I’ll be honest – I’m not actually 100% certain of the theological reasons for fasting in Lent. I have a vague notion that it’s about commemorating Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, and that there is a penitential aspect, too. For me, it’s partly because I love the idea of a religious observance connected with food in any way – I think I’ve mentioned before that I find the idea of the Jewish dietary laws appealing in the way they bring the eternal into everyday life. Lent works like that for me, a bit. Also, of course, I tend to view being vegetarian as being an intrinsically good thing environmentally and on an ethical / animal welfare level. It doesn’t work for me very well physically for long periods, which is why I don’t do it full time at present, but 40 days isn’t too overwhelming.
Having just spent the last three days away from home and at the mercy of caterers, however, I’m beginning to think that Lent has another, very good reason for existing: it promotes empathy.
Because let me tell you, Special Needs Catering can be pretty bloody awful. I don’t know how full-time vegetarians who have to go to a lot of conferences cope with it, honestly. I was so *hungry* all weekend. Apparently, vegetarians don’t need protein. But they do need mushrooms at every meal! And who ever thought that avocado and chutney sandwiches were a good idea?
I’m sorry. That probably sounds terribly shallow, but nothing brings home the difficulties intrinsic in sticking to a particular set of dietary rules not followed by the world at large like doing so away from home. At home, I may be kind of crappy at getting enough iron into my diet, and I may *still* be wimping out about figuring out savoury uses for tofu, but I can make food that tastes good and is satisfying. If I’m at a hotel or a function centre, I am at the mercy of caterers who, the evidence suggests, think that vegetarian food is boring.
The odd thing was that there was some very nice food there – the tomato sandwiches had really nice bread in them, for example – but it didn’t combine very well. A very creamy, buttery, goats’ cheese tart should probably not be served with a parmesan and rocket salad, for example. And all too often, the nicer vegetarian food was actually hidden away at the omnivore table, disguised as salads or sandwiches on real bread – but one had to look carefully for it. The food on the Special Diets table tended to be less tasty, if safer which was a pity – why not put some of the same food on both? Part of the problem, I think, was a tendency to interpret vegetarian food as vegan, and frequently make it gluten-free as well. I do understand why you might do this if you don’t have very many people in these categories – I’d probably do the same – but if you’ve decided to combine all your food allergies into one, you do need to think about how to add flavour and texture to what you have left. The more things you take out, the more imagination is required…
And I don’t even want to think about the main course at the gala dinner. So depressing, especially compared to what the omnivores got.
On the up-side, the full buffet breakfast provided by my hotel (not the conference hotel) was sufficiently broad-ranging to give me lots of options – fruit, muesli, pancakes, eggs, grilled tomatoes, grilled mushrooms (sigh), bread and so forth. I quickly learned to make breakfast my main meal of the day.
The surprising culinary highlight of the whole trip turned out to be my aeroplane food on the way home. Qantas gave me pasta with a tomato, vegetable and lentil sauce, and I have never in my life been so happy to see a lentil! It was pretty good, too – the sort of thing I might make at home if I wasn’t feeling imaginative. The vegan-and-gluten-free fairies had visited my cake and (I suspect) bread, but that was OK. The banana was nice. And nicer still were the flight attendants, one of whom actually came back to ask me whether my meal was any good, and another of whom brought me a chocolate bar, because she didn’t think it was fair that the special meals people never get the chocolate! So three cheers for Qantas! And lentils! And meals without mushrooms in them!
(actually, the flight home was pretty amusing on several counts, because our flight had been delayed by the late arrival of the previous flight, and our pilot was, I think, a little annoyed at having been forced to spend half an hour and more circling above Brisbane Airport when he had left his previous airport on time. So he decided to go *really fast* all the way home – usually, I don’t feel speed in an aeroplane, but I did this time – and got us home to Melbourne in record time…)
So, yes. I’m not sure where to go from there. Part of me is now wondering whether I need to be working towards opening a function centre that can actually make decent vegetarian and allergy-friendly food, because clearly someone needs to, but since I really hate big functions, I am probably the wrong person for this job. I really would hate to be stuck with this sort of food every time I travelled, though. And I can only imagine what the vegans are stuck with – my main protein source this weekend was the eggs for breakfast, which wouldn’t be an option for them.
But on the non-food side of things, the conference itself was great fun, full of smart, funny, creative women with interesting things to say. And I think it’s the most feminist space I’ve ever been in. Fabulous. (I’ll be writing more about this on my personal journal, if you are interested) Also, I have a truly embarrassing number of new books (to be fair, I only bought five of them – the other thirty or so I was given or won in various competitions, and I am not actually capable of turning down free books). So it was a weekend well-spent. Not much food for the body, perhaps, but plenty of food for thought…
This time last year…Omelette for One