The Vegetarian Vacuum

Having a vegetarian lunch with a friend the other day, I told him a revealing titbit. ‘Did you know that Ghandi supposedly employed his grandniece Manu to lie in bed with him to test his ability to resist erections?’

‘What?’ said my friend, his face incredulous, ‘surely that can’t be true.’

‘No, it is. I was reading it in an article yesterday.’

‘I’ll never look at Ghandi in the same way again,’ he said, before filling his glass with water.

I began to wonder why the famous non meat-eater Ghandi did such a thing – did he do it out of need or desire? He obviously wanted to prove that he could accept an ascetic existence and rise above natural human cravings, but did he have to go that far? And was this performance, or lack of it in this case, designed to convince his followers that the spiritual could always overcome the physical?  In a twisted leap of logic, I then started thinking about the vegetarian food we were eating. Was I doing this out of need or desire?

My buddy was treating me to lunch as a way of saying thanks for my gasp-and-grunt riddled help in shifting large objects of furniture that morning, as he moved his young family to their new home.  Moving is such a horrible experience and when we go through it, I think the painful memory lodges so fixedly in the back of our minds, that we only choose to stay where we are just so we don’t have to do it again; not because of any deep-seated longing for place.

We tried to pace the day: get the heavy, backbreaking objects out of the way in the morning, break for food and then we’d sweep up the remainder of the items at a leisurely going, considering how our soon-to-be-full bellies might slow us up a little.

The writer Will Self says he has more or less ‘done away’ with lunch as one of his meals of the day and instead snacks on rice cakes and the like, which can perhaps explains the prodigious amount of work he produces, not to mention his lean, rakish demeanour. However I still have a fondness for the in-between meal – there is something devilishly good about it.

A long, indolent lunch can temporarily fool you into believing that you are a man of means, with nothing more pressing on the horizon than further lounging. Even the disparaging euphemism ‘out to lunch’ in the United States has its own poetic merit; it is the American way of saying that someone is, in the harshest light ‘crackers’, or with a little dilution, in a ‘world of his own’. And a good world it can be too, if like me, you have the luxury of eating outside of the prescribed lunch hour of one o’clock to two, thereby avoiding the bustling herd of workers grazing noisily on the crowded café pasture.

With the heavy lifting out of the way, we made our way to a little village nearby, where my pal (who it should be pointed out is a meat eating careerist) informed me that we were to lunch in a highly regarded vegetarian café. My heart sank.

Working up a serious sweat that morning brought out the carnivorous beast in me and I wanted to sink my teeth into something succulent, tender and fleshy and wash it down with something very cold and very alcoholic. Manual labour brought the Neanderthal out of his cave, beating his chest, primed for meat and chanting ‘Ug! Ug! Ug!’

Perhaps a few words of qualification are needed at this stage dear reader, in case you think of me as some kind of bog-snorkelling philistine, who would put my granny on eBay for the price of a ham sandwich: I believe in the philosophy and practicalities of vegetarianism, and respect the people who practise it. At times I wish I could be one too, but I’m not ashamed to say I couldn’t give up meat; to paraphrase Chuck Heston, you will have to wrench the bacon sandwich from my cold, dead hand.  That said, one of the best meals I’ve had in recent years was in a vegetarian restaurant, ‘Café Paradiso’ in Cork, that has justifiably garnered praise from national and international reviewers and even the most worldly gastrosoph or plain-old beefeater would struggle to find fault with their food. However when it comes to eating out at vegetarian places on the whole, this has proved the exception rather than the rule.

Going out to lunch or dinner at a veggie joint is akin to having sex without foreplay: you get what you want out of it, but as you come away, you think that it could have been so much more fun. Something in your brain tells you that you are satisfied, but for some reason an empty feeling remains in your stomach.

I’m not saying that eating vegetarian food when dining out is not enjoyable because there is no meat. No, there are plenty of bad restaurants out there serving carnivorous calamities too. But there is something so specifically vague in the fare that is served up by a vegetarian eatery. To illustrate my point, when we arrived for lunch there were only two dishes to choose from (Greek Moussaka or Sweet Potato & Squash Korma) with the option of rice on the side, or a selection of two salads. Neither of these two dishes were inspiring and as a consequence we both picked the same thing, with rice but no salad as we knew we were eating later on.

The insipid food wilted my will for conversation (Ghandi aside). I sat there pondering it and its taste of nothingness. If you had burst into the packed café, put a gun to my head and asked me what flavours were in the dish, I would have failed to answer and pleaded for your mercy, with scared puppy dog eyes, not to pull the trigger. It would be easier for me to describe what mercury tastes like. I could get sweet potato, boy could I get potato! But that was as good as it got for my taste buds.  It was a Jackson Pollock-style plate of everything and nothing.

Which, sadly, has always been my prevailing experience of eating out in ‘quality’ veggie places: each dish on their menu is the length of an Irish limerick, but the kicker at the end falls flat when you go to actually eat the damn thing. There never seems to be an overriding motif in their food, which is why I will never go to lunch or dinner in a ‘vegetarian vacuum’ again (we eat out so we can have a little slice of sweetness carved from the huge rump of everyday life). But these places suck the life out of me. Matters are not helped by the seemingly mandatory queuing system either; tray in hand, I’m immediately transplanted back to the days of canteen combat needed in the unforgiving food chain of an all-boys Catholic school and all the glamour that entailed. Thankfully, it seems unlikely that a scuffle would break out in a queue of vegans, considering their compassionate nature.

And this is the thing: when I observed the nice people around me eating, I thought this wasn’t an argument about food really, but it was a lifestyle decision.  Maybe by choosing this ascetic lifestyle, it allowed vegetarians to feel better about them selves, not in a superior or arrogant way, but in a way that can justify their place in this world. It could be seen as a way of testing their character on a daily basis and that perhaps our craving for meat is a symptom of our basest vice: greed.

And for that, I respect them wholeheartedly. Unfortunately I can’t say the same about their food.

After our lunch, the two of us were busily moving furniture again in the strong heat of the afternoon sun. We talked about the parallel between veggie-based/meat-based food and beer/non-alcoholic beer. One was functional, I said, while the other was fun. You chose one for your needs and the other because of your desire.

‘Aye, and if Ghandi spent his day shifting furniture, I know which bloody one he would choose,’ said my buddy. I nodded in agreement as we locked the van and drove off with our job done; all that was ahead of us now was an Indian takeaway and the cold beers waiting in the fridge.  Unlike Ghandi, we were looking forward to a stiff one.