So for what it’s worth, I’m a pescatarian. It’s a rubbish word that people always argue the toss over but it basically means I don’t eat meat. Or rather I don’t eat land-meat (things that cluck, gobble, moo, bleat, squeak or oink) only seafood. Or to put it another way I’m a vegetarian – who eats fish… if there is such a thing. Anyway, you catch my drift? Good.
I stopped eating meat in 2003 after a nasty run-in with a laksa containing some particularly sinewy chunks of beef; an experience akin to eating warm moist rubber bands. A bit queasy, I went home and dared myself to try a meat-free month. Mrs Custard was already a vegetarian so it wasn’t a massive leap. I easily completed the month, that became six months and after that I was away.
Having no moral or ethical foundation for my self-imposed pseudo-vegetarianism I hadn’t considered that there might be benefits to not eating something. However, benefits there were, including being able to look an untethered cow in the eye guilt-free one day in a field in
North Yorkshire, never once in seven years feeling uncomfortably full for more than an hour after a meal (even curry) and always getting my meals served first on long haul flights.
Another unexpected side-effect was a dramatic broadening of my palate, something long overdue. At home I was forced to try more vegetables to keep my belly full. However, denied my default staple when eating out (steak…. bloody as hell and lots of it) I started making plate-sized raids on the
Pacific Ocean and all its fishy delights. For the first time I tried tuna steak and swordfish, octopus and squid, oysters, crayfish and crabs. I ate lobster and discovered all manner of prawns; tiger, king and shrimp. I experimented with salmon and played with every variety of tinned tuna taster on offer. On the whole it has all been delicious and mostly healthy too (my beloved fish finger sandwiches aside, but hey, we all need vices).
Indeed in my seven years without meat I’ve had relatively few commitment wobbles and have never actually succumbed. I’ve only ever missed steak (especially fried lean strips in Mexican restaurants) and had the odd nostril-fuelled pang at barbeques. In exchange, Haloumi has proved a perfect remedy to bacon cravings and both Indian and Thai cooking have enough veg options to keep me away from textured vegetable protein (though I’m actually quite fond of vegetarian sausages). If there have been any real wobbles it’s actually been the other way, towards a fish free diet.
Mostly this happens in Chinese restaurants when I see big-eyed fish with sooky lips and miserable looking crustaceans crammed into brightly lit tanks. Rather than making me think ‘mmm, fresh and delicious’, it usually makes me turn to tofu. I imagine the same effect might occur if there was a beautiful long-lashed cow wandering around each branch of McDonalds. Thankfully most restaurants spare their customers having to confront their soon-to-be-dinner, keeping the death-kill-guilt stuff separate to the yum.
And yet last week I came closer than ever to going fish-free thanks to a mixed seafood mee goreng that started so well and ended like a Shakespearean tragedy. I was happily munching my way through some spicy noodles laced with prawns, squid, that weird rolled up flouro crab stuff and a few choice bits of broccoli and was just about to congratulate myself on another lunchtime well spent when I discovered a surprise under my last chopsticks' worth of noodles. There, soaking up the remnants of my oyster sauce was one single lone mussel. Now before you think 'hmmm, saving the best for last?' let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Despite my seafood conversion I remain averse to the chewy shell based critters. The mussels I've tried have been akin to that beef which turned me off meat in the first place, so I tend to avoid them so I'm not a little bit sick in my mouth.
The particular problem with this little fellow was his symbolic arrival at the end of the meal. With no other distractions around him, with the whole of the bottom of the bowl to himself, and with no fucking way on Earth I was eating him, I began to feel sorry for him. Poor little fellow I thought; a life lived, a life ended and all for naught. His friends and family might have seen him caught in the nets (or wherever mussels get caught) and thought, 'ah, 'tis sad, young Jimmy, he is gone, but at least to a useful purpose.' But sadly not. His fate was to end up at the bottom of my bowl, from ocean to fridge to plate to bin... I contemplated eating him just to add more purpose to his pointless life, but the idea made my noodles quiver in my stomach, so I covered him up with a paper towel and chucked the bowl away.
It was at this point, as I pondered my own existence on the planet, weighing up its value with that of young Jimmy that I thought perhaps enough is enough. For the sake of my fishy friends in the ocean, and especially for all those on aquarium death row in Chinese restaurants, for the sake of my old goldfish; let the killing cease. Then I got home and Mrs Custard had sorted me out some lush prawn fried rice and it smelled DELICIOUS... so those thoughts went away. But I just want you to know, little Jimmy, you marvellous mollusc, that you didn't die for nothing. Because you touched me, little Jimmy, you made me think. You made me stop and wonder... and I know that's what you would have wanted more than anything. So thank you Jimmy. Thank you, from the bottom of my bowl.