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A crazy, absurdist vegan world


TUMBY BAY - In a recent comment in PNG Attitude, Arthur Williams reported that at a Christmas lunch with his extended family he stood out as the only non-vegan.

Even the Christmas cake was vegan, apparently made with zucchini.

In his elegant way, he went on to suggest that veganism was an absurd postmodern trend, even though it had passed all the tests of a genuine philosophical belief under the British Equality Act.

I’ve been a vegetarian-cum-vegan for well over 40 years so I initially took umbrage at his comments, not so much because he suggested veganism is just another popular trend but because he suggested it was absurd.

I can trace the genesis of my vegetarianism to several sources but, as I suggest below, my conversion was a little more profound that I originally anticipated.

In the first instance Papua New Guinea had a lot to do with it.

I never had the luxury of being accompanied on my first patrols by an experienced officer so, on the second patrol I conducted, I took along a packet of frozen chops but left it a little too late to eat them.

The resulting pain in my gut closely followed by vomiting was in the legendary category. So bad was it that I allowed the medical orderly to give me a shot of penicillin.

Penicillin in those days was regarded as a panacea for everything. If two aspirins didn’t work a shot of penicillin was the next option.

Henceforth I was very wary of meat. On the remote patrol posts where I subsequently served, meat was pretty much an unobtainable luxury.

Apart from tin meat, which was universally lamentable, the only other source available was stringy village chook, wild game like pig, crocodile and maybe an unfortunate gouria pigeon that had accidentally fallen out of its tree.

Faced with these impossibilities I gradually fell back on a traditional Papua New Guinean vegetable diet. And got to like it.

In the second instance a book by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer had a lot to do with it.

The book was called ‘Animal Liberation’ and, among other things, it detailed the horrific cruelty involved in the industrial scale production of meat.

Singer posited vegetarianism as an ethical choice and after reading his argument I agreed with him.

In recent times, of course, and in the light of climate change, vegetarianism has gone beyond the ethical issues surrounding cruelty and embraced issues related to the very survival of humankind.

Large scale production of meat is a major contributor to the generation of greenhouse gases, particularly methane.

With respect to the profound nature of my decision to go vegetarian, and after some retrospection, I’m pretty sure it was also a catalyst for many other changes I made in my life.

When I left school I was a huge fan of the conservative Australian prime minister Robert Menzies. In line with his professed ideology I was also determined to become a millionaire by the time I was 30.

Silly as it sounds, I imagine a lot of young men at the time had the same sort of aspiration. Our mantra was conform, play the game and prosper.

Then along came my decision to turn vegetarian.

What that taught me was it wasn’t necessary to follow the herd. One could and should carefully consider ruling beliefs and, if they don’t pass muster, there is nothing wrong with looking to alternatives.

From blind conformity I passed on to becoming a dyed in the wool sceptic. My mantra became, question everything and decide for yourself.

The first big test for that new mantra was the Vietnam War. That I was arrested at a moratorium march while on leave from PNG stemmed directly from my change of attitude.

After that I developed my own view about materialism and chasing the mighty dollar.

As I’ve drifted into old age I’ve given up trying to justify many of my beliefs. When people ask me why I’m a vegetarian, I turn the question back on them - “Why do you think I’m a vegetarian?” I ask.

When they offer a response I just agree with them. It’s a lot easier than arguing the point.

Age and experience has taught me that trying to foist my ideas on other people is pretty pointless.

Intelligent people change with experience but many others will just follow the herd. That’s the sad reality for humanity and it will lead to our eventual demise as a species I suspect.

So I agree with Arthur that the postmodern world is crazy. We only differ, perhaps, in the specifics.


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Philip Kai Morre

In PNG we are facing chronic lifestyle diseases like diabetes, liver cirrhosis, hepatitis, certain types of dementia and other diseases that are largely uncontrolled.

Our problem now is we develop an addictive tendency to eat and eat anything we find. There is no control of our intake of food, especially store goods.

We eat at any time, cook at any time, sleep at any time and we can still eat at 3 am. There is no control of what we take. There are other people who can eat one whole chicken by themselves or even a pork leg. You can't believe it but its real.

I tried to be a vegetarian but I can't. In the villages most people eat meat when there is a pig kill but are partly vegetarian.

They are the most healthy people compare to people living in town. Soon we will start Overeaters Anonymous (OA).

Paul Oates

The underlying issue is not just the proliferation of various foods from around the world or the dependency on a narrow range of plant and animal foods. The issue that is the proverbial 'elephant in the room' is over population.

No world leader is prepared to directly mention it and the only means of reducing excess population are what's been around since Adam was a boy.

There doesn't seem to be an alternative that the human race can come up with except the four horsemen. Pity about those millions of humans who can't escape their inevitable future.

Our society is able to produce sufficient nutrition to feed those who wish to eat certain foods with enough to sustain them. Other societies depend on whatever they can get.

