The ‘C’ Word

Wise As An Owl (Or Trying to Be)

The year was around 2011. I was driving my girlfriend at the time home from my parent’s house. It was late and the roads were dark. Her parent’s house was about a 15-minute drive from mine, predominantly on country roads. At one point in the journey, there is a steady climb as you go over the motorway. There are wooden fences on both sides of the road as you ascend before the road flattens out at the apex, where the fences change to metal and you can look down at the motorway below. Behind the wooden fences are thick bushes, obscuring the view on either side. The road isn’t lit, so when it is dark you can only really see what is in front of your headlights. I was driving up this hill when all of a sudden a fox ran out from the bush on the right side of the road and sprinted across the car’s path. There was a split second when I saw it appear in front of my headlights but it wasn’t enough time for me to do anything about it. I slammed on the breaks in the split second I had, before feeling the car jolt.

We pulled over and I sat there for a few minutes with my head in my hands. “What’s wrong? It’s just a fox!” She was trying to comfort me but I felt awful. I couldn’t stop thinking about that split second where I saw the little animal’s face turn towards the headlights – the second I noticed that there was something in front of the car, but couldn’t react to it fast enough to stop. Only seconds after it happened, I wasn’t sure if I was dramatising it in my head or if it had happened how I remembered it. I felt like I’d seen the panic in the fox’s face as the headlights lit it up like a target. “What if it isn’t dead? I can’t just leave it here,” I said. It was really bothering me. After a few minutes, I pulled off and drove her the rest of the way home. On the way back, I pulled over and got out to look at it properly. My nerves were rocketing and I felt scared of what I’d find. I couldn’t kill something with my hands, using brute force to finish it off with a rock. I couldn’t even drive over it again knowing what I was doing. As I approached the body, I saw that it was quite a young-looking fox. It was dead. That didn’t make me feel better, but I felt relieved that it wasn’t suffering. The event really bothered me, and I still think about it sometimes when I see animals dead on the side of the road. I wonder if the person who hit them felt bad about it, or if they laughed with their friends and sped off. I hope people don’t do that, but I’m sure they do.

This wasn’t the event that made me go vegetarian, but it was the event that made me consider an important point – if I can’t kill an animal with my own hands, cut out its organs and prepare the meat to be cooked, why should I eat them at all? Morally, I didn’t feel like I had a right. I didn’t turn vegetarian until the summer of 2016, though. Approximately 5 years after the event with the fox. The point sat on my mind, but it felt more difficult and invasive to do anything about it than to just have those thoughts occasionally. What would I do when I go round to a friend’s house and they have cooked meat for me? Just not eat it? What about when I go to a restaurant and there aren’t any vegetarian options? Do I make it all about me and protest, requesting to go somewhere else, or just go hungry? I was good at creating situations in my head where it would be a problem and bad at just doing it.

I knew that eating meat didn’t sit right with me even before the event with the fox. At the time, I was still using Facebook. Whenever a video was shared about factory farm conditions, I’d avert my eyes and try to scroll past it quickly. When I went to a butcher where they hung carcasses in the window, I’d look on in disgust and wonder why they would want to display such a thing. Others would emphasise their excitement at the prospect of a hog roast; I’d eat my portion to not be rude, side-eyeing the roasting carcass and wondering why I’m putting the meat in my mouth. I’d feel sick the entire time. It took me a long time to recognise how hypocritical this all was. I ate meat after all and these things are all the realities of eating meat. Others aren’t bothered by these things – they may actually feel more ravenous at the sight of a roasting hog carcass over a fire. I was never one of those people.

