The saying, ‘You are what you eat’, is familiar to us all. While rather hackneyed, the frequency with which it is encountered within the social science of food is testimony to the importance of an approach it has come to represent. Food choice is seen as an integral expression of who we are and what we believe in. Here, apparently mundane aspects of food choice are thought to symbolise not only identity on a personal level, but also culturally defined value systems.
Based on research conducted in a South-East London borough this paper will approach the question of identity through an examination of meat-eating and vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is not only a dietary change associated with health, it is also thought to say something about the world-views of those who practise it. What I shall argue is that we need, first, to re-appraise what we mean by vegetarianism and, second, to deconstruct the model that positions meat-eating and vegetarianism as oppositional.
In recent years, social scientists eager to unravel the hidden meanings inscribed in food choice have looked to vegetarianism. Their concern reflects the increasing popularity of a vegetarian diet in Britain; 4.5 per cent of the adult population are now vegetarian, more than twice the number of a decade ago (The Realeat Survey 1995). It also indicates interest in the process through which individuals become vegetarian. Vegetarianism in the West is seldom the diet of a life-long practitioner. Instead, it is usually that of a ‘convert’, someone who has ‘subjected more traditional foodways to critical scrutiny and has subsequently made a deliberate decision to change their eating habits’ (Beardsworth and Keil 1992:253). Academic interest in vegetarianism, therefore, is based primarily on the assumption that its adherents