If we as a species can't solve this basic dilemma it seems like those who are left will still be fighting over the last cockroach and thread of algae. At that point, I suspect the niceties we can enjoy now will be a distant memory.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Yes, I have tried alternative animal products Chris. Some of them actually do taste like the real thing but others have got a long way to go. Fake cheese for instance.

Most of them are also very expensive. Considering what constitutes them I suspect the manufacturers are making big profits and capitalising on people's gullibility. They also seem to have a lot of chemicals in them, which probably isn't good.

The problem I have with them is conceptual. If you don't want to eat real meat why would you want to eat fake meat? Isn't that just conning yourself. If you are going to be a vegetarian eat real vegetables. Simple as that.

I've been a vegetarian for a very long time and find the smell of cooking meat quite off-putting. I don't think I could handle any of those 'skwea mit' recipes, although Chip's method of stabbing the tin with a bayonet and throwing it into the fire to burn off the excess fat had me intrigued.

It's also worth noting the incredible damage things like ]skwea mit] has done to Papua New Guinean's health. Introduced processed foods loaded with salt and sugar, not to mention stuff like fat-laden lamb flaps, causes many of the nation's health problems, especially obesity and diabetes. Papua New Guinean's would be much better off eating their traditional diets.

Jared Diamond, on the other hand, says that the worst health initiative in history was the invention of agriculture. He calls it "a catastrophe from which we have never recovered".

He says that farming didn't improve our diets but actually made them worse. Focusing on a narrower range of staple foods meant people suffered dietary deficiencies.

Moreover, living in proximity with domesticated animals meant that their diseases became our diseases. Leprosy, plague, tuberculosis, typhus, diphtheria, measles, influenza etc. all vaulted from goats and pigs and cows straight to us.

It's a bit too late for us all to sharpen our spears and go into the bush to get our food however.

Paul Oates

Skwia mit or Skwea mit = Square Meat or Ox and Palm Bully Beef in a square can etc, as opposed to Raun mit = Camp Pie etc, in a round can

Chris Overland

I interpreted skwia mit as "square meat", primarily because of the shape of the Fray Bentos cans of corned beef. I remember skwia mit well because I ate a hell of a lot of it whilst on patrol.

Like the other commentators on your article Phil, I too brewed up my own version of Kiap's Stew which, I think, must have been the near ubiquitous patrol meal amongst us.

I can only imagine how my wife would react if a proposed brewing up a batch these days. Not worth the risk to suggest it.

While not a vegan by any stretch, I do not eat nearly as much meat these days as I once did. If there was a safe, reasonably affordable and palatable alternative to dead animal I would eat it in preference, based mainly upon environmental and ethical grounds.

I have read where such products are being manufactured and even seen some in Coles. Have you given them a go Phil? They are supposedly hard to tell from real meat products but this could simply be marketing hype.

I did once give nut meat a go but did not warm to it. Nuts on their own are fine though.

If I had sufficient self discipline I think that becoming a vegan may well do me good but, having been raised a carnivore, old habits die hard.

Philip Fitzpatrick


He's talking about 'square meat'.

any meat that comes in a squareish (in contrast to a round) tin, e.g. bully beef. (Also: pokona).

Never came across the word - you learn something new every day.

Philip Fitzpatrick

What on earth is Skwia mit?

You're not talking about sikau are you? Wallaby aka kangaroo?

Paul Oates

I developed a taste for 'Skwia mit' and still cook up a fry pan of the lean variety you can buy at the supermarket. Cooked with a sliced onion, tomato sauce and a large dash of soy sauce and served with mashed kumara or orange Kaukau and green peas or beans it is something I still enjoy. I concur with Phil's sensitivity in that you still have to remove some obvious parts of the animal where meat comes from. The only negative factor is that I am only allowed to cook this meal when my wife absents herself from the house as she can't stand the smell of the meat.

Whether not eating meat would reduce the world's production of methane is quite another matter. My first OIC used to conduct his 'Ring of Fire' after a heavy night drinking and his wife disappeared. Is that the way to go after each meal? Wouldn't that just produce more CO2?

One clear reduction in methane must recently have been from the swine flu virus that has drastically reduced the world's and especially China's pig population. The bush fires in Oz have also undoubtedly contributed to global warming. Many now claim the fires are partly due to a lack of controlled burns.

Who really knows where we are headed and who can stop the train? We certainly eat less meat these days than when I was brought up however fish and chicken has taken over from red meat, often due to cost. Maybe red meat will end up being priced out of the regular diet of many?

Ross Wilkinson

I can recall one area where the SDA adherents would come to the church on Saturday, stay the day and get a free meal. At the end of the day, instead of returning to the village, they would go and camp at the Catholic Church and get an evening meal and Sunday lunch.

SDA one day, Catholic the next - all for the sake of free meals regardless of the diet.

Chips Mