In the olden days, being vegetarian was – let’s say – a tad tricky. It was especially tricky for me because a) I didn’t like vegetables; and b) I didn’t know how to cook. These two things combined made life difficult because the only vegetarian items you could buy back in the early 90s was Sosmix (we’ll talk about that later) and vegetables. As an Essex girl, the only vegetables I’d had previously were the bits of salad that came with my kebab on a Saturday night. I gradually introduced greenery into my diet and so the only barrier left was learning to cook the flipping things.
This wasn’t made any easier by my living arrangements at the time – a bedsit in Leytonstone, east London where the only cooking facilities were an electric two-ring hob thing. My saviour appeared in the form of my very first vegetarian cookbook: No Meat For Me Please by Jan Arkless. Jan’s superb book contained lots of simple recipes that could be done in a saucepan; I cooked vegetable stews and vegetable curries and pasta sauces. What was even better was all the recipes were just for one person, perfect for a 22-year-old in a bedsit. There was a section of recipes that all used a strange beige substance called TVP (textured vegetable protein) that came in chunks or mince-form. I ventured into the supermarket and found some on the shelves. Okay, so it was textured – the texture of cardboard, to be precise. I’m not sure from which part of the unspecified vegetable the protein was extracted but it was probably the bit that ends up in the compost bin. Still, it meant I could make old ‘meaty’ favourites such as shepherd’s pie and spaghetti bolognaise.
I mentioned Sosmix earlier. I’d stumbled across Sosmix before I was vegetarian. Back in 1989, I was skint, living in a bedsit in Liverpool, on the dole and surviving on potatoes. Potatoes were cheap back then; 50p would buy me 5kg worth of the starchy carbs and they’d last me a week. Then on Giro day I’d splash out and buy a tin of baked beans to go with them (not Heinz, obviously – I couldn’t afford anything that posh). I was living as a vegetarian but only because I was too poor to buy anything other than economy burgers and if you’ve ever eaten economy burgers you’ll know why being vegetarian was the better option. After a few months of living on potatoes, some student friends of mine who were equally skint introduced me to Sosmix. They practically lived off the stuff because it was cheap and, being students, they’d spent all their money in the student bar which, at £1 a pint, you couldn’t really blame them. Also, because it was dried, you didn’t need a fridge (students who had the luxury of owning a fridge filled it with beer, and milk that was always on the point of going off). As Sosmix was a powder, you added water to it, left it to sit for about ten minutes or so then made it into sausage shapes (the ‘Sos’ in ‘Sosmix’ – whoever thought up the name was clearly a genius), into patties or wrap it in pastry and make sausage rolls or pies. Sosmix was the staple diet of students and vegetarians around the country and I think I must be the only person who didn’t like it. Sosmix refuses to die and is still around. It even has its own Facebook page. Another mince-type product available back then, one which is still around now, was Beanfeast. Made from soya, it came in three different varieties; Bolognaise Style, Savoury Mince and Mexican Chilli. As you can probably guess, they were identical in form and texture; they just contained different herbs and spices. I liked Beanfeast; my friend Zoe hated it though, and when I reminded her about it recently, she called it, ‘That terrible Beanfeast crap.’
It wasn’t just the absence of veggie burgers or ready meals in those days that made life difficult for a vegetarian – lots of other food items would be made with animal fats. For example, biscuits, cakes and pastry. What made it worse was that labels stating ‘suitable for vegetarians’ were non-existent so you had to carefully study the label and know what it was you were looking for. Brands – especially supermarket own brands – are now great for labelling and most products are labelled if they’re suitable for vegetarians (even if sometimes it’s in titchy tiny writing on the back, hidden amongst the ingredients – yes Tesco, I’m looking at you).
