As a teenager, back in the 90s, I watched a harrowing documentary on battery farmed poultry. In that moment, a decision was cemented which would accompany me into adulthood and remains with me to this day.
Eating meat was not a dietary requirement for me and I did not want to contribute in any way to this industry: I was becoming a vegetarian.
Being vegetarian in the meat-loving Ireland of that era was challenging. As very much part of a minority, I did not feel catered to by supermarkets or restaurants. In fact, the choice to abstain from meat made me feel somewhat of an inconvenience. Eating out at a large gathering, such as a wedding or corporate event, was uncomfortable. The meat-free option, more often than not a vegetable lasagne, trailed behind its meaty counterparts on arriving at the dinner table. Awkward conversations about what I did or did not eat and why would inevitably ensue, as fellow diners would wait with curiosity to see what I would be served.
Aside from some stand-out exceptions, eating out as a non meat-eater was generally quite banal. Menus would be scanned for what could be eaten rather than perused for what would be chosen.
Veganism is admirable, stoic and increasingly widespread.
In time though, vegetarianism became a more popular lifestyle choice, menus improved, awkward dinner conversations about whether or not I eat chicken became unnecessary and life was good.
Now, however, I find myself with a new beef.
In recent years, a new contender has entered the arena of stretching the imagination of the menu planner: The Vegan.
Veganism is admirable, stoic and increasingly widespread. Aside from the health benefits a vegan diet can offer, the benefits to the environment and the reduction of one’s carbon foot-print are undeniable. My problem with this new generation of non-meat-eaters is nothing personal and I respect the discipline those who adhere to it require.
Veganism is a strong and constantly growing industry and it is being treated with gravitas. Supermarkets and restaurants alike go to great lengths to cater for those who will only consume foods which are meat, fish, poultry and dairy free. They have identified a growing market and are supplying suitable produce. These businesses make money, vegans eat well, everyone is happy.
Well, almost everyone.
There was a time when I could recommend to anyone, be they vegetarian or otherwise, the most delicious vegetarian options in town. I had favourite restaurants which I would frequent when the hankering for a scrumptious halloumi burger, a delicious aubergine and feta bake or a mouth watering goats cheese tart would strike. I, like the meat-eating diners, would enjoy browsing the menu and choosing courses that I knew I would enjoy eating – dining out was a pleasurable experience.
Lately though, I am noticing quite a radical shift in the menus of many restaurants. While a patron is still perfectly welcome to eat a chicken, the consumption of an egg has become questionable. You can feast on the flesh of a cow with the greatest of gusto without turning a head, but the desire for milk, cream or cheese seems to be rather taboo.
I can't help feeling that the vegetarian has enjoyed their moment in the sun
In the quest to satisfy the growing vegan market, many restaurateurs are making their vegetarian options not just meat free but also vegan.
Yes, there are plenty of meat free options and yes, I enjoy an avocado toast as much as the next person but I can’t help feeling that the vegetarian has enjoyed their moment in the sun and is now once again being resigned to the bottom of the culinary list of priorities. Offering a vegetarian vegan food ticks a box for the restaurateur in the same way that keeping the emergency vegetarian lasagne in the freezer did back in the 90s. Meat eaters are being well catered for, vegans are being well catered for and the vegetarian can, once again, just make do.
I am well aware, of course, that this gripe of mine is a first world problem. There are leagues of people the world over for whom dining out is something they will never have to get worked up about. But from my position of privilege I just want to raise a voice for the long suffering vegetarian.
We are still in circulation.
Admittedly we are not as fashionable as we once were but we are still worthy of some attention. It is disheartening to see menu listings and supermarket space increasingly be given over to vegan choices while my options grow narrower and my favourites disappear. Being vegetarian is turning full circle as we once again become an afterthought.
And for the record, I don’t even like vegetarian lasagne. I don’t like it with dairy cheese, I don’t like it with vegan cheese, I don’t even like it with a side of avocado.