Eating In

Honest to goodness

Forget fads such as veganism, and instead eat simply and well says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

If Napoleon had abstained from meat, the world would have been spared his wars. That is what Shelley thought. But Napoleon’s favourite food was potatoes and onions fried in olive oil: a dish no vegan could refuse. Vegans prate sententiously, but cannibals — the Huari, for instance, of Amazonia or the Gimi of New Guinea — will tell you that theirs, too, is a morally superior diet, which does honour to the dead, perpetuates their virtues and elevates the living.

Vegans’s assertions about the moral effect of their food are equally partisan

Vegans’s assertions about the moral effect of their food are equally partisan. Can’t they hear the cauliflowers and carrots scream? Haven’t they heard Pythagoras’s warning that beans are passion-proteins, which induce licentiousness as well as flatulence?

Yet no eater of meatless meals can avoid beans. “Bonen eten is ’t beste,” as Jan de Wilde sang, “tot we bonen zijn ten leste”:

Beans are best for us to eat,

’til we’re made beans, who once were meat.

Vegans are welcome to their fate, like every other faddish adherent of QAnon, religious fundamentalism, postcolonialism, gender theory or any nonsense that takes susceptible fancies. But I don’t want them preaching at me, or inflicting gimmicky vegan weeks or months on my attention, or monopolising glossy food pages with recipes that are high-minded and mean-spirited.

Fakery in food vexes me even in a noble cause, such as the wedding breakfast of the Duke of Mantua in 1581 — where there were pasties of pheasants “that seemed alive” and pies in the guise of upright, black eagles — or in the noble kaiseki ryori menus of old Kyoto, where it was the custom for banqueters to try to guess what they had eaten. I like to see food on tables, not table-top theatre. If you eat plants, do as God intended and cook them honestly, simply and deliciously without disguise. “Textured” to resemble meat or fish, they doom diners to disappointment.

Equally annoying is vegan pretension to ecological superiority. Veganism is deadly to biodiversity. Domestic species would disappear, as surely as otiose aristocracies, gas-lamps, virgin forests and virgins, if we had no reason except sentiment to keep them going.

Equally annoying is vegan pretension to ecological superiority. Veganism is deadly to biodiversity.

Humans and hominins have perhaps three million years of carnivorism behind us. It did us good, providing energy to make up for our deficiencies in competition with faster, stronger, deadlier species, sharp in tooth, and effective in digestion.

Animal products have been part of the eco-systems to which we belong for too long to be abandoned. We have been poor stewards of most of the species we eat: we can do better by them, but not if we abandon them to extinction.

The most infuriating vegan pretension is that the doctrine serves health. Our world undervalues food and overvalues health. As a result, food is too cheap and health too expensive.

In further consequence, people over-eat; obesity bulges; waste pollutes; farmers in exploited countries suffer servility and immiseration. In parallel consequence, people fuss over their health to the detriment of their sanity; pharmacy giants lever huge wealth gaps; the world’s poor die young; and in Britain it becomes more important to “save the NHS” than to observe common sense.

Food does you good, if you eat well and modestly. To eat for pleasure — but not for indulgence — is the healthiest formula of all, nourishing mind and spirit, as well as flesh and bone. Harpagon’s muddled pupil was right: il faut vivre pour manger et ne pas manger pour vivre.

Still, I would no more proscribe veganism than prescribe it. Chacun à son goût is better for freedom than Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Napoleon’s example shows that a vegan dish can supply imperial pleasure.

Here is a recipe fit for the most prescriptive dictator (therefore expressed with imperative verbs): choose late-harvested potatoes, because a floury centre will absorb oil.

Food does you good, if you eat well and modestly

Slice generously: say, up to half an inch. It helps to prick the rounds. Fry gently, seasoned, with crushed garlic, in olive oil till soft, then in fiercer heat till gilded. Reserve, using a slatted spoon (you won’t want excess oil).

In the same pan, fry onions in thin strips until the ends crispen, with a dollop of demerara sugar and a pinch of cayenne or ginger to enrich, enliven and balance what will otherwise be an oleaginous dish.

Stir in olives and neatly sliced red peppers; the former add acidity, the latter colour and crunch; both cut oiliness; so use olives matured in brine or vinegar (preferably with lemon in the pickle).

Cook momentarily: the last additions should gain heat and retain texture. Ideally, the peppers will yield a little juice when bitten. Without them, the dish may look rustic and feel basic. With them, it will appeal to courtiers, who are often fussier than emperors. Pour as much of the oil as suits your taste: you’ll want crusty bread to mop it.

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