For the record, I am actually English, and spent my childhood being bounced back and forth between England and Australia. Most of my family still lives scattered throughout the UK (my brother also lives in Australia and when my parents retired, they relocated to Australia “for the weather”, but they still spend a fair bit of time in the UK). Me, my brother and my parents all maintain dual citizenship for a variety of reasons. So I have a UK passport and an Australian passport to travel on. I don’t have a good relationship with my family at the best of times, something that you may understand more at the end of this blog entry…
I travel to Europe a fair bit. Usually it’s to attend scientific conferences, or passing through in transit on my way to Africa. This blog entry is kind of a culmination of travel experiences in England over the last few years since I went vegan.
As nearly all my family lives in the UK, when I visit, I usually drop in to say hi to a few people. Since my vegan diet is necessitated by a medical condition that is hereditary, I kind of had to inform my family of it so that they could get tested for it as well. To find out whether they had it or whether they were carriers of the gene and might one day end up passing it on to one of their kids. So everyone in my family knew I wasn’t doing this by choice. Yet I show up for a visit (not without warning – I always let them know when I’ll be flying over), and am accused of being a picky eater and being difficult.
The thing you have to realise is that when I was a kid and I was diagnosed with a dairy allergy, my parents flat out refused to buy me any kind of dairy alternative. They were of the opinion that I should eat the same food as everyone else, or I had to go without. Now it’s not like they put dairy in things, they weren’t that vindictive. But if I wanted milk, or cheese, or icecream? I had to go without. They wouldn’t buy me soy milk, or soy cheese, or soy icecream. In the 80’s when I was growing up, that was a perfectly normal attitude for people to take. These days the parents would probably get reported to DOCS (child welfare agency) for child abuse or something.
Their attitude and the attitude of the rest of my family hasn’t really changed over the years. They refuse to buy me gluten free bread when I go to visit. They refuse to cook vegan or gluten free food when I go to visit. And it’s meant that a lot of the time when I go home to England, I end up eating alone because my family will cook food for themselves and not for me. They think it’s punishment for me being a “picky eater”. What they fail to realise is that I actually have a full-time job now. I’m not a broke student. I actually have the money to buy my own food.
Because when I’m at home (for what that word is even worth), it’s not a stretch to go to Tesco or Sainsbury’s and pick up food and cook it for myself in their kitchen. It usually means having to wait until after they’ve finished eating to cook it, which means eating alone, but at least I can make edible food!
The other option of course is to eat out. I was actually incredibly surprised at how difficult it was to find vegan food in England. Having grown up at least some of my life in England, I always knew that vegetarian food was easy to find. I might not have been vegetarian, but I’ve never had any issue eating vegetarian food, even when I was growing up. So having gone vegan whilst living in Australia, upon my next trip the UK, I was astounded at how hard it was to go that extra step. Even in London I found it incredibly difficult and ended up having to go buy my own food at the grocery store rather than eating out. I was actually laughed at several times when I went to eat at some restaurants and asked about vegan options and one waitress actually said “you can’t be serious?”. Deadly serious actually. It’s not like I was trying to request vegan food at some dodgy £2 dive. This was in high end dining establishments.
I got frustrated with it very quickly to be honest. I figured with London being the centre of the cultural universe (in my opinion anyway – it’s still my favorite city in the world), that finding vegan food wouldn’t be an issue. Before you remind me, yes, I know England isn’t exactly known for it’s cuisine. But how hard is it to just stick one vegan option on the menu? Or for a chef to modify an existing dish and just use mushrooms (or something) instead of chicken? That’s what I do at home. I find regular recipes and just substitute vegan friendly options for the standard ingredients. Chicken becomes mushroom. Cream becomes blended silken tofu. Milk becomes almond milk. Honey becomes maple syrup. Surely given my notorious ineptitude in the kitchen, if I can figure this stuff out, a qualified chef should be able to?
Even outside of London, out around Bristol (where my family is mostly scattered), I struggled. Actually, even my father struggles in Bristol when he’s there. He’s been pushed on to a low cholesterol diet due to a heart condition, and he wanted grilled fish and salad one day while we were out. What did the restaurant do? Got the frozen battered fish fillets and loaded up the grill with oil and “grilled” them. I cracked up laughing. My dad wondered what the hell had happened and went off on a rant at them. Yet he still doesn’t seem to understand that this is the kind of thing I have to face almost every time I try to eat out. He doesn’t think that restaurant staff telling you that they can serve you [insert food here] to meet your dietary needs when they can’t is the same thing as I am facing.
The one place I actually found it easier to eat out as a vegan was in the Cotswalds. Different attitude maybe? I don’t know. It’s not an area I usually spend a whole lot of time in, but I do remember it being easier there.
I’m not saying England is difficult as a vegan. If you can stay somewhere that gives you access to a kitchen (even just a microwave/cooktop and fridge in your hotel room), you are set for good. There are tons of vegan and gluten free options available in the grocery stores. I just found eating out to be a problem. Not everywhere, but enough that I’d often go out for dinner with family or friends and not end up eating anything, just drinking soda until I got back to whoever I was crashing with or my hotel room and could make something for myself.
I think the thing that makes vegan eating in England easier (so to speak) than in other places I travel is the fact that everyone there at least knows what vegan means. I’ve never had to explain myself. I’ve never inadvertently been served something I couldn’t eat because the wait staff or kitchen staff didn’t actually understand what vegan meant (as opposed to some other places where people think vegan is the same as vegetarian and therefore it’s ok to serve you something as long as there’s no meat in it). Sure, most places I went couldn’t actually cater a vegan meal for me, but they knew what I was asking for. When it comes to food allergies, this is a good thing, because you’re much less likely to be served something you’re allergic to when people know what you actually mean!
Such is life.
Roasted eggplant with garlic and green stuff…
For what it’s worth, London is still my favorite city…