The first time I met a vegan was in London in the Eighties, when it was still so niche as to be regarded as a kind of gastronomic disability.
He had the air of a man whose task was so Sisyphusean it had drained the colour from his face. This was when avocados were something of a novelty you had to ripen in your airing cupboard for a week and nobody had ever heard of almond butter. Today, there are almost 550,000 vegans in the UK, and interest in Ireland is growing so rapidly that the Vegan Society of Ireland has run out of information packs.
Veganism is butching up. Handing out water to participants at a marathon in my adopted home town recently, I was struck by how many sweaty, ultra-focused athletes bore the words ‘Vegan Runner’ on their fronts. Vegan nutrition is no longer an oxymoron suggesting pale, willowy poets or raging fanatics; it is broadening out, including us all. Vegan boxers, weight-lifters, swimmers — all muscle and strength and power.
There are three reasons people are going for it — vegan for the planet (animal farming, says the UN, causes more climate changing emissions than cars and planes combined); vegan for health (the link between our cancer rates – more than 1 in 3 — and our high animal protein diet is indisputable); and vegan for the animals (“Eat your own sodding leg,” said a spokesperson for lambs).
The problem all along has been twofold — its colonisation by hippies, and the lack of mainstream food. My first dinner at a vegan restaurant — again, in Eighties London — was a plate of brown mush surrounded by angry dreadlocked people in (non-leather) hobnailed boots. All a bit unappetising. After the hippies came the Gwyneth Paltrow eat clean army, making even the best intentioned of us reach reflexively for a bag of deep-fried M&Ms.
But due to the expansion of veganism — thanks not to any daft celebrities, but to the power of the internet, where we can all connect with each other about important things like cashew cream banoffee pie — the word ‘vegan’ has now become as normalised as ‘vegetarian’ 20 years ago. We are evolving. Even in meaty milky Ireland, we are waking up and smelling the soya latte — there’s nothing like cancer statistics to make you reach for the plant-based protein.
We’ve long been told we need dairy or our skeletons will turn to dust. Except they don’t. We are the only mammals on earth who continue to drink milk past weaning, and even stranger, the milk we drink is taken from another species — we then hear of people being lactose intolerant, but it’s hardly surprising when the lactose of which we are intolerant is designed by cows for cows. Isn’t it odd what we normalise? Then again, until quite recently, smoking was normal. These days, you can get vegan food in mainstream supermarkets, while the cigarettes are hidden away and covered in health warnings. Evolution.
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