Meat was something I’d always eaten – I didn’t really consider these behaviours strange at the time. It was typical of me until the age of about 24 – lacking critical thinking, not wanting to be seen to be rocking the boat and arrogantly dismissive of reality; that if something makes me feel uncomfortable, there are probably things about it worth unpacking. It was only when I started to read about the meat industry that I started to understand more about it. My feeling that I was uncomfortable with meat was being validated, but not in ways that I thought it would. To be honest, I didn’t have the foresight to even think that the practices going on may have been immoral, counterproductive or dangerous. The knowledge that animals were dying was what made me uncomfortable originally. Learning that the modern practices used to mass-produce meat were bad just offered me a nice excuse to stop eating it. Knowing that I couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) kill an animal myself was the most convincing argument to myself.

Now, I don’t want this blog post to become an argument for turning vegetarian – that isn’t the point of it. I’m not going to start discussing at length about factory farming, environmental factors, slaughterhouses etc. If you are interested, I am going to include a read list at the end of the post with a few good books that I have read which would introduce you to these concepts. What I will say is that each of us finds things that we feel passionately about in life and we pursue them in our own way. They are the topics that we are comfortable discussing, find interesting and, generally, believe we understand how we can make an impact personally. That is what we then find attractive about that thing. This is my experience anyway – I would struggle to feel passionate about something that I felt I couldn’t change for the better. Passion comes in the knowledge that you understand it and can be a vehicle for change – even if that vehicle for change only refers to your ability to keep learning about it as a means of improving your knowledge. Being vegetarian felt practical to me. One person turning vegetarian may not seem like a lot, but considering yourself part of a community of vegetarians made it feel more effective. Over my lifetime, I would have purchased a lot of meat if I didn’t turn vegetarian. I used to eat meat for nearly every meal, then one day I just didn’t. That is a lot of meat in a single year, never mind five, ten, fifty years.

Being vegetarian is certainly one of my passions now, but I do not enjoy going around calling out people for eating meat, or engaging in discussions in an attempt to influence people’s decisions. It isn’t to say I’m not willing to have those conversations, but it isn’t really my business whether someone else wants to eat meat or not. It does make me laugh, though, as some meat-eaters love to engage me in flippant and provocative ways. They’ll order a steak and make comments like “Does that make you want to cry?” or “This is what a real meal looks like”. I’ll usually just politely laugh, and sometimes the jokes are done in a way that they are genuinely funny. I make the jokes myself sometimes. I’ll engage in a discussion if someone starts one with me, but people usually think they want to argue with you more than they actually do. That’s because the arguments you face are usually vapid and based on feeling, not fact. People say things like “it’s natural to eat meat”, but don’t like it when it’s anything but natural how we are producing it to give people that meat. They resent you pointing out that they have no idea where that steak has come from, that restaurants use phrases like ‘corn fed’ before chicken to make it sound better quality, but this does not say anything about the quality of the meat in reality. It just tells you that they ate corn; it doesn’t even prove they ate corn all the time. I understand that this is fine – not everyone takes such an interest in where their food comes from, and the wider impact of it – but that is why I don’t understand why people want to engage me over it in the first place. It is a topic that people feel entitled to discuss despite never taking the time to research it. When you present reasonable arguments back, they can quickly become defensive or accuse you of trying to influence them, forgetting that they started the discussion.

It can be enjoyable when someone does want to discuss it and have an open mind, though. Recently, I spoke to someone about hunting. Hunting is an activity that they had done since they were young with their dad. Generally, they eat what they hunt and prepare it all themselves. They were surprised to hear that I thought that was an amazing thing to do. I couldn’t respect someone who goes out and hunts what they eat more – that was the crux of my original argument to myself that made me consider going vegetarian. I knew that it was an activity that wasn’t of interest to me and that I would struggle to cut up the animal afterwards and prepare it to be cooked. Knowing that about myself made me believe that I shouldn’t consume it at all. At least when you hunt an animal in the wild, it has lived autonomously up until that point, and I doubt the other ways it is likely to die in the wild are much better for the animal than being shot. Animals in factory farms would long for a bullet given the conditions they are said to exist in (I say “said to exist in” as I’ve never been in a factory farm myself, but I’ve read about them a lot and they sound atrocious).

The reason that I hold myself to a different standard with meat as opposed to vegetables or fruit is that there is a conscious life form involved. I don’t feel bad for not wanting to grow cucumbers to eat cucumbers as I do not think an equal amount is at stake. When it is a chicken being served, a living breathing thing is dying for that meat to end up on the plate. The knowledge that it had probably suffered immensely on a factory farm throughout its life, as most chickens do, made me incredibly uncomfortable. You can’t torture a cucumber.

Similarly, I understand that I am a hypocrite for still consuming dairy products. Many of the arguments against the meat industry are applicable to the dairy industry too. That is why I always say to people that you have to find your tolerance for these things. Although I have significantly lowered my dairy intake since being more mindful of what I eat and where it comes from, I find dairy extremely hard to cut out completely. More than that, I enjoy eating bread with real butter, cheese is delicious (although not to the extent that some do and if it has any mould on it, I’d rather it be in the bin than my mouth) and whipping cream to put on top of a cake is a new favourite of mine. In the same vein, I know plenty of people who do not see cutting meat out entirely as viable but will only cook vegetarian at home, for example. What I do try to do is source my dairy products more responsibly, whether it is through buying certified organic products, getting milk from a local source (my parents get it delivered to their house from a local farm) or buying eggs directly from a local provider. Sourcing meat more responsibly is a great way of being more conscientious whilst not giving up too much in the process. There is a great farm shop in our village where the meat is sourced either from the farm itself or from farms in Cheshire. I know from when I ate meat that the quality was very different when purchased from here as opposed to the supermarkets. It was much fresher, tastier and would not lose so much volume when cooked.

I am aware that this topic may not be of any interest to some people, though. Food is a huge part of all of our lives simply because we have to eat it to survive. Some people likely see eating as a pain and don’t find a lot of pleasure in it, whereas others spend hours looking at recipes, researching restaurants and finding exotic new ingredients to cook with. I feel like I have transitioned over the years from a moderate version of the former to now identifying myself more with the latter persuasion.

The catalyst for this change was turning vegetarian. Cooking used to be a mundane thing which I did each evening – grab some chicken breast, a jar of ready-made curry then get some microwave rice. It was good enough for me and I didn’t really think past it. Turning vegetarian forced me to think more about what I was going to do every day to keep myself satisfied. That eventually turned into a bit of a hobby, to now being more like a passion. A passion within a passion – I’m such a passionate individual, apparently.

I always find it amazing when I watch cooking programmes and everyone fawns over the cooking of meat. “Oh they’re doing venison – that is hard to get right,” contestant A says on cooking show X. I’m always sat there feeling a little perplexed at how obsessed we seem to be as a society with meat and how we believe that it constitutes the highest form of cooking. It takes a lot more imagination and skill to make a dish that doesn’t centre around a piece of meat, in my opinion. People see the removal of the meat element of a dish as the removal of any value of the dish itself. Isn’t that quite a sad reflection of whatever else you are putting around the meat on that plate? Maybe you should focus on those elements and figure out how you can make them as exciting as that piece of grilled chicken – wouldn’t that make the whole dish better?

There are a few chefs who have really changed the way I cook for the better. The most prominent one is Ottolenghi. His recipes regularly blow my mind. I’ll be making something from his book and thinking that I understand what it is going to taste like, then when I put all of the elements together at the end, I don’t understand how it can taste the way it does. So many of his recipes have left me amazed. He has many recipes available online, but he also has a large range of cookbooks; some are exclusively vegetarian/vegan, others contain meat recipes too. The recipes can take a while, and frequently have some obscure ingredients in them, but they are well worth it. I also find that the more of his recipes that you follow, the more of those ‘obscure’ ingredients. They aren’t so obscure for his recipes, just outside of them. I’d never even heard of a black lime until I started following his recipes, and now they are as familiar as plain old green limes (although, I still prefer the plain old green limes).

Another chef is Anna Jones. She has a cookbook called One that has loads of delicious recipes in it. These generally don’t contain too many obscure ingredients and she gives great substitutes for the vegetables depending on what is in season when you want to follow the recipe at hand.

