so by the time I was flying back from South Africa I was just quietly and glumly swapping these ghastly meals with Vivian, who was a good sport about it at least. But this all happened because she, like my dad, was convinced that not eating mammal meat makes you a “vegetarian”.

Basically: airlines need to improve their menus, and everywhere that is physically capable of it (e.g. every res­t­au­rant) needs to give people more of a choice in what they eat beyond just “meat” or “vegetarian”. I don’t think of myself as a very fussy eater, but it seems the fact that I don’t eat certain meats and I can’t eat certain vegetables2 makes me completely in­scru­t­ab­le to caterers. It shouldn’t be like that, man! Just serve a range of foods and you’ll have no problems! Like event catering, in my view, works much better when you have a range of dishes available and expect people to construct a plate by mixing and matching ladlesful of whichever combination of dishes they want. I get that this doesn’t work on a plane but it should work everywhere else.

People have sometimes suggested to me that I just need a catchy word to summarise my diet, like “vegetarian” or “pescetarian” are catchy words. Supposedly there are actual people out there using the word “pesce-pol­lo­ta­ri­an” to describe the same preferences as I have… my reservation is that it’s a pretty long word that calls on people to know two separate Latinate roots and I just don’t see how using it is any easier than saying I “don’t eat mammal meat” 😛 TBH I don’t feel like it’s such a special preference that it requires a special word. We don’t have a special word for people who, say, can’t eat tree nuts. (I mean, you might say they have a tree nut allergy, but there’s no word like “non­tree­nut­ar­ian”.) I think this whole desire to pigeonhole people with diverse ranges of dietary preferences into a limited number of set categories is inevitably gonna lead to problems. Just give people choices so they can eat what they wanna eat without making it difficult 👍

  1. Generally I don’t at all, but there are limited circumstances where I’ll make exceptions: if I’m a guest at someone’s house who didn’t know I don’t eat red meat, and I can’t really cobble together enough to eat out of side dishes; if I’m somewhere with very limited food options (like a plane) and the other meal option is something I actually can’t eat; if I’m hungry and nothing else is there and the mammal-meat-containing food is just going to be thrown out otherwise anyway… I do firmly think, though, that 99% is good enough ↩︎

  2. To be clear, the full list of vegetables I have issues with is: most cultivars of the specific species Brassica oleracae (cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are the worst where I can’t even tolerate the smell; I can stomach small quantities of broccoli and cabbage if not overboiled); peas (I can eat totally dried ones like in bhuja or wasabi peas, and I can have them in very small quantities amidst a bigger food item like a samosa if I can’t detect the texture, but otherwise the second I “feel” a juicy pea in my mouth I gag and choke which I literally can’t control and believe me I wish I could because I look like an overdramatic pain in the ass); other legumes (and I actually love lentils, beans, chickpeas but they give me food-poisoning-like symptoms if I have more than one serve a day 😢). I’m not some “I ONLY EAT POTATOES AND TOMATO SAUCE!!!” kind of person. ↩︎