Travels with my Accidental Vegetarian sister

Travels with my Accidental Vegetarian sister

My introduction to vegetarianism was at a very tender age. But the subject is thrown into relief in lockdown when food looms large in our daily routine, the privileged that is, and so many people have so little of it.

In 1962 my sister Sharyn came back from a lengthy trip to England and America and announced that she was a vegetarian.

Nobody knew what to make of it, we didn’t know what a vegetarian was. My grandmother satisfied herself with the fact that she was still a Catholic. My mother said it was a phase – it wasn’t, she remained vegetarian until she died.

My father began telling terrible jokes about the rabbi who sent his son to Israel and he came home a Christian. (Never mind the joke but it ends with the fact that finally, the rabbi gets through to God who said that he also sent his son to Israel and he came home a Christian.)

There was consternation. My sister did not bother to explain herself, only that she would no longer be eating meat. In the early days of her conversion that included fish, which threw everyone.

How could fish be meat? You ate fish on Fridays in our community because it was forbidden to eat meat. Back then and as in many Karoo towns now, we didn’t think chicken was meat either. And don’t even start on an egg.

Generally it was held that she had had some sort of breakdown. I was conflicted because she was my adored older sister and she had brought the LP Please Please Me by the Beatles back from the UK for me.

Was that the act of an irrational person?

I confided in my friends and we went round and round the old argument that occupied the minds of Catholic schoolchildren in those days. If you accidentally ate a worm in an apple on Friday, was that a sin?

Would Sharyn fall off this particular perch she was on if she accidentally ate some sort of wildlife, like a fly? Was there some new deity she was now answerable to? If so, who or what?

We didn’t know anything about cults in 1962 but we were pretty sure she had been brainwashed in California.

More troubling was what to do with the host at mass on a Sunday, or the wine. I mean, could she consume the body and blood of Christ?

Would there be some Papal dispensation? And if so on what grounds?

Lunacy was my father’s solution. Why on earth would anyone not eat meat? My father had been through two World Wars, albeit one as a child, the Spanish ’Flu, a Depression and the desertion of his father leaving him as the breadwinner of the family as a teenager. Food preferences did not feature largely in his vocabulary, although he himself ate only meat and starch and fruit during the season which fortunately for us in then Natal was most of the year-round.

We were a community of mostly Irish Catholics clustered around the church of St Mary’s in the diocese of Pietermaritzburg. Mostly Irish but for a couple of Italian cuckoos in the nest like myself and a girl called Marcella. Oh, and a Polish girl called Naki.

Like most middle-class South Africans in the 1960s, our diet was rich in meat and it was plentiful. Except for Fridays, every meal included it.

It was no good consulting the Irish sisters who taught at our convent school. After the potato crop failed (twice) and most of their countrymen migrated to other countries, they could hardly be expected to embrace a diet that did not include meat. Nor understand it.

One of the reasons for a poor Irish girl becoming a nun, after education and keeping the men off you so you didn’t die after your 10th childbirth, was the food. I am sure there were vocations but they were made more attractive by the lifestyle.

Sharyn became a skilled vegetarian cook and as with everyone in a family prone to eccentricity, was accepted. We only drew the line when she expected her dog to be a vegetarian too.

My introduction to vegetarianism was thus at a very tender age but it did not take on for quite a while after that.

But the subject is thrown into relief in lockdown when food looms large in our daily routine, the privileged that is, and when so many people have so little of it.

How to feed the starving? Well, huge pots of soup filled with cabbage and carrots, potatoes and onions for a start, seasoned with cheap salt, and herbs from the garden. Many people are hungry for meat, but in times of crisis food preferences are not at the top of the feeding chain, and it literally is a feeding chain, trying to get food to people who have nothing.

I have no quarrel with vegetarians, or even, to my surprise, smokers. I have been signing online petitions for the return of sales despite the fact that I am not a smoker. It’s about your rights and the terrifying authoritarianism that has gripped our country as fast as the pandemic.

But as those of privilege remove the yolks from their egg-white omelettes or saute their sprouts in virgin olive oil, I ask them to spare a moment, as all of us should, for those who have no choices, who live from day to day waiting for the food bakkie to arrive with those pots of soup and two meagre slices of bread. 

As we fuss with our food it’s a good time to realise that our government had no idea how poor its people were and how they were doing to survive a breakdown of the fragile economy.

Let’s get real about food. DM/TGIFood


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