By Meredith Stephens
“Stop cooking meat! I can smell it all the way up here,” my younger daughter Annika upbraided me from her upstairs bedroom.
I had made a rare purchase of mincemeat as part of a packet of ingredients to be assembled for the evening meal. Choices were so limited when you had a vegan in the family. I had almost given up buying meat and chicken, but persisted in buying eggs, fish and dairy. Eventually I found words to describe myself which I could use to feel virtuous, such as a ‘pescatarian’ – a fish eating vegetarian, and ‘flexitarian’ – a vegetarian when it was convenient. Annika didn’t mind if I made vegetarian dishes, but wouldn’t partake unless they were vegan.
“It’s okay for you to be vegan,” I retorted. “But you don’t have to impose your values on the rest of us. You don’t always conform to my values either.”
“Like what?” she asked.
“I’m not getting into that now. It’s okay for you not to eat meat but you can’t force the rest of us to give it up too,” I repeated.
I descended the stairs to the kitchen and took in the unusual smell of cooking meat, which has been absent from our kitchen for a couple of years. Then I bravely assembled the meal, spreading out the wrap, adding the mince mixture and topping it off with some tzatziki (a Greek yogurt sauce. I folded the wrap and sat down to eat it with my trusted Labrador Tia in front of me. Tia fixed her eyes on me unwaveringly and pricked up her ears. It was my habit to share all my meals and snacks with her.
When we had bought her at the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) I had asked the vet whether it was okay to give her human food. He asked whether I meant sharing my toast with her in the morning. When I nodded he affirmed, “Of course!” From that moment I considered myself to have official approval to share any healthy food with Tia. If I were eating an apple, I would bite off one bit for her and one for me. When I was making a salad, I would hygienically feed her lettuce leaves, tomato tops, or slices of cucumber. (I do confess to feeding her occasional crumbs from my chocolate cake when no-one was looking.) The day that Annika scolded me for cooking meat, Tia was even more excited than usual. She was anticipating that I would share the mincemeat with her. I started to ingest the meat, but the smell put me off, so I passed most of it off to Tia. Needless to say, she was delighted. However, she didn’t savour it, but rather gulped it down quickly without leaving time to enjoy it.
Annika had always shown a sensitivity to the feelings of animals, even rodents. When we first moved into our house we would sometimes see a sudden movement as a mouse darted between the sofa and the fireplace. It was embarrassing to have a well-to-do guest suddenly ask you, “Was that a mouse?”
I wasn’t sure how to get rid of mice without killing them, and tried sonic deterrents which you could plug into an electric socket. Once Annika spotted a mouse in the house. She thought it was a native mouse, a marsupial, because its forelegs were shorter than its hind legs. She could even see the mouse’s heart beating through its chest as it trembled. Then she felt sorry for it and left it alone. After that I asked my husband to deal with the mice, and didn’t ask any more questions. The mice disappeared.
Until Annika became a vegan I had disassociated meat from animals. The packets of neatly wrapped meat in the supermarkets had nothing to do with the animals that you passed on farms in drives through the country. One day Annika drew a connection between Tia and meat, asking if I would eat Tia. From then on I could associate meat with living animals. The meat shelves in the supermarket became distasteful and I had to look the other way as I passed.
A friend has a business selling kangaroo meat overseas. She made a post on social media explaining why kangaroo meat is better than meat from farms; kangaroos are game, and they are not killed in the abbatoirs. I hesitated over the ‘like’ button as I read this. I was convinced by her argument but reluctant to agree with the notion of killing Australia’s national symbol, featured in our Coat of Arms and decorating the tail of the national carrier.
I work overseas and return to Australia every holiday. My pleasure in Australia’s fauna and flora is enhanced because of my long absences. When I return I am delighted to spot kangaroos in the countryside, possums in tree hollows, and koalas sleeping in trees in the neighbourhood.
Every morning is a visual and auditory feast. I spot rainbow lorikeets on the balcony, and cockatoos feeding on neighbouring lawns.
I listen to families of kookaburras cackling, and magpies serenading me. I am enjoying the fauna more than ever, and I can understand Annika’s feelings for them.
Not only that, times of global turmoil when movement is restricted are ideal for slowing down and appreciating nature. As Alain de Botton says on his homepage, “You normally have to be bashed about a bit by life to see the point of daffodils, sunsets and uneventful nice days.” In these tumultuous and uncertain times there is an exquisite pleasure to be had in communing with animals and birds. Now I can find the time to still myself for long enough to enjoy watching the sulphur-crested cockatoos squawking as they land on the lawn to peck for their dinner.
Nevertheless, my dietary resolutions are more due to the impact of the younger generation than the enhanced appreciation of wildlife afforded by the time for reflection in the lockdown. I will probably remain a pescatarian, or even a flexitarian. I won’t become a vegan and I will respect the choices of my friends and family to eat whatever they want. However, I do understand the younger generation’s commitment to veganism, and am prepared to admit that older is not necessarily wiser.
Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies entitled What’s Cooking Mom? Narratives about Food and Family, The Migrant Maternal: “Birthing” New Lives Abroad, and Twenty-First Century Friendship, all published by Demeter Press, Canada.