Being a vegan is sometimes the funniest thing.

I can’t tell you how long I’ve been a vegan because I’m not really sure.

I stopped being a meat eater from an early age. My dad used to bring pheasants home from the woods and hang them up for a few days. Most people would be fine with that but as a child, I was just wired up differently. I couldn’t eat them. A pheasant looked like it should be flying about. A chicken leg looked like it belonged on a chicken. Fish smelled horrible. Mince meat was fibrous and made me sick. So, I ate vegetables and cheese. Then I went off dairy gradually because it was a bit cloying. I have been vegan for at least thirty years and I’m not at all fussy really, other than the big obvious dietary choice. I’ll eat anything healthy and tasty. But my goodness, I’ve seen some changes since the time when there was nothing vegan on the menu.

I’m blessed with a sense of humour for seeing the ridiculous side of things and laughing in the face of adversity. Thirty years ago, I told a person I’d just met that I was vegan and they replied, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry – how long have you got?’ They thought I was ill.

Ten years ago, I tried to get breakfast in London with my son and asked for a vegan dish – mushrooms on toast, no butter. The waiter stared at me as if I was a Martian and said, ‘Vegan? What is wrong with you? You must change…’

Both times, I found it very funny.

A week ago, I went to my favourite eating place with friends to celebrate the release of The Lady of the Loch, getting a masala dosa and idlis. It’s a great place – it even has a vegan menu, which I requested along with the other menus for my friends. The menus were brought and the waiter said… ‘Here’s your menu – and here are the normal ones for everyone else…’ Needless to say, I burst out laughing again. Being abnormal is just fine.I’m used to it now…

But the truth is, however weird and odd it is to be vegan – and it’s not nowadays, but more of that later – things are so much better than they were years ago. I recall the only vegan choice on a pub menu being lettuce. In one eatery, I was told there was nothing vegan because they put butter on all the vegetables. My son was in Dallas airport last week – he and his partner are vegetarian – and everything contained meat. There was no food that didn’t, not an omelette, a pie, a salad, crisps – nothing. I sympathised.

Oh, the funny vegan stories I could tell. The number of times I’ve been offered a feta and rocket salad with the feta left out. A plate of tasty leaves for the same price. Hilarious. Or the sag aloo I had ten years ago in a restaurant in Brittany that was totally tasteless pureed spinach with a whole cooked potato thrown in. It looked like something a cow might have left  behind in a field, seriously. Or the time I was promised a vegan lunch on a long-haul fight and it didn’t appear – the wonderful cabin crew raided their own sandwich boxes for fruit and a bag of nuts for me. I was left smiling at their kindness.

But now there’s so much delicious vegan food out there. I recently went with family to Nopi in London to celebrate an engagement and the most incredible vegetables were on the menu. They do impressive things with beetroot, courgettes, aubergines – it’s all about intense flavour. Or there’s a vegan Ethiopian restaurant on the Old Kent Road, where four people can eat for forty ponds and go away stuffed full with the most delicious veggies. Wherever you go now, the best places offer tasty vegan meals as an option. For me, the guideline to a successful vegan meal in a restaurant is, would a non-vegan look at the choice and say, ‘I think I’ll try this for a change – it looks interesting,’ as opposed to not giving it a second look because it’s tokenistic and dull. In the latter category are pasta in tomato sauce – no vegetables whatsoever and no protein, or sweet potato curry, with nothing else in the dish other than a bit of onion. Everyone needs protein and taste. But it keeps my sense of humour keen. I’ve often laughed quietly at some of the meals I’m offered and I’ve become very good at asking nicely for something better. I’m amazed at how receptive and imaginative chefs can be if I ask politely and give them notice.

Vegan food has improved so much over thirty years. Take a look at the cookery books – the Bosh boys and The Avant Grade Vegan are doing incredible recipes – inexpensive, easy, tasty, innovative. Just brilliant. Even chips are vegan now, and they didn’t used to be. Of course, I’m not a great chip fan, but that’s not the point. People enjoy them and they are cooked separately from sausages and fish now, in vegetable oil. I’m not a fast-food burger fan either but it’s great that so many places now fry their plant burgers separately from the meaty ones.…

My skills and imagination have had to improve too. Over the years I’ve cooked some pretty awful things, and that makes me smile, looking back. Lentil dal was a staple when I was a youngster, but now it tastes of something more layered than pulses, garlic and a teaspoon of garam masala. I made cabbage and caraway soup as a student and there was so much of it – three litres – that it lasted for a week. I was half a stone lighter and so lethargic by the time the soup was gone. Then there was the time that I had no money left at the end of term and I made myself a Smash sandwich. For those who don’t remember the advert with the aliens laughing at the humans, Smash is dehydrated mashed potato. Spuds and bread. Vegan food doesn’t come much worse than that.

Over the years, I’ve made rock hard Yorkshire puddings and bland gravy and soggy quiches, but it’s all part of the learning curve and it keeps me smiling. I’m happy that my two kids are great cooks and are determined to eating healthily, although they are both strong personalities and neither one is a full-time vegan except when they come home for a visit. They are their own people now. And I love cooking now, and I’m competent.

In my novels, I often mention food – for me, it’s the same as mentioning sleep, love, travel, tears, laughter. It comes into all our lives and so into my books. I’ve written about chefs, restaurants, cider farms, picnics, celebrations. It’s a temptation to include veganism from time to time, but readers don’t want the writer’s view shoved at them. Kristof the Belgian chef was vegan in Chasing the Sun. That’s enough for now. The books belong to the characters, not me. It’s unlikely that Grace in The Witch’s Tree will make a nut roast for supper. In The Lady of the Loch, Agnes roasts a boar on a spit and Zoe orders Cullen Skink for lunch – I’m never going to eat wild boar or fish soup myself, but I mix it up, based on the story’s demands.

When I’ve finished writing this blog post, I’ll put together a mushroom risotto for tea/ dinner/ supper, (whatever your regional nomenclature.) Or I might make a jackfruit wrap. Or sweet and sour tofu. Or cauliflower wings and roast vegetables. Or tagine with couscous or bao buns, my current favourite.

But whatever I create, I’ll be smiling. It’s important to me to be healthy and nourished and to live the best life I can. And write books. And be happy. And do my best.

There’s a lot to smile about. I hope you’re smiling too. Sending warm wishes. xx

Above: okra chips, last summer, Manchester.

Socca breakfast outside, last summer.

Mezze breakfast, last summer.

Victoria sponge, book launch style, last year.


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