I didn’t take up drinking tea until very late in life – my twenties, as it happens.
Yes, I know that one’s twenties don’t exactly qualify as autumn years, but so engrained is the concept of The Tay in Ireland, not supping of a cuppa until you’ve moved out from home is as alien as growing feet on your ears. I taught myself to like tea because I was sick of various mammies dropping the pot in terror when I refused a splash. Whole armies of Missus Doyles stood against me. I couldn’t beat them. Not with reason, not with stroppiness, not with grandiose fabrications of horrible allergies; it was easier just to temper my tastebuds and get on with it.
Well, to an extent anyway. I drink my tea black without sugar, which wrecks their heads to an degree I’m placated by.
I began drinking tea. A little after that, I stopped eating meat. And the whole frantic rìrà began anew.
“You don’t eat meat? You … wha’? I don’t understand. How can you not eat meat? What do you eat instead?”
It started, as most things do, with my mother, who was amazed and appalled in equal measure, as if I’d suddenly become able to peel my face off at will. “Would you not have a bit of ham?” she would offer, as ham is, in her mind, not Real Meat and therefore perfectly acceptable fare for vegetarians. And in a sense, she has a point. Commercial ham slices are mostly salted water mixed with márla.
“I won’t have a bit of ham, no.”
“No, Mam. Vegetarians don’t eat chicken.”
“Mary Flaherty’s daughter eats chicken and she’s a vegetarian.”
“She’s not a vegetarian, Mam; she’s just health-conscious.”
“Jaysus. Well, what will I feed you?” And she’d stand in the middle of her kitchen, arms and eyes to heaven, hoping for divine intervention to recondition her unconventional spawn, praying for a celestial cow to fall into my gullet.
In the end she got used to the idea, and now, whenever I travel home to see her, she heats up two frozen veggie burgers and sticks them in the middle of a big white plate for me. Small mercies, dear reader. Baby steps.
It’s not just my mammy, who’s so set in her ways you could use her as a mathematical constant. Vegetarianism is not an uncommon lifestyle choice, but it still provokes some befuddling reactions here in Ireland. Let’s face it, this is a country where you were always expected to eat-that-up-it’s-good-for-you and thank the Lawrd above that you weren’t a starving child in Africa who’d have been only too delighted to finish that cabbage. We come from a long line of putter-ups or shutter-ups. The Celtic Tiger, and foreign holidays, and the influx of English bohemians who gave our comely maidens funny ideas about animal rights and breastfeeding – sure what else could you blame for this generation of Irish who have particular tastes and strong notions?
It’s not as if I’m a raw food fanatic, or fruitarian, or even a plain ole’ vegan. I just don’t eat dead things. I don’t give a (living, breathing) monkey who else eats meat. I don’t. That’s all.
“Do you eat fish?” is the most common question I’m asked.
“But fish aren’t animals!”
“Fish have no memories,” I’m informed.
“Evidence suggests that they do,” I reply. “And anyway, I know plenty of people with terrible memories and I don’t go about attacking them with chilli sauce and cutlery.”
“Are you one of those mad people that won’t eat eggs?”
“I love eggs.”
“Well, I suppose that’s ok so,” they say, backing away slowly.
None of this is because vegetarians are considered dangerously insane, mind. I firmly believe that such bewildered reactions to my diet come from our hospitable culture – you wouldn’t have visitors to your house without offering them refreshment, and it’s a pain in your homely bosom if your visitors have unpredictable attitude towards dead pigs. Worse if you’ve got a veggie coming to dinner; what on earth can they eat, if not steak/chops/chicken/salmon? You cannot leave a guest hungry at an Irish table. It would be mortifying.
There’s also an attitude, not confined to Ireland, that vegetarians are prissy, overly-principled, preachy and awkward. All of which apply to me on a general basis, but my vegetarianism genuinely isn’t something I prop my chin up on. I’m really easy to please. Just give me spuds and salt. Job done.
The lack of understanding what a vegetarian is, as opposed to having to understand their motivations, is what flummoxes me. Vegetarians don’t eat dead animals. Dead animals are what meat’s cut from, so no meat. The most complicated thing is cheese, and in fairness, I do understand that many carnivores won’t be aware that some cheese isn’t vegetarian – I don’t understand why Irish restaurants don’t know this, though. Surely chefs know the difference between vegetarian rennet and animal rennet? The amount of veggie dishes in Irish restaurants liberally and lovingly sprinkled with parmesan really confounds me – parmesan is made to a traditional recipe which includes calf rennet – but then again, I recently bought Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals (I’m the only veggie in my house) and the majority of his “vegetarian” recipes had more parmesan in than a waddling procession of overfed Italians. If Jamie Oliver, the world’s most famous chef, doesn’t know what parmesan is, then I can’t really blame the local beee-strow.
In the meantime, I’ve resigned myself to sticking to coffee in McDonalds and nibbling my fingernails at catered events. Oh, and surviving on the occasional, lonely veggie burger when at the homestead. One day, we’ll get the hang of these alternative lifestyles.
And on that day, I intend to stuff. My. Face.