Other than these two, I generally find recipes using the internet. BBC Good Food is a great place for browsing, Delicious and Olive are both great. I’m going to add a reading list below of some good books that I have read which discuss the meat industry. I’m also going to include some specific vegetarian recipes below that I regularly use and that I think perfectly show how a dish does not need meat to be incredibly delicious.

As a footnote to me not making this article to influence or preach, I want to give a summary of my opinion based on everything I have read. I’m putting it here so you can simply ignore it if you are not interested. The meat industry has always felt quite closeted and obtuse to me, and the more I read about it, the more it felt true. We get so little information about factors such as: where the meat was raised, what they were fed, whether their feed included any anti-biotics or growth enhancing drugs, what (if any) level of bacteria was detected in the meat samples from the manufacturer etc. Until that sort of information is readily available to us as consumers, I think we are right to stay suspicious of the industry, as we are not being given enough information to make informed decisions over whether we want to buy the products. My main point is this: food is important to us so we should care about where our food comes from and what journey it has been through. You are what you eat, after all.

Reading List

Vegetarian Recipes

  • Mushroom and Walnut Spag Bol – A vegetarian take on a classic. By blitzing the walnut and mushroom before adding it, you mimic the traditional spag bol consistency well, without needing the fatty mincemeat.
  • Aubergine and Tomato Salad with Feta Cream and Oregano – I don’t like feta, so I made the cream using Wensleydale. Fresh oregano has become one of my favourite herbs – it is so delicious. The oregano oil you make in this is so delicious and can be used in other Italian-style recipes.
  • Miso Butter Mushroom Risotto – You have to dig around this page to figure out the recipe but it is worth it. I double the amount of miso used, and also add some tahini for some extra flavour. They recommend using vegan butter, but I use normal butter unless cooking for a vegan. The butter alternatives are some of the best around, but they are quite processed which is why I avoid them most of the time.
  • Lemon, Tomato & Cardamom Dhal – I absolutely love making dhals but if you have not made one before, you may get frustrated with getting the amount of water right. You can essentially leave them to bubble for as long as it takes to get the consistency of dhal you want, but that can take a long time. I put less water in for this recipe personally. It takes a bit of time to get them right, but they are so delicious when you do.
  • The Ultimate Tray-bake Ragu – Although there are a lot of ingredients in this one, the method is really easy. It is the recipe that I have had the most meat-eaters say “I can’t believe there isn’t meat in this”. It’s truly delicious, and a good example of how Ottolenghi just gets so much flavour in his dishes. I lower the amount of oil that he suggests adding, though.

Days Away

The Chemotherapy Diaries

It’s been years with the hope kept close to my chest
That what I’ll get will be better than what I have
So I’ll stay inside and try to sleep my days away

Days Away – Pentimento

Picture from my 29th Birthday Gathering

It’s been a strange cycle so far. With the last one being 3 weeks long instead of 2, I got a taste of normality. The extra week did me a world of a good and it certainly helped my mouth settle down after ulcer-gate. I had actually forgotten what it was like to have a relatively normal amount of energy, but had not realised that I had forgotten, if that makes sense. The months on chemotherapy shifts what the standard is in your mind of what is ‘normal’. It is hard for me to truly remember what my energy levels were like before I started treatment now, but I also had another month-worth of time where I was very ill before starting treatment. This was when I was in and out of the hospital, trying to establish what was wrong with me. It means that I haven’t felt at full strength for over 5 months now. That third week I was given off chemotherapy is probably the best I have felt since before I even fell ill. I got quite caught up in it. My runs were faster, I was up earlier each day and life wasn’t fatiguing me anywhere near as much. It was easier to go to restaurants, laugh with friends and enjoy myself. I was also really happy with the few blog posts I did that week, and wish I had spent time writing more. The whole experience has made me yearn for a return to a similar state of normality. Perhaps that helps explain the last week I have had with cycle 8.

