Treehuggingby Rebecca Riley
My vegetable love should grow vaster than empires, and more slow.
The beet is the most intense of vegetables.
The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion.
Some while past, and putting a novel spin on the phrase ‘green fingered’, a close friend of mine declared a rare passion for vegetables: she informed me that she had adopted the humble courgette as her preferred masturbatory contrivance. I say humble – in truth it was generally a courgette with much to pride itself upon, firm, thick and of a goodly length.
It was a habit, you might suppose, that – while admirably ecological – she might have preferred to keep between herself and the Curcurbita pepo in question. And yet not only was I made (boast)fully aware of this predilection, so also were a large proportion of her wider acquaintance and, indeed, her mother; for these were the Sex and the City years, when every woman and her cat were familiar with the gentle hum of the Rampant Rabbit and our dildos were kept on our nightstands, nudging a gap in the fringe of the bedside lamp or marking the page in a discarded book. Nonetheless, knowledge of my friend’s zest for zucchini certainly made our occasional supermarket shops together a curiously intimate experience. One does not generally feel a gooseberry in the vegetable aisle.
I have been reminded of my friend rather frequently of late, as I too have been busily getting to grips with courgettes, squash, pumpkins and all the many members of the marrow family. My own delights are rather less carnal than hers, however; indeed, as far from carnal as is possible to imagine. For – whisper it! – I find, to my puzzlement, that I no longer much enjoy consuming meat.
To make it clear: this is not code. I remain as happily red-blooded in all other respects as I was erstwhile. Still, I will confess a perverse sense of guilt and identity-confusion about no longer fancying flesh, having previously held to the view that omnivorous appetites signal an uninhibited attitude to sex. Call it ‘Tom Jones Syndrome’: an unworried, unhurried, bugger-the-waistline living for the day. “Beware the ‘small glass’,” I always warned young girlfriends when asked my advice as a woman of the world, “the ‘diet tonic’, the ‘half-bottle of Champagne’”. His moue of distaste when offered an oyster, his frown when you lick clean the crumble-spoon – these do not bode well for later pleasures: better the sensualist Falstaff than a sunken-cheeked ascetic in your bed. I myself was always emphatically a steak-eater, the rarer the better. Leaving aside the loaf of bread, my own personal Rubaiyat was more a côte de veau, a nice Fronton and thou.
My unexpected palate-change is certainly timely. Mounting scientific evidence seems to show that, regardless of any health benefits that accrue to our own bodies, it would certainly be far better for the planet if we Westerners could reduce or even relinquish our desire for meat and dairy. A huge reduction in meat-consumption is said to be essential to avoiding climate breakdown.
Given that, you might ask what precisely is my beef with vegetarians? Why not just take up veganism and be done with it? Perhaps because to me it always seemed like joyless effort, and over-fond of the wagging finger – Nanny’s stricture to ‘Eat up your vegetables!’ writ over-large. When I think ‘vegan’, what comes to mind is beardiness and ‘brew-your-own’; that strange melancholy odour of wilting oats and herbal tea that pervades every health-food shop; the slow shake of the head and the unasked lecture on the evils of fillings, trans-fats and inoculation; tie-dye and flax seed. Folk music, even, I shouldn’t wonder.
To call oneself vegetarian seems to require signing-up to a lifestyle manifesto. And, fingers burned by my stint in a B&D relationship (well, that’s what you get, fucking a fellow with a thing for candle-wax), my personal brand of lazy anarchism does not take well to the impositions of the overly rigid and rule-bound. I was never labelled with anything that I didn’t want to flout and if you’ve any familiarity with my work, you’ll know that I am ill-suited to abstinence and negation.
Bloody-minded, you see.
For you could not find a greater contrast to the abandoned pleasures of the hedonist than calorie-counting, ingredient-checking ‘clean-eaters’; the sort of neurotic fusspots who might force a calliper fat-test and ethical quiz on would-be lovers before admitting their attentions. Wellness queen Goop – Ms Paltrow as was, Mrs Falchuk at time of going to press – steams organic vegetables and her vagina with equal healthy glee. The ‘Mugwort V-Steam’, so she holds, cleanses your uterus, rebalances your hormones and peps up your energy levels. Frankly so far as I can see the clue is in the name, since anyone who pays good money to steam-launder a self-cleansing orifice is a mug indeed and one whose absurdly mystical ignorance of the role and route of the hormone in the human body is subject to a self-imposed idiot-tax. When you’re sourcing your lube from health-food shops (organic coconut or almond oils are recommended), and sticking semi-precious stone eggs up your Precious (for ‘biofeedback’), you’ve entered the realm of the pitifully try-hard; the pursuit of Insta-worthy, nutritionist-advised, posed and styled effortlessness. Only in wearily right-on Portland, OR, would such a thing as a ‘Vegan Strip Club’ appear. Of course one is unlikely to go full Manic Pixie Dream Girl just by eliminating animal protein, but I’ll confess a little concern. I have certainly been doing more yoga of late…
A glance in the other dietary direction, however, fills me with equal alarm: it was perhaps inevitable that Goop’s antithesis – the übermasculinist Jordan Peterson – would take to an all-meat diet. Yang to her yin, he proclaims that he eats: “beef and salt and water. That’s it, and I never cheat. Ever.” Like Gwyneth, Peterson attributes incredible benefits to his eating plan: not only has he shed more than four stone from his frame, he believes that he is sharper of mind and no longer prone to depression. (Let no-one tell him he is dangerously lacking in fibre, vital nutrients and vitamins. Even Eskimos consume undigested algae, plankton, and seaweeds from the stomachs of the fish, walrus and whales they catch.) Personally I lay the blame for Peterson’s lifestyle choice firmly on the English language, which has long characterised with carnivorous epithets the macho qualities he craves to be thought to embody: a ‘red-blooded’ male who is ‘red in tooth and claw’, offering ‘meaty’ argument with ‘much to chew on’.
Peterson is as desperate to embody substance and satiety, rugged individualism and human dominion over nature, as the milksop Paltrow is clear-eyed ethereality and holistic pacifism. Yet though meat-eating is conventionally associated with bulging musculature and physical strength, ironically many of the beefy men of the past that Peterson admires, such as gladiators and Spartan warriors, have been proven by archaeological bone analysis to have been largely vegan. All the same, I find both poles of the Paltrow-Peterson spectrum equally distasteful as role-models for food-fascism. Steaming your yoni in the Red Tent, or beating your meat in a Man Cave – my stomach churns at either option. What’s a girl to do?
I suppose the answer lies in gut-instinct. Accept that, for now, I do not want bacon, a burger or chops – but abstain from labelling my food preferences with anything that would inflate them into a ‘lifestyle choice’. Most hosts are thoughtful enough to ask ahead, and I will answer as seems right on the day, and failing that, eat whatever is put in front of me. And if asked why I no longer help myself to fistfuls of cocktail sausages, I will cite a UC Berkeley study which found that monkeys who ate more tofu spent less time grooming, and more time having sex. Sounds as if they have their priorities right, to me.