Gourmet vegetarian cooking for soldiers and sailors? Army catering may have had its arm forced,
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The Independent Culture
Recent years have seen a rapid growth in the numbers of vegetarians serving in the armed forces and the catering schools from all three Services now teach chefs preparation and presentation of vegetarian food.

The Royal Navy school of catering, at HMS Raleigh in Plymouth, has been teaching vegetarian cooking for the past five years and one of the choices of the three main courses provided on board ship is always meat free. "The teaching of vegetarian cooking is an important part of the training for our chefs who must be able to provide a varied and nutritious diet for all serving personnel," says Lt Cdr Boncey, from HMS Raleigh. He suspects that the greater recruitment of women into all branches of the Navy made a significant contribution to the increase in demand for vegetarian meals. All the armed forces recognise that diet is, where possible, a matter for personal choice, and now make a provision for the increasing number of vegetarians who choose to take the Queen's shilling.

To most civilians, the lifestyle and philosophy of the fighting forces would seem to be a contradiction to that apparently embraced by vegetarianism. This is a view considered naive and is vigorously criticised by vegetarian soldiers who say it is much harder for them to make, and then justify, philosophical choices about lifestyle than for their civilian counterparts. "I've put my life on the line serving, to try and preserve peace. My service has always been concerned with the stupidity of people, never a field of sheep. So it makes perfect sense to me not to want to kill animals," one soldier said. Many vegetarian recruits have avoided meat from childhood and so consider any ideological discussion pointless. One experienced officer summed up his view point, "If, ultimately, we are serving to preserve the democracy of this country, then why should it be such a surprise to find that many serving men and women exercise their right to make free choices about what they eat? You don't have to have blood dripping down your chin to be an effective soldier. We are all human".

Gilly Cubbit, editor of the BBC Vegetarian Good Food Magazine, does not see it that way. "We think our readers would be rather uncomfortable with the idea of vegetarians in the armed forces".

An RAF spokesman said that the increasing presence of vegetarians in the Services was of no surprise, since they were committed to recruiting intelligent and free-thinking men and women for the increasingly technical demands of a modern fighting force. "If an individual has made a reasoned choice to live their life in a certain way, then so long as it doesn't interfere with the interests of the Service, we have no problem with them".

Away from the comfort of their bases, serving vegetarians have their ethical, ideological and even health, motivation tested beyond finding that the restaurant chosen for a night out can't confirm that it is vegetarian suet in the treacle pudding. On deployment, personnel are usually fed from stocks of prepared and pre-packaged food, all of which contain animal products. "Veggies" either have to buy and carry their own food, or rely on swapping items with their mates. Nutritionally, the system can work well, but because the rations contain the same vegetable components which are supposed to be flavoured by the meat, it can become boring to eat the same thing day after day. When set against the tedium, but also stress, of operating in the field, this can test resolve to its extremes.

A few years ago, most units couldn't understand the needs of the very few serving vegetarians. Those pioneering individuals had to endure a huge number of omelettes and macaroni cheese before they were able to prevail, and convince the catering staff that their presence was an opportunity to develop new cooking skills. Today, the chefs make every effort to ensure that all the personnel have a variety of dishes. Contrary to popular belief, the ordinary serving men usually eat better than the officers. With many mess kitchens unable to share dishes, sheer weight of demand means that while the junior ranks enjoy a variety of vegetarian food, the officer "veggies" have much more of an uphill struggle to get food prepared for their particular demands. "I find that a couple of well placed bottles of wine, attached to Rosamond Richmonds Vegetarian Gourmet, generally encourages the chef to take care of me when I am posted somewhere new. End of problem, except for the jealousy of my brother officers," said one officer.

Because they are often involved in high levels of physical activity, the fare demanded by serving vegetarians tends toward bulk foods full of strong simple tastes. But servicemen say all of it rivals anything found in non-specialist restaurants and is freshly prepared daily. For this reason, many vegetarians in the forces would rather eat on their units than take their chances outside the gates. An RAF technician explains the reason. "When I go to the mess I see the food I'm going to eat and it is given to me by the person who prepared it. I know exactly how good it will be. I can't think of a single restaurant where they are that honest about their food. The Services are the best vegetarian caterers in this country. No question."

The image of forces catering is fuelled by pictures of food being prepared under canvas awnings and dolloped out to queues of waiting men. Reasonable income, travel opportunities, awareness about health and recruitment from a variety of backgrounds, means that the demands on catering in the services today is a long way from greasy food and "chips with everything". The Duke of Wellington observed, "An army marches on its stomach", but as the serving vegetarians will be keen to point out, he never said the stomach should be full of beef. !