Insider View - How do you satisfy a part-time vegetarian?

Hilton Park - Clones County Monaghan IrelandIn the first of a new monthly column written refreshingly (and sometimes controversially) from the perspective of those who offer hospitality rather than enjoy it – in her case, in a wonderful 18th century mansion, Hilton Park, in County Monaghan – LUCY MADDEN ponders one of the great culinary questions posed to modern restaurateurs: how do you satisfy a part-time vegetarian?

“I forgot to tell you. My wife is a vegetarian.” It’s eight o’clock, and we are on our way into dinner— a carnivorous affair. This is a five-course set dinner and everyone had been previously warned. “She is a fish-eating vegetarian,” the guest says, sensing our dismay. The news is relayed down to the kitchen. After a moment’s silence, a voice from below replies, “What about the poor fish?”

There are vegetarians and there are people who call themselves vegetarians, but are plainly not. You can’t be a vegetarian yet eat dead animals with beaks and wings or dorsal fins. You can’t be a vegetarian yet make an exception for ham. Over the years, the strangest interpretations of the word have come our way. “I don’t eat anything that once had a face,” or “I can eat anything as long as it never drank its mother’s milk.”

My sister, who lives in Italy, where a vegetarian of any sort is still a rarity, thinks that those of this inclination are just “attention seekers”. She recently wrote to an etiquette guru in a well-known publication to ask whether or not vegetarians should announce their dietary preferences in advance of a dinner invitation. The reply was unequivocal: do not— it is a gross impertinence to imply to a hostess that you need a special dish, or so the reply went. In a commercial situation, it’s different, of course, and vegetarians have to be accommodated, albeit that you would like to put them out of their misery with a bacon sandwich.

I have observed, over the years, that some of the most committed vegetarians transmogrify into the most ferocious carnivores. The satisfaction that gives to this household of flesh-consuming individuals is similar to the pleasure felt by a group of alcoholics persuading a teetotaller to have a drink. But I’m beginning to wonder: who are the fools here?

Recently, a guest stayed who, we had been warned, ate nothing but “salads and other vegetables” How could you survive on this diet, we wondered over our pork chops? Yet, on arrival, it was clear her survival wasn’t in doubt. A more healthy human specimen has never crossed our threshold. If she had been an animal, she would have won the overall prize at the pet show.

It set me thinking, have we carnivores got it horribly wrong? The strongest animals survive on vegetation alone, so why not can’t we? Life insurers are offering special rates to vegetarians— maybe we should do the same. Working in hospitality gives you a good vantage point from which to observe the human race, the better - off ones, at any rate.

Providing food for strangers from different parts of the world throws up an opportunity for some unscientific speculation about diet. The connection between nutrition and health, that indisputably close alliance ignored by most of the medical profession, is plain to see in public dining rooms. My observation is this: quite simply, the further east in the world that is your country of origin, the more likely it is that you will not be overweight, that your hair will shine, and your teeth will be your own. You will probably be better looking all ‘round.

Several years ago, on the edges of Death Valley in California, I went into a Wal-Mart superstore and thought I was hallucinating. There were people shopping who were fatter than I had ever thought possible. There were people whose fat had nowhere else to go but was piling up on the back of their heads. Nobody of such extreme body weight could make it over the Atlantic, but plenty of others of gross girth do, and many of them come here.

We are all at it, too, myself included, getting fatter. Stand in a shopping centre and almost everyone you see is overweight. It can’t be genetic, no-one was like that when I was young, so the only conclusion you can draw is that, lack of exercise apart, we just eat too much of the wrong things. Those of us enthralled with the Western diet are, let’s face it, not great specimens of human beauty.

My late father-in-law, no slim Jim himself, liked to say, “The thin buggers die, too” which, of course, is true, but my observation is that the fat ones tend to go first. Returning guests who guzzle and gorge, indifferent to their widening girths (and never vegetarian), rarely reappear older than their late sixties.

Conversely, I was struck by the dignity and beauty of the (stick-thin) and very old people recently interviewed on television about their memories of Indian Independence. Anyone for some spinach patties and a green salad?

Together with her husband Johnny, Lucy Madden runs their magnificent 18th century mansion, Hilton Park, Clones, Co Monaghan as a country house which is open to private guests, groups, small weddings and conferences. The restored formal gardens are also open by arrangement. Lucy is a keen organic gardener and also a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.

Kindly supplied by the respected food service and drinks industry magazine, Hospitality Ireland. Click here to read more about them Hospitality Ireland Magazine.

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