Lacto-ovo vegetarians, of course, eat dairy and eggs. Despite most cheese being vegetarian these days, twenty years ago you’d find a curiously named ‘vegetarian cheese’ next to the Cheddar. It looked the same, smelt the same and tasted the same and I was convinced it simply had a different wrapper on it. These days, practically every cheese you pick up (with the exception of the harder cheeses such as Parmesan, which is never vegetarian) has a ‘suitable for vegetarians’ sign on it. No more freakily named ‘vegetarian cheese’ – it’s just cheese.
For vegetarians who didn’t include dairy in their diet, if they wanted soya milk – tough. I’m told by a friend that in 1976, soya milk was only available in powder form. Another friend also told me that in the 80s, there was only one brand of soya milk and it was disgusting. Look on the shelves today and you’ll find soya milk in many flavours such as chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, along with nut milk, oat milk and rice milk from many manufacturers, including supermarket own brand.
So that’s eating in, what about eating out? Even in London, there weren’t a huge number of vegetarian restaurants. Although, even if there were, shortly after I became vegetarian I started going out with a voracious carnivore who, although was okay with me being vegetarian, was most definitely not okay going somewhere where there would be no meat on the menu. This meant my eating out diet consisted mainly of pizza – which was hardly a bad thing, given my love for those cheesy discs of delight – and dishes I suspected were simply meaty ones without the meat (think spaghetti and tomato sauce). Speaking of vegetarian restaurants, one thing I do remember was walking past Mildreds in Soho one day in the early 90s. Mildreds is a well established popular vegetarian restaurant which has been around since 1988. I stood at the door admiring its ‘Time Out’s Best Vegetarian Restaurant’ award, then looked at the menu. It had fish on it. Fish on a vegetarian menu? The Vegetarian Society’s definition of a vegetarian clearly states that, ‘A vegetarian does not eat meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea, or by-products of slaughter.’ Tut tut, Mildreds, you should have known better. I’m not sure when Mildreds corrected its fishy error but that’s certainly not something that would happen today.
One of the most astonishing breakthroughs in recent years has been the introduction of meat replacements – most notably Quorn – in the large chains. No more ubiquitous spicy bean burgers – vegetarians can now get ‘meaty’ burgers in Mcdonald’s and Wimpy. Pizza GoGo have just started offering Quorn pizzas in four different varieties topped with Quorn’s chicken-style strips, meatballs and pepperoni style cubes, along with a side dish of Quorn spicy wings and dip. As there’s no Pizza GoGo near me, I’m hoping Papa John’s follow suit.
When it comes to clothing, although The Vegetarian Society doesn’t explicitly state that vegetarians don’t wear leather, I suspect were you to rock up to their head office wearing bits of dead cow on your feet, you’d be met with a disapproving look similar to the one your mum gave you upon discovering a mouldy plate under your bed. Personally, I wore leather until I started going out with a vegetarian who didn’t (yes, me and the carnivore had parted ways some years previously). Before then, I lived in Dr Martens. I had a black pair, a red pair, a red and black pair, an orange pair, a blue pair and a silver pair. I loved them all. Then I decided to stop wearing bits of dead cow and changed my allegiance to Converse, which also came in lots of lovely colours (I have, at the time of writing, eight pairs in various colours). For the die-hard Dr Marten fans though, non-leather ones were available from Brighton-based Vegetarian Shoes, but these were expensive. Now, however, you can buy non-leather Dr Marten-style boots in your local Shoe Zone for about twenty-five quid. I’ve got a fabulous pair of shiny red ones. Cheap shoe shops such as Shoe Zone are fantastic for cheap non-leather shoes. I’ve also bought great non-leather biker boots in other high street stores such as New Look and Tesco. That’s right, Tesco. I can now buy vegetarian boots at the same time as buying my soya milk and Linda McCartney sausages.
Talking of Tesco – you’ve only got to peek in their freezers to see how far society’s acceptance of vegetarianism has come. Gone are the days when you’d have to hunt for a pack of veggie burgers, now there are freezers full of the stuff. So when it comes to food and footwear, vegetarians can now – literally – fill their boots.