The customer is always right. Or to be more precise, you tell the customer that they are always right to their face; but behind their back it’s often a different story.
For, as anyone who has ever waitressed for a living knows, sometimes all that gets you through a long, fraught shift without screaming is looking forward to the companionable moment when the kitchen door swings shut, and everyone can let off steam about the pompous idiot at table nine. If the price of working in a service industry is continually having to smile and bite one’s tongue in public, then with it comes the unwritten right to moan like hell behind the scenes.
Which must, presumably, have been what chef Laura Goodman thought she was doing when she posted on Facebook about how a “pious, judgmental vegan (who I spent all day cooking for) has gone to bed still believing she’s a vegan”, adding that she had “spiked” their food.
What exactly she meant by that is now shrouded in mystery. Goodman’s partner says she was just cross after spending hours whipping up vegan dishes to accommodate a party with strict dietary requirements, only for one of them to order a margherita pizza with (decidedly non-vegan) mozzarella from the normal menu. There was, they insist, no illicit meat smuggled into anything.
Even so, the couple have received the inevitable death threats that now appear to be some people’s default reaction to pretty much anything posted online, and which – however unfairly for those very many vegans who are happy to settle mozzarella-based disputes without resorting to murder – do nothing to dispel the dismal reputation of some self-styled animal rights activists. When millions around the world don’t have enough to eat, there’s something obscene about threatening to kill over a pizza topping. Nobody’s body is that much of a temple.
But if vegans don’t have the right to impose their moral certainty on others, then omnivores don’t have the right to shove their culinary choices down other people’s throats either, and that creates interesting questions about how to balance the two. We’ve long moved on from the days when meat and two veg was the default option, and vegetarians were lucky to be grudgingly offered an omelette. But the culinary free-for-all emerging is not without its tensions.
It goes without saying that secretly spiking dinner with something a guest has expressly said they wouldn’t eat, whether in a restaurant or around the kitchen table at home, isn’t just high-handed but potentially dangerous. People should be able to trust that what’s on the plate corresponds to what’s on the menu, even if you do suspect that their supposed lactose intolerance was self-diagnosed from a magazine article; or their newfound beliefs are a fleeting teenage phase; because eating a meal cooked by someone else is fundamentally an act of faith.
But if you realise only while dishing up your sister-in-law’s nut roast that you absent-mindedly cooked it in the same goose fat as the rest of Christmas lunch, is it unforgivable to keep quiet? What if they’re one of those vegetarians who eats fish, and sometimes chicken when they fancy it, but still gives their host the third degree about gelatine in the strawberry mousse? Does it make a difference if they’re only doing it to lose weight, or because it’s January (aka Veganuary), or because they’re 15-year-olds who switch seamlessly from scoffing Big Macs one day to pious lectures about meat being murder the next?
It’s the piety, as much as the overlooked butternut squash special, that seems to have annoyed Goodman; that and the inconsistency of calling ahead to discuss vegan menus and then apparently fancying a cheesy pizza on the night. Either you’re making a conscious moral choice not to take part in the killing or exploitation of animals for food, which inevitably carries with it the tacit implication that everyone else’s morals are rather lacking, or you’re not. If the calling to eat plants is that profound, how can it also be that flexible?
And yet this cheerfully pick-and-mix, eclectic approach to eating is probably where western diets are now heading. Having once thought of vegetarian food as joyless and deprived, these days I find myself eating more and more of it. That’s not an ethical choice but a greedy response to the fact that meat-free cooking is just more exciting than it used to be, plus a vague sense that eating more vegetables must be good.
But even if you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons, there’s an undeniable sense of smugness that comes with going veggie even once or twice a week. No wonder “flexitarianism” – eating less meat, but not giving it up completely, and then boring on constantly about how much more energy you have now – is suddenly so fashionable.
All right, so knocking up a vegetable curry once a week won’t bring the factory-farming industry to its knees overnight. It’s arguably the foodie equivalent of ostentatiously recycling in order to save the planet, while still driving a diesel 4×4. But eating this way is manageable, and not anti-social, and gradually the realisation that vegetarian food isn’t necessarily awful can lead to a further moment of truth; the queasy understanding that the only really good reason for eating animals is pleasure. There’s no righteous, selfless case for meat-eating. We just do it because it tastes nice.
And that’s perhaps the real reason some carnivores are so quick to cry hypocrisy, interrogating vegans endlessly about whether they wear leather watch straps or use medicines that have been tested on animals or break the rules when hungover. Hunting for “gotcha” moments is a natural response to sanctimony but it can also be a convenient way of ducking the issue, which is the pang of conscience that even the most ardent bacon sandwich lover feels when facing a real live piglet.
However bad we feel about eating animals, most of us just aren’t prepared to live off tofu, which is why all-or-nothing food zealots do their movement no favours. But millions could manage meat-free Mondays, or being a little bit vegetarian, or even edging towards vegan except when the pizza looks really tempting. Maddening as part-timers are for chefs and home cooks alike, it’s a lot easier than going cold (non) turkey, and arguably more likely to lead in the long run to the more sustainable eating habits a crowded planet probably requires. Just don’t insist on having your flourless vegan cake, and then not eating it.
- Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist