Eating my words

by Christine Knight

Right now in my day job as a sociologist of food, I’m trying to write a research proposal about vegetarianism and meat-eating. I’m finding it surprisingly difficult, especially given it only has to be one side of A4. There’s a range of reasons why it’s proving tricky – one is that the Wellcome Trust (my target funder) funds research on the ethical and social aspects of biomedical research and health interventions, so I have to frame vegetarianism in those terms. But the main reason the proposal is stalled is that the project I really want to do – the one that makes me smile whenever I talk about it, and draws other people into conversation – isn’t exactly the one that my analysis of the policy landscape suggests needs doing. I often find this, and it’s a personal dilemma for me in my life as an academic.

The project I want to do is about vegetarian cheating: in other words, vegetarians eating meat. This might make you go “huh?!” – unless you’re a vegetarian yourself, in which case chances are you know exactly what I mean. According to a review out this year in the journal Appetite (Ruby 2012), at least 60% of vegetarians sometimes eat poultry, and at least 20% sometimes eat red meat. (The exact figures vary by country, but not by much.) That’s without even talking about fish, eggs and dairy, and getting into squishy questions like whether pescetarians should be called vegetarians, and whether the only true vegetarians are vegans. At the end of the day, most vegetarians eat meat sometimes: period.

I find this phenomenon fascinating. Partly it’s the whiff of a dirty little secret – our sordid interest in anything a bit naughty, especially if it smacks of hypocrisy and moral failure. I also find vegetarian cheating funny, I think because it’s illogical and out of place – it’s something that’s just not meant to happen, which is why it makes us do a double-take. The first time I encountered vegetarian cheating was 8 or 9 years ago, when a long-time vegetarian friend ordered the kangaroo off a pub menu in Adelaide, and I’m still smiling at the picture of him squirming defensively as we all stared and started to laugh. I’m now pescetarian myself, and have been for over 5 years, but I cheat about twice a year. I love the taste of meat (roast chicken and barbecued lamb are my particular favourites), and there’s no way I can bear to live the rest of my life and not eat it again. Most of the time the mental sound of animals screaming from my plate is more than enough to put me off, but just occasionally I manage to switch it off. And I’m usually glad I do, though a recent trip to a Parisian steakhouse was a notable exception (and another story).

I’m sure part of the motivation for this project is the desire to justify my own hypocrisy and share my guilt around. As a vegetarian I suck, let’s face it, and it’s nice to know that other people suck too. If I get the funding, I can be the priest in the vegetarian confessional, and it’ll be fun – hugely fun. I’ll get to meet loads of vegetarians, whom I generally get along with really well, and talk to them about their carnivorous temptations and transgressions. And hopefully at the end, I can say something useful about why people eat what they eat; how setting some rules for oneself, and breaking them, creates a whole world of twisted dietary pleasures; and how people stick to being vegetarian when it’s so damn hard and they mess up all the time.

The other project, the one I feel like I should do, would be about UK nutrition policy, and why the government won’t recommend that people cut out meat even though (red) meat consumption is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and overall mortality (Pan et al 2012). I’m figuring it’s partly because the government knows that cutting out meat is hard – so maybe I’m planning to do that project after all, just in a back-door kind of way.