Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Can't? Don't? Won't?

The other day, a snippet of overheard conversation in the healthfood shop where I work got me thinking about the way we refer to our food choices.

As I'm vegetarian, and have been for over 20 years now, I'll use that as my example. How should I describe my diet?

1) I don't eat meat (fish etc)
2) I won't eat meat.
3) I can't eat meat.

Now, seeing as it's a choice, 1 and 2 are perfectly possible but really, 3 isn't. However, over the years, I am quite certain that I have uttered "Oh, I can't have that" or "There's nothing on the menu that I can eat" many many times.

Of course I can eat meat and fish and seafood and gelatin and cochineal etc etc. I have a mouth, teeth, a stomach, a digestive system so I can eat them and I could - if I chose to.

And that's the point. I choose not to. I don't pretend for one second that my non-eating of animal products is anything but a choice. It's a choice based entirely on my personal moral, philosophical code that we (human beings) do not have the right to kill any other living creature, regardless of the purpose.

So really, only "I don't eat meat" and "I won't eat meat" are the only appropriate descriptions and yet, most of the time, we hear "I can't have that". I've used "don't" but I'm pretty sure I've never said "I won't eat meat...".

Really, the only people who can honestly say "I can't have ..." are those who are properly allergic to a food (even then, they still can eat it, it would just be a very bad idea!) If there were a foodstuff which was going to cause my throat to close up and stop me breathing, or result in my being in hospital with severe digestive problems, I think I'd be quite right to say "I can't eat that". On a vegetarian forum recently, a meat-eater popped in to point out that vegetarians by choice shouldn't expect to be afforded the same respect as people who "have to be veggie", like certain religions. That sparked off an interesting row over whether or not someone's religion was or was not, like ethical vegetarianism, a choice. In my opinion, for what it's worth, it absolutely is a choice and again doesn't fall into the "can't" category.

I'm always aware when I go out to eat with a group that I might be the only vegetarian in the group and I have always attempted to be as laidback as possible about it. As long as there's one veggie starter and one veggie main course on a menu, I'm usually happy to eat wherever. I have actually found in the past that some of my omnivorous friends are harder to please!

By the same token, if I'm invited somewhere for dinner, I'm very grateful for the fact that people go out of their way to make me vegetarian food, whether it's just for me or they actually make an entirely veggie menu for everyone.

One thing I have noticed many times over the years is that when there is a spread of veggie and non-veggie food, the veggie stuff seems to go much faster and be much more popular with everyone! Now I know why I would find a slice of goats' cheese and caramelised onion quiche more tempting than a cocktail sausage, but it appears that many meat-eaters agree with me.

The main reason for the title of my blog was that several trips to Spain, before I moved there, led me to discover that the Spanish, particularly in Madrid, do not consider ham to be meat. They recognise that it is, of course, from an animal but it is a food category in its own right. Frequently, when faced with my "No como carne" (I don't eat meat), many waiters would triumphantly announce "Then I will bring you jamon!" I learnt quickly that I had to be more specific - "No como carne, pescado, mariscos o jamón."

Given the basis for my vegetarianism, I honestly can't see me ever changing my diet but I absolutely recognise that it is my choice, not a necessity.


  1. A very insightful and honest post. Thanks for posting.

  2. Not sure whether this comment ought to be in the previous post ('How we know what we know') or not but I recall reading somewhere that after years of non-flesh eating your digestive system stops producing an enzyme necessary to process the breakdown of meat fully. So if you are forced to eat meat then chew it well; however, I suspect that, because of the thought of that, the longer it stays in your mouth the more likely you are to throw up.

    More specifically to this post (winding you back to TEFL mode) this post highlights the ambiguity in English of the modal verb "can" when used in options, abilities and permissions. E.g. "Can you open the door?" ellicits responses of...
    "Yes, I will open the door for you" or
    "Yes I am able to open the door. Thank you for asking" or
    "Yes I have the key and the authority to use it"