There isn’t a lot to complain about, per se. Physically, in terms of symptoms, it hasn’t been a particularly bad cycle. My nurse during treatment warned me about cycle 8. “A lot of people find this one the hardest. The accumulation of drugs and mental fatigue can take its toll. Let us know if you need a break. Your oncology team can give you a month off if you’re feeling run down by it all.” She had a lovely Geordie accent; I could have sat listening to her speak all day. She was also extremely complimentary about my baking and kept coming over to chat to me about restaurants that she recommends that were nearby in Manchester. It always makes the session go quicker when you have a friendly nurse who likes to chat – although, almost all of them are like this at The Christie. By the time I left the hospital, she had already eaten 3 slices of the victoria sponge cake. I was impressed she was so skinny – it must be those laps around the chemotherapy ward, turning off all the alarms on the machines and chatting to the patients.

The problems with this cycle have been more subtle for me. I’ve felt extremely disconnected, unmotivated and absent. For the first 4 days of the cycle, I really didn’t know what was going on, what I had done, when I had fallen asleep and when I had just been sitting there doing nothing. The world seemed to be happening in spite of me, as opposed to me participating in anything that was going on. When I finally got myself motivated to go running on Thursday, it didn’t feel like my brain was controlling my feet. There was a disconnect between the 2. I felt myself running along but didn’t feel like I had any autonomy over the situation. My body knew I was running and was doing it, but my brain wasn’t interested enough to be involved. It is this apathy that is hitting other areas of my life.

It is a strange phenomenon really. I can’t quite sum it up in a way that even makes sense to me. The lyrics quoted at the start of the blog post stand out at the minute because it feels that they describe the situation well. On Wednesday, I was trying to reflect back on the past few days but I genuinely couldn’t recall what I had done. I barely knew how often I had been awake or asleep. Everything had blurred into one elongated memory of me just sitting around the house, occasionally cooking, occasionally walking. My mum and I went and visited friends together on Tuesday which was really nice. I even drove there and back as mum doesn’t like the motorway, something which I am not usually able to do that soon after treatment because my fingers cramp up badly. It only lasts about 5 days, but I try and avoid driving during this time in case it happens and I suddenly can’t grip the wheel. This is what I mean about the cycle not really being as bad in terms of physical symptoms, though. My hands only cramped for a day or 2 this time. All of the shortcomings of the cycle feel relatively indescribable and intangible. After having such a good extra week in the last cycle, I now feel like I am holding onto hope that I will be able to feel like that permanently, but am condemned to continue with the hard miles for now; sleeping away the time if necessary, just trying to get through it.

There is nothing worse in life than wishing time away, though, even if I am on chemotherapy. I’ve managed to make the most of the past 4 months and I shouldn’t be stopping that attitude now. The amount I am baking has settled down, but I am cooking a lot. My mum and I just started getting an organic veg box delivered to our house from a local company. It is quite ridiculous that I’ve never had to wash dirt off vegetables before eating them in my entire life, considering vegetables are grown in the ground. The modern world is so disconnected from the reality of food. Whilst watching Come Dine With Me earlier in the week (a TV show that I am watching far too much of these days), a bunch of guests criticised their host for bringing out the different cuts of steak and explaining to them about their relative qualities. The host of the dinner party was a butcher, so he had a keen interest in this type of thing. Considering all of the guests expressed excitement at seeing steak on the menu, I was surprised that 3 of 4 of them then started to tell him that he had done something wrong by bringing out the different cuts of meat whilst they’re having a dinner party. What do these people think they are eating? This man is explaining to you why different types of steaks taste differently before offering to cut you off a fresh piece of it and cook it to your liking – how is this not your ideal situation if you claim to love steak?! One of them said that they don’t like to see the meat raw unless it is in a packet. It is absolutely baffalling. Well, now I am getting in touch with the origins of my vegetables; I am scrubbing them clean like they are my own offspring, then cooking them with love, which is an unusual place to take this considering what I just said about my offspring.

