Choosing to go vegan is a privilege. An uncomfortable statement, and one that will undoubtedly cause a great deal of consternation among my peers, for nobody likes to be told that they have a degree of privilege, no matter how small the degree appears to be. ‘But some of the poorest diets in the world are vegan’, I hear some of you drafting your indignant replies. And there, dear reader, does the distinction lie. Poverty diets are not a choice. A diet lacking in meat and dairy products for wont of the finances, resources and availability of them, is not the same, not remotely the same, as having access to these products and choosing not to use them.
I have eaten a vegan diet since January 2016 – with the odd slip-up because nobody is perfect – and I wrote about that decision for the Guardian, and have written hundreds of low cost vegan recipes, available for free online. I am currently writing a vegan cookbook, Vegan On A Bootstrap. At the same time, I took the decision not to reissue my two previous cookbooks as vegan titles, not to rewrite the half-a-book that was tested and completed before I eliminated meat and dairy products from my diet, and not to remove the non-vegan recipes from my website, Cooking On A Bootstrap.
I received a minor backlash for this at the time, with posters in a Facebook group called ‘Vegan UK’ seizing on an old photo of a paella dish I had cooked for a friend with the ‘spoils from the sea’ from the local fishing village that I live in, in Leigh on Sea, in Essex. I received messages wishing that I would be boiled alive, graphics mocked up of my own face with a fish hook piercing through it, grotesque and threatening. I stood my ground, explaining that my recipes were aimed primarily at people living in or on the margins of poverty, most of whom are omnivores despite my best efforts.
My audience consists of ex-military men teaching themselves to cook for the first time after decades of being served their dinners. Single mums at childrens centres taking twelve week courses that I have written, to teach the basics of shopping on a budget, planning, cooking, and making the most of whatever happens to be in the cupboard or, increasingly, the food bank parcel. My recipes are handed out at food banks up and down the country, sometimes as recipe cards in conjunction with The Trussell Trust and Oxfam, sometimes as a result of food bank volunteers emailing and asking if they can just print out a handful and leave them on the side for people to help themselves. (The answer is always yes, by the way. If you are a food bank trustee or volunteer and you are reading this and you think my recipes would help the people you are helping every day, feel free to print them off with a link to my website at the bottom so they can find the rest of them.)
So while I am vegan in my personal life, I have found it a difficult shift to make in all of my work. Poor people don’t need to be moralised to about what they are eating; we have enough of that with other smug celebrity chefs finger-wagging about sugar and fat and ready meals. Sure, too much sugar and fat causes health problems. So too do beans and onions and gluten for some people, but nobody’s taxing any of that. Again, having choices around the food you eat is a privilege. Not having to shop exclusively from the white labels of the value ranges, or raiding the battered old veg at the end of the day at the market, is a privilege. Not mentally calculating the pennies difference in every item that goes into your shopping basket is a privilege, and one that millions of people in the UK (and across the world) increasingly do not have. Access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and the means with which to buy them, is a privilege.
Arguably, and it is an argument I have made myself time and again, beans and pulses and lentils are cheaper sources of protein than their bovine, porcine or rather fowl counterparts. But at the same time, being able to take a risk on new recipes, new tastes and flavours, knowing that there is something in the cupboard as a backup in case it goes wrong, is a privilege. Confidence in the kitchen, the gadgets and utensils and pans required to cook from scratch, are both barriers to affordable and creative cookery. I try my best to make my books and recipes as simple and accessible to as many people as I can, but even I get emails in the middle of the night asking what could be used instead of a masher (a fork, by the way), or ‘if I could only have one knife, what should it be?’ (a reasonable sized chefs knife with a bit of heft to it, and you can pick them up cheaply and reliably from most major supermarkets). It took me until my third published cookery book to think to buy a rolling pin, growing so accustomed to using the side of a clean jam jar for pastry and cookies and pizza dough. I have a rather large collection of beautiful kitchen utensils nowadays, mostly gifts from friends and the odd high street brand angling for a mention somewhere, and I give a lot of them away to food banks, charity shops and friends in need.
I posted a recipe this morning for a sausage and bean Bolognese, devised and cooked by my eight year old son who, despite my best efforts and gentlest scare stories about my visit to an abbatoir, still wants to eat sausages. I told him he had to buy and cook them himself, hoping it would put him off, and he pulled on his shoes and went to fetch his pocket money. I thought it would all come undone at the cooking stage, as I made him twist the gristly sausagemeat from its skin with his little hands. He rose to the challenge, and I found a compromise in my parenting. I will continue to remind him that I don’t eat animals when he offers me his jelly sweets, but if he is willing to buy and cook animal products himself, as his mother, I will afford him the agency of his body and the supervised freedom to do so.
If people cook my recipes on a regular basis, they will be inadvertently cooking a mostly vegan diet. I use applesauce in place of eggs in my baking and pancakes. Suggest plant based milks where they are cheaply available. But there is a limit as to what is affordable, when you are living on benefits, or off food bank parcels, or on an insecure income, and fairweather veganism is still making a dent in the meat and dairy industries, even if it doesn’t come with all the vegan gold stars and plantbased brownie points.
While Sainsburys Basics hard cheese is a sixth of the price of its vegan counterpart, not everyone will be able to go vegan. While vegan options are more expensive – and shockingly so – not everybody will be able to go vegan. I can make vegan recipes very cheaply, but I can’t make all of my cheap recipes vegan, and I suggest that people who take issue with that would be better off donating Nooch and Sosmix and other vegan staples to their local foodbank, than shouting at poor people on the internet for daring to give their children chicken nuggets and ham sandwiches.
This blog is free to those who need it, and always will be, but it does of course incur costs to run and keep it running. If you use it and benefit, enjoy it, and would like to keep it going, please consider popping something in the tip jar, and thankyou.