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Saturday, 1 March 2014

This is a man's country

I've seen better breakfasts than the one staring up at me in a Highland hotel in which Susan and I are spending a couple of nights, as a wee break before she jets off to Australia, to visit her son and get attacked by crocodiles and ravished by rugby players, though she denies of course that any of that will happen.

Scanning across the plate I got half a tomato, one burnt vegetarian sausage and a greasy egg laid by a discontented bantam, fed on french fries. That's all and the message couldn't be clearer.

"Look around you, pal. See these antlers and stags' heads? This is a man's country. Come up here with your poncy city ways and order vegetarian breakfast and that's what you get.

"Don't just sit there like a wimp," Susan tells me. "Get up and complain."

"Nah, nah, I've worked in hotel kitchens," I say. "I know what they do with complaints. They got a special kitchen porter to handle them."

"They don't," she tells me. "It's the manager." 

"Outside it's the manager," I say. "Inside it's a sweaty Neanderthal called Shug, who lurks in a dark corner of the kitchen, humming death metal songs and pulling dead flies out his navel. Anybody says their food's too small and greasy, they fry you two more eggs then wipe them dry on Shug's armpits."

"That's disgusting," she says.

"I'm only telling you what I've seen," I say. "I don't make this stuff up."

"Go and complain now," she says, with that look in her eye, and I get up and take the long walk across the carpet, pondering the changing attitudes to vegetarians over the years. 

When I stopped eating meat in the '70s there were only five vegetarians in the world. So there was nothing for us to eat. My first Christmas dinner I sat at a huge table, groaning with dead animals and surrounded by carnivore cousins who thought I was mad, and wondered what to do with the three tepid tomatoes stuffed with brown rice my mum had arranged aesthetically on the plate, to compensate for the total absence of gustatory appeal.

"I'm sorry," she said, genuinely concerned. "I couldn't find any nice recipes for you."

"It's all right, mum," I said, tucking in. "They're lovely."

About that time I made the mistake of going into another Highland hotel and asking for a meat-free meal. "What kind of vegetarian are you?" the manager said.

"The normal kind," I said.

"You don't get many of those," he roared, slapping his thigh and raising loud guffaws from the six sheep-shagging buffoons at the bar. 

Then in the eighties, the right-on comedians appeared, and pointed out that this was all very offensive to gays, vegetarians and black people. They were determined not to offend anybody and had a brilliant idea. They would never say anything funny again.

It caught on fast and soon all comedians were ruthlessly cutting everything that might remotely amuse anyone. But audiences were laughing louder than ever because they wanted to prove how inoffensive they were as well. 

One benefit of all this was that for a brief time people were nice to vegetarians and you could eat out with pleasure. Stout yeoman fare, like vegetarian pie, chips and beans appeared on menus. It was a halcyon age. But it didn't last. 

Nowadays it's almost as bad as it used to be. Basically you can have one of two hot meals, when you go out. There's vegetarian lasagne, made from alternating layers of barely edible plastic and a brown fungus scraped from the soles of postmen's feet. 

Then there's risotto, a tasteless sludge made from rice, eaten by poor people in Italy and used by the better-off to fill their cracks. If you'll pardon the expression.

"What is it?" the manager asks, when I reach the end of the room.

"I'm not happy," I say. 

"Me neither," he says. "What do you want me to do about it?"

"Give me a bigger breakfast that's not so greasy," I say.

He turns his head and shouts through to the kitchen. "Hey Shug, get your shirt off."

"Forget it," I tell him and turn and walk away.

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