The vegetable box also presents culinary challenges. So far in my culinary adventures, I have grown accustom to finding a recipe, getting the ingredients from the shop and then making said recipe. It is a pretty straightforward process and I haven’t seen anything wrong with it up to now (other than wasting ingredients more than I would like as I only need them for a single type of recipe). The veg box presents weird and wonderful vegetables that I wouldn’t usually use, however, such as swedes, as well as not giving you all of the exact ingredients you would need to make a particular recipe. That means either going rogue and trying to make something not from a recipe (gasp! gawk!), or going and buying more vegetables from the shop, which feels like you’ve failed at being a good veg box samaritan. Its my first taste of the Masterchef challenge, another TV show where the contestants are offered a large range of ingredients to choose from, then given a brief to cook to – ‘A journey through your childhood’, for example. My brief to myself is simply ‘use things from the veg box and try to make an edible meal’. It isn’t quite as ambitious. Whereas those contestants are incredibly talented chefs who make amazingly innovative meals up on the spot, I make honey roasted swede and carrot. I wanted to see if I can taste the difference between the organic veg and what I’d usually get from the shop, so kept it quite simple. Not too inspiring. The veg was really good, though.

The one thing I have been baking, though, is this Jammy Blackberry and Almond Crumble Cake. I cannot stress enough how good it is. It is SO DAMN NICE. I found it as I was looking for things to do with some almond flour that I was given as part of my amazing birthday present from my amazing best friend Luke. He got me a 6 month subscription to a service which send you 6 unique and unusual ingredients every month. I substituted the ground almonds for the almond flour and cannot believe how nice it turned out. If you’re looking for something to occupy you on this sunny Sunday, I wholeheartedly recommend taking an hour to throw this cake together. It is delicious.

The cycle is easing off now and I am feeling more with it. My challenge to myself is to enjoy the next week as much as possible before I am back to treatment on Saturday. I’m not sure why I have had such a hard time with the blog recently, but I have. The last post didn’t feel cathartic or encouraging, it just felt like I was airing out a lot of dirty laundry and not getting any release from it. I hope it didn’t come across that way. I decided to post it because I thought the things that I was complaining about will likely effect others in my situation, and the ‘cancer experience’ is a key part of this blog, so I felt like I should put those frustrations out into the world. I also want to try and write when I am in a jarring and frustrated mood because, again, that is a reality of having cancer. You can’t always expect yourself to stay afloat when facing such adversity. I’m glad to say that I have enjoyed writing this post a lot more. It feels good to just mindlessly speak about things and not try too hard to be funny, to be interesting, or to write well. Sometimes it is just as good to write whatever is on your mind, in whatever tone you feel comes naturally. Hopefully it is still enjoyable to read.

My friend Charl took the below picture of Lucy yesterday and it is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. Her new favourite spot to sleep is on the top of the back of the sofa in the lounge, where the sun hits for the majority of the day. She can lay there sleeping for hours. I’ve witnessed her fall over the back 3 times now, usually because she is twitching in a dream. The drop is extremely big considering her size and the first time I was very worried about her. I was sitting on the other sofa when I saw something in the corner of my eye. I looked over and it was Lucy’s 2 front paws clumbsily trying to grab onto something as her bottom half had already disappeared behind the back of the sofa. Her eyes were fully opened as she tried to comprehend what was happening to her. She was looking me dead in the eyes as if it was my fault as she finally succumbed to the inevitability of the situation and fell to the floor. All I heard was a large (and fairly comical) thud! I ran over to see if she was ok. She had already got to her feet and was shaking off the embarrassment (I assume this is what she was doing as she wasn’t wet). She then enthusiastically pottered around to the front of the sofa, jumped onto it, climbed onto the arm, made her way up to the summit and went straight back to sleep in the same spot. We could learn a lot from dogs if we really wanted to, couldn’t we? If only humans were that resilient.

Lucy’s Perch on Top of the Sofa