My in-laws recently came over to visit from Australia, and we rented a country cottage in the Cotswolds. If you don’t know the area, it’s a beautiful part of England filled with lush countryside and twee villages. I was rather disconcerted to find out that the name of the particular village where we would be staying was Lower Slaughter, just down the road from Upper Slaughter. Thankfully, the name does not refer to ye olde slaughterhouse from the days of yore. Rather, it comes from the Old English word ‘slough’ or ‘slothre’, which means wetland.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Cotswolds when it came to food. While on the one hand the United Kingdom is the very home of veganism – it was there that Donald Watson first coined the term and founded the Vegan Society back in 1944 – on the other hand traditional British food is not known for being vegan-friendly, and we would be spending our time in tiny rural villages, far away from the vegfests, cold-pressed juice bars and poetry cafés found in the larger cities. A quick Internet search did turn up a few restaurant menus with vegan options, but since we would be hiking and cycling from village to village and I had no idea where we would end up for lunch, I decided I’d just go with the flow and see what happened.
What happened was that we ended up eating in pubs a lot, because apparently that’s what you do in the UK. I’ll be honest, my experience with vegan pub food was not that great. First of all, in pubs the servers don’t come to your table, so you have to go up to the bar to order, which was often very busy and full of customers. So as you can imagine, the staff were not always that keen to run to the kitchen and check on the ingredients of each menu item. Another obstacle was that establishments serving food in the UK seem to be hyper-sensitive about serving people with food allergies, and veganism seems to get lumped in with that. On more than one occasion there was a scrumptious-looking dish on the menu that definitely seemed like it would be vegan, but when I asked just to make sure, the staff told me they “couldn’t guarantee it was vegan-friendly” and offered me a rather boring salad with no dressing instead. This was annoying, because I personally couldn’t give a hoot about whether my food has been cooked on the same grill as meat or has otherwise come into contact with animal products, as that has no impact on the amount of harm caused by me ordering the food. But I know some vegans feel differently about this, and it’s a concept that’s hard to get across. I get it that these servers were just trying to cover their backs, and for the most part they were as helpful as they could be in the middle of a busy lunch rush.
There was one pub though, The Black Horse Inn in Naunton, where the waiter who served me was hands down the rudest I have ever encountered. After grilling me about what material my shoes were made from (nope, not leather!) he continued to insist that the only thing he could serve me was “rice and a carrot”.
This guy clearly didn’t want my business, and if I felt I’d had any choice in the matter I wouldn’t have given it to him. But it was already 3 p.m., we’d been walking for hours, everyone in our group was starving (including me), and I had no idea how far it was to the next pub or whether it would still be open when we got there. Which meant that I would be patronizing the Black Horse Inn whether I liked it or not. So, I pointed to the plate of a fellow patron with a heaping side dish of broccoli and other steamed vegetables and asked if they could make me a dish with rice and whatever vegetables they had. While we were waiting for our food, my brother-in-law pointed out that on a different menu I had not yet seen there was a jacket potato topped with baked beans and served with a salad. Sounded pretty vegan to me, but at that point I had already ordered, and the last thing I wanted was to strike up another conversation with the unpleasant character behind the bar.
Now, it’s true that asking for vegan food can elicit a variety of responses. Some people will bend over backwards to create a delicious meal for you, while others will offer you whatever veggie side dishes they have on hand and leave it at that. But open hostility? This was something new to me.
It’s easy to feel compassion for farmed animals. What have they ever done to hurt me, or anyone else? Nothing, that’s what. Of all the many victims of injustice in this world, they are some of the most defenseless, innocent and abused.
And it’s not all that hard to feel compassion for nice people who make honest mistakes either. Did I ever tell you that my first job abroad after leaving the US in 1999 was waiting tables at Disneyland Paris? Well it was, and I sucked at it. I knew nothing about food or wine or table etiquette, I spoke very little French, and I screwed up constantly. So I certainly have empathy for people working in the service industry who misunderstand or mix up an order.
It’s somewhat more difficult to feel compassion for mean-spirited people. When I wrote step eight of “8 Steps for Fun and Easy Vegan Travel” (and if you haven’t read it yet, you can get the newly revised version for free here), I was thinking of waiters and kitchen staff who either misunderstood what I wanted or just made an honest mistake. I wasn’t thinking about people who seemed to take offence to my compassionate lifestyle and who deliberately tried to make my life difficult.
But you know what? Those people need compassion too, perhaps more than anyone else. You might have seen a quote that’s been floating around the Internet for awhile. It’s variously attributed to different famous people, and the wording changes here and there, but the version I like best goes like this:
In the end, I was served a generous portion of all different kinds of vegetables with some white rice. Sure, it would have tasted better with some kind of sauce, but it was healthy and nourishing and just what I needed after a long walk through the English countryside.
But I also received something much more than that. That afternoon, the universe gave me a gentle reminder that true compassion knows no bounds. I will continue to encourage people to expand their circle of compassion to include non-human animals, but I’ll also do my best to ensure that my own circle of compassion includes all human animals as well.