Vegetarians throughout the land will be sharpening their carrots on reading what I’m about to write, but in the interests of levity I have to own up to my one acknowledged prejudice: no, not vegetarians, but vegetarianism. There is a difference.

Many vegetarians do not make much of an “ism” of their chosen diet. They simply eat in their own way without foisting their lifestyle choices on others. But there is a particular brand of fundamentalist vegetarian for whom a diet becomes a regime, and their lifestyle a mission to prove just how vegetarian or vegan they are and why everyone should be aware of the wholesomeness and rightness of their regimen, to the extent that I wonder sometimes if it isn’t a form of politically correct fascism.

My worst thing is menus describing non-meat dishes as a “vegetarian option”. What nonsense. When did vegetables become the preserve of vegetarians? I love vegetables. I eat everything from peas and carrots to beetroot, fennel bulb, chicory, brinjal and tomatoes. I eat more vegetables than most vegetarians. And I love them best when accompanied by a lovely piece of lean meat, oozing blood and attitude. A vegetarian’s nightmare.

Talking of which: two recent anecdotes about what you might term vegetarianist incidents in my restaurant may serve to illustrate the distinction between vegetarian, per se, and flagrant vegetarianism.

A woman in her middle years stands before the blackboard menu on the front stoep.

“Is that all you have?”
“No, it’s a sample of what there is,” I reply. ‘We also have …”
“I don’t eat meat.”
“Oh, no problem, I’m always happy to make a pasta dish for …”
“I don’t eat pasta.”
“Oh, well …”
“I eat chicken,” she says.
“I have a lovely chicken curry …”
“I don’t eat curry.”
“Oh.”
“I eat eggs and chips. Can you make me eggs and chips?”
“Well, sorry, I can’t tonight.” (I didn’t have eggs in stock.)

There’s a pause, then, accusingly: “Don’t you cater for vegetarians?”

Funny thing is, I do. I actually enjoy making vegetable dishes, and I usually offer vegetarian customers something custom-made for their palate. But what part of “I don’t eat” did this lady not hear herself saying? You might be vegetarian, but if you don’t eat meat you’re going to have to force something down.

“Look, what I can do is bake you half a butternut with some lovely flavours; let me see what I can do for you,” I offer.

But no, this too is not good enough. I have not pandered sufficiently to her peculiar demands and therefore I am presumed to be unhelpful in her quest to be fed whatever it is she is prepared to eat, which to this day remains a mystery to the rest of the world.

Nothing is good enough for the more recalcitrant vegetarian. We must drop what we’re doing and make the most special vegetarian dish in the world, full of magical organic ingredients at which the rest of humanity can only marvel. There must be nothing obvious in it. No boring old tomatoes or sighingly familiar butternut, and puhlease do not bore us with mere pasta.

Talking of which: then there was the slender creature who draped herself in my kitchen doorway and asked to read the pasta packet. I was about to hand it to her when she walked right into my kitchen, picked it up and read the small print.

“Ja, that’s OK,” she said.
“Oh good, well, I can make you a nice tomato-based sauce …”
“I don’t eat tomato.”
“With capers …”
“I don’t like capers.”
“Red peppers?”
“Ummmm …”
“Garlic?”
“Ooh, no.”

Excuse me, but what is this really about? Is it about getting attention, about having everybody focus on you and your needs? If you don’t eat meat, poultry, fish, basically anything that moves, surely you must eat butternut, tomatoes, something?

Anyway, after I had made a few more suggestions of what I might put in her pasta sauce (a few less palatable things came to mind), she smiled wanly and said: “Oh, just drizzle a little olive oil over the pasta, that’ll be fine.”

The inference being, again, that I’m obviously not prepared to make a suitable vegetable-based sauce for her and therefore am remiss in not pandering to her unfathomable palate.

Then, and I will never forget the moment, on being served her linguine alla olive oil, she promptly opened her handbag, took out an avocado and proceeded to peel strips of it over her pasta.

A far more palatable vegetarian anecdote is the one about a luncheon function on a farm in the Hantam Karoo. A number of the invited guests were from Cape Town and there would doubtless be a vegetarian or two in the group.

The tannie in charge of the catering was asked by the tour group leader what she had for anyone who didn’t eat meat.

“Ag, don’t worry,” she said. “We’ve got chicken for the vegetarians.”

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Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman

Tony Jackman is a journalist, budding playwright and sometime chef. He's written two plays, An Influence of Ghosts and Blue Train Coming, and back in the day wrote loads of songs. He paints a bit in watercolours...

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