The Accidental Vegetarian

The Accidental Vegetarian
Quite useful if you've adopted a new vegetarian path in life. (Photo: Neil Sonnekus)

When a vegan moves into your (sort of) carnivorous New Zealand home, and you compromise by becoming vegetarian, interesting things start to happen in the kitchen.

It all started when my son asked us very nicely whether he could stop eating meat. He was 10 at the time and, being nice lib-dem types, we said yes. This of course made us feel a little guilty, but then our daughter, a ballerina, remained a confirmed carnivore. That is, until she went off into the wider world at the tender age of 16 and turned into a militant vegan. Our son joined her and the pressure on us was intense. So we compromised by becoming vegetarians.

No. We wanted to become vegetarians (and just continued feeling bad about chickens and cows enduring enforced pregnancies and separations for the very occasional fried eggs and Cheddar cheese). Another thing that did it for me was a business-page photograph of a calf being released in a North Australian pen for auction. I could swear it was smiling in that way doomed people sometimes have and saying, “Look what they’re doing to me.” Then I couldn’t help seeing bleeding, bellowing animals in plastic packaging as I walked along the supermarket fridges, no doubt helped along by some of JM Coetzee’s writings on the subject.

Soon after I was made redundant at the paper where I saw the pic of the calf, I did a master’s in creative writing, and we needed a tenant to cover the bills. That’s how Michael Morris (his real name) came into our lives. He had a PhD in zoology, was doing the master’s with me and needed a place to stay. He was a real militant vegan, as well as an animal activist. He would cook for himself, and I, being unemployed, would cook for us, reluctantly.

Like my dearly departed mother, I do not like cooking, unless it can be done while consuming alcohol of one stripe or another and, preferably, with good company and/or music. Bizarrely, I like reading about food, if it’s well written. But then that goes for most things. I used to hate food programmes on TV too, until I recently discovered Jamie’s Ultimate Veg. Even if every veg is “humble” for Mr Oliver, he makes the food look so good that I even lussed (family word for craved) after it, after having had a full plate of food.

On the alcoholic front I migrated from Nederburg Pinotage (NZ$10, about R112) solely out of price patriotism to the Australian Yellow Tail Merlot (NZ$9) to the Chilean glut wine CleanSkin Shiraz (NZ$7). That’s how tight things were getting. Beer swings between Carlsberg, Stella Artois and Peroni, again depending on price. Kiwi beer, like its red wine, is more expensive and bloody awful, but New Zealanders are deeply loyal to their own products. Idiots are deeply loyal to the Blond Elvis too.

Meanwhile, it was becoming abundantly clear that Michael’s food was way better than mine. If I could manage a fairly good hot pasta arrabiata with capers and grated Parmesan (along with said red wine), then Mike was creating culinary miracles out of almost nothing, so, cheaply. It was becoming a bit of a no-brainer.

But then someone else moved in with us, a confirmed “that’s how I grew up” carnivore, Don Guy (his real name). He was made to understand that he could eat his meat elsewhere, not in our house. So he did that and took it upon himself to exploit our and everybody else in the hood’s citrus trees for juice. Free vitamin C that, unlike money, grows on trees. He was also expanding around the middle and spent a week at an out-of-town workshop in which only vegetarian food was provided. “I felt so good and lost quite a bit of weight,” he said, slightly baffled. No shit, Sherlock.

Then I had to go and work on the South Island and ended up living in an isolated, snowbound house with a Frenchwoman who could cook alright, but had no clue about raising her psycho kid. I felt a little like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, while constantly hearing glowing reports upcountry about Michael’s wonderful cooking, from my wife. The job didn’t work out and I returned to Auckland, where it was decided that Michael and I would cook on alternate nights while Don did the dishes, which sounded so much like a Ginger Baker drum solo that we hid all the crockery we cared for.

