It's time to stop laughing at vegetarians. I've been one all my life, and yet people still think they can describe my diet as "rabbit food" or question my sanity with a "hilarious" nut-based pun. In other respects, attitudes have improved for vegetarians since my childhood. Back then, if you asked for meat-free food in a restaurant, you were greeted with a level of bewilderment and downright hostility that nowadays you only find in France. Indeed, one of the great joys of French dining is the sense of nostalgia I feel when a waiter huffs at me disdainfully and slams down a plate of cheese.
The thing that continues to cause both opprobrium and hilarity, though, is the meat substitute. This first appeared on our radar in the 1970s, to the evident relief of my mother. It had been primarily my dad's idea that the whole family go vegetarian. I used to believe this was because he worked near an abbatoir. But now I come to think of it, he worked at a Mayfair advertising agency at the time, so either this was one very classy slaughterhouse, or I've misremembered the story. Anyway, mum had happily gone along with it, but to be able to make shepherd's pie or stew and fill it with something other than vegetables was a revelation.
Pretend meat is, let's be honest, an accurate substitute for nothing except, possibly, gravel. But you can disguise it enough to create at least a bit of variety in texture. Yet the notion makes critics of vegetarianism snigger: how bizarre, they think, that you would give up meat only to substitute it with something nowhere near as nice!
Now, if we had given up eating apples because we simply hated them, and then replaced them with some inferior apple-like construct, that would be absurd. But most vegetarians don't give up meat because they hate it, but because they don't want to kill animals. If someone can invent a realistic steak that doesn't need to be hewn from a cow, I'm first in the queue. Until then, I'm stuck with Quorn. Pity me, don't mock. Feel free, however, to ask why I wear leather footwear. The truth is, they're also an inferior substitute – I felt guilty about the human-skin shoes I used to buy. Damn my inconvenient ethics.