Vegetarian Apartheid

I always get a bit anxious about attending conference dinners. You can end up sitting for hours around a big round table, feeling uncomfortable, bored and lonely, and compensating by drinking too much headache wine. This time, the conference was in Beijing, and the meal had been elevated to a banquet to be held at the Summer Palace. The local organizers wanted to make it a night to remember. And the Chinese certainly know how to put on a good show, being such great hosts. I tried not to think about it but the anxiety started stirring during the pre-dinner boat tour on the lake.

I put on my brave face as we made our way towards the entrance of the great hall. And then suddenly my jaw dropped. In front of us was a big board with a prominent sign, saying “Tables for Vegans and Vegetarians in room 3” with a big hand drawn -arrow pointing to the right. I stopped in my tracks and simply stared at the words; meanwhile, the rest of our party had walked into the large, pretty lit-up outdoors dining area in the middle of the palace. I waved at them but they did not see. Resigned to my destiny, I made my way to a deserted back room with tables covered in signs saying vegetarian. Talk about over-egging it. Luckily, Janet, my colleague – who is also vegetarian – helped me pick my humour up from the floor. I am used to being served last in set meal dinners but being segregated like this took the biscuit.

As we sat in the empty room watching the tables outside fill up with happy faces a flashback came to me. I was brought up as a vegetarian as a child. This was extremely rare at the time, especially in my neck of the woods, but my parents seemed to think it was perfectly normal. Trouble was the junior school I had just started, at the impressionable age of 7, had no concept of vegetarianism. And so it was agreed that I would take in each day a Tupperware container with some non-meat protein in it and hand it over to the cooks in the canteen.

It was in the days when dinner ladies served you. All the other kids got served first and I had to wait. By the time my plate was brought to me they had all finished. So all eyes at my table locked onto my plate as it was lowered down to me. There was a deadly hush as they all looked on aghast.

Floating in a thick brown sea of gravy were some cashew nuts. The cook had also given me a blob of mashed potato and some cabbage. I could not bear to look up again at all those saucer eyes. Desperately, I tried to push the cashew nuts into the potato, as if hiding them would make the horror go away. The next day the kids all followed my plate on its journey to the table with searchlight eyes. And it was not just those sitting at my table. Word had gotten around. The dinner lady looked kindly at me as she placed the dish in front of me. This time it was cottage cheese floating in a dark ocean of gravy. I just wanted to cry. I have repressed what happened next. And I don’t remember how long this ordeal went on for. I think possibly a few weeks until the school got the hang of making me a cheese salad.

In the end the banquet turned out to be a real hoot. As the room filled up with more vegetarians, who had also been plucked away from their friends, I was summoned to another room. Being one of the conference chairs meant I had to sit at the high table in the grand room, overlooking the stage. But this caused a bit of a commotion amongst the waiters – as the banquet was to be a long series of plates spun around on a lazy Susan (which just so happened to be the size of a football pitch). It would not work with vegetarians at the table. You could not mix and match dishes like that. And there was not enough space for more dishes. James, chief chair, would have none of this and came to our rescue. With his mighty authority, he ordered some extra dishes just for myself and Don – another co-chair who had also been pulled out of the vegetarian and vegan room.

Eventually, we all sat down and the Lazy Susan started to spin with fishes, chickens and other tasty looking morsels. Our veggies were going to be a while and so Don and I sat there looking on, gulping at our wine. The headwaiter kept coming over to us and saying “Prof, food coming”. Our fellow diners felt sorry for us and tried all of the dishes as they arrived to see if there were any we could eat.

There was no need to talk quietly to one’s nearest neighbour, as I had done last week at the stilted cheese dinner. People were yelling from all sides of the very large round table as the Lazy Susan was playfully spun clockwise and anti-clockwise to ensure we got some jellied bean curd and pickled walnuts.

Finally, our plates of greens arrived and we vegged out. Next morning, Don was grinning from ear to ear, tinged with green.

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