Michael was creating miracles of nutritional and sensory value out of NZ$20 a week each but, as with everything, there was a price to pay. By the time he was finished, the kitchen looked like the ruins of Aleppo after a day of friendly Russian fire, as did his room, but we didn’t have to live there. Once the cooking was done, he’d return to that room with its unmade bed and thick layer of dust and translate work from Japanese into English, write papers challenging certain scientific assumptions – for example that meat provided things a vegan diet can’t – and planning his next bit of activism. He and his fellow activists would do things like stand in front of the meat fridges with anti-meat messages at the local supermarket and, irony of ironies, get more coverage from Fox TV than the local yahoos, who were too busy sucking up to the dairy industry, New Zealand’s main income earner.

There is a downside for Michael too. His problem is his age and his temperament. He is 55 and he is devastatingly honest. When some government department asked him why he wanted to work for them, to mention just one example, he said because he needed the pension. He was supposed to say he was passionate about science, as if his doctorate wasn’t proof enough. This happens on a weekly basis and understandably gets him down. (At 63 I gave up trying a long time ago.) He can speak passable Mandarin too, so much so that he’s now teaching maths, science and English to Chinese teens online, since he can explain things to them in their own language, if needs be. But sometimes Aotearoa cares more about form than content than it would like to admit. Put another way, it is deeply ageist (and racist, but that’s another story). Make that shallowly ageist.

Today Michael rustled up a tasty and balanced dinner of refried red and black chilli beans for protein, polenta cubes for carbs, a roasted cashew nut and lemon sauce in which to dip the corn chips, freshly grated carrot and a finely cut tomato, red onion and red pepper salsa. That cost about NZ$10 for three people and it’s only the cashews that make it more pricey than usual. Sometimes we have banana and frozen blueberry smoothies for dessert.

Meanwhile, a couple of months ago my wife started two vegetable patches and then, suddenly, we were in the middle of a global crisis. Don was stuck in Africa, and we had tomatoes, silverbeet and kale coming out of our ears. We three were eating like kings and a queen, with meals sometimes only costing about NZ$5 a go, including electricity, with enough to give to the neighbours and the poverty stall in front of the other neighbours’ house.

Michael said his eating had improved ever since he started cooking for us, and I know my cooking has improved vastly too. I can now manage a chunky vegetable paella, which needs a lot of bloody time and attention (see pic); a couscous aromatique, a heavenly Moroccan dish minus the lamb; a spaghetti Bolognese, with red lentils and celery instead of mince; and a spicy carrot, pumpkin and potato soup, garnished with mint and coconut cream, aided by the next item on my to-do list: fresh homemade bread (see pic). Sometimes I even manage to get a nice fluffy dry rice.

Do I miss meat? Occasionally I feel like a Bioful Hamburger from Burger Fuel (NZ$16.50 with chips), but then I still feel like smoking a cigarette 20 years after stopping. I can still feel the lousy effects of the latter as well as the advantages of eating a cheap, clean, plant-based diet over the former. And I still think tofu tastes like absolutely nothing. As for those who say you need meat for energy, my daughter dances between six and 12 hours a day, six days a week, but don’t take our word for it: go and look up some famous athletes who get by without meat and dairy.

Yet what did New Zealand do when it reverted to Level 3 a week or so ago? Every young Tom, Dick and Hailey stormed the fast-food franchises like Macdonald’s and KFC, ignored physical distancing and strew their rubbish all over the place. It has clearly not occurred to them that all these damned pandemics are caused by one thing and one thing only: the industrialised and illegal abuse (wet markets) of animals by humans. Nor has it ever occurred to the government to say it loudly, because an outfit like NZ Beef + Lamb is a powerful lobby. Anyway, if you need the science behind all that, ask Michael. As for humans in general, if I may plagiarise myself, they’ll hang onto their miserable positions and possessions for all they’re worth. DM/TGIFood

Neil Sonnekus is the author of the novel Son, which is available on Amazon. Dr Michael Morris can be reached on [email protected]


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