When an animal-rights organisation invited me to a vegan cocktail party in the Hollywood Hills the other day, I instantly accepted. Only kidding! What I actually did was to roll my eyes and wonder out loud if the words "vegan" and "party" belong in the same sentence. Then I threw their invitation into the bin underneath my kitchen sink, where it landed on the remains of some pork ribs and an empty carton of milk.
The next day, however, a commissioning editor at this magazine called and asked if I'd write a short feature about doing something I've never, ever tried before. Brilliant, I said. Sounds like a laugh. What did she have in mind? Heli-skiing? Bungee-jumping? Actually, she replied, cool as a cucumber, we want you to give up meat, eggs and dairy for a week. In other words, we want you to go vegan.
This threw up two immediate problems. First: I'm a carnivore. Not just any, bacon-sandwich-eating carnivore, but a principled one. My auntie is a farmer. My parents keep sheep and chickens. I grew up fishing and shooting. My sister is a vet. On occasion during my adult life, like our new Prime Minister, I've ridden to foxhounds. For our honeymoon, I took my wife to Alaska, where we murdered several hundred salmon. Killed 'em, cooked 'em, ate 'em.
Second problem? I hated vegans. Really, I did. They're farty bores, I used to say, with pallid skin and bad breath, and the cheek, the utter cheek, to lecture people like me about animal "welfare", when their knowledge of wildlife extends no further than pulling tapeworms out of a house-bound cat's arse (all vegans have a cat). What's the difference, I would joke, between a vegan and a Malteser? Answer: some people like Maltesers.
But now I had to join their pious tribe. So I liberated that invitation from the bin, wiped it down, and RSVP'd to the vegan cocktail party, which was being thrown by the Humane Society of America. The Humane Society, if you're wondering, are the mad mullahs of America's bunny-hugging Taliban. In Los Angeles, where I live, Peta get more headlines, since they are its al-Qa'ida.
So the next Friday, off I toddled. And you know what? The party wasn't so bad. The vegan people seemed nice. Booze flowed freely. Food ranged from vegetable spring rolls (excellent) and hummus (fine) to soy-based fake-beef stew (revolting) and breaded artificial "chicken", which I'm still unable to discuss without frowning. I went home perfectly un-hungry, and quite drunk.
Over the ensuing week, I learnt that the menu that night pretty much sums up vegan cuisine. Some of it, the stuff that "normal" people might also eat, can be quite tasty. It's fresh, and nutritious, and if you eat an awful lot of it, you'll eventually feel full.
On the minus side, not all vegan food turns out that way. Today, most supermarkets stock vegan-friendly products that aim to mimic everyday grub. And guess what? They're repulsive. I tried "Silk", a non-dairy alternative to milk. It tastes like dishwater. Instead of cheese, I sprinkled a sort of processed vegan-friendly snot on to pasta. And there should be a law against vegan sausages.
The dirty little secret about these speciality vegan products (apart from the fact that they taste vile) is that they're as heavily processed as your average Happy Meal. They're not all that great for animals, either: most are made from soy, a crop that is single-handedly responsible for swathes of the planet being carpeted by heavily fertilised bean plantations, where barely a wild animal survives.
But I digress. After a few unhappy experiments with vegan ready meals, I spent the rest of the week eating fresh salad, homemade soup and freshly cooked vegetables. Eating out was also OK – LA being LA, there are plenty of vegan restaurants, some of which are rather good. And while I sometimes felt hungry, I soon learnt to carry a bag of fruit and nuts around, in case of emergencies.
On the health front, my skin improved during the week, but my fingernails started falling off, possibly due to lack of calcium. I lost several pounds in weight. I had less energy, but was also less irritable. My digestive system? Let's not go there. Put bluntly, you go more often, but it doesn't smell. Of anything. After seven long days, I felt, generally, in extremely decent shape. As if the sudden influx of fibre and vitamins was doing me some good.
Since reverting back to a "normal" diet, I've tried to eat less meat and fish, and (most importantly) less dairy. I've also developed a purist's contempt for mere vegetarians: people who forsake meat and fish on welfare grounds, yet are happy to gobble factory-farmed milk and eggs. They are hypocrites. Vegans, by contrast, are the true believers. I'm allowed to say that, now – because I have stood in their imitation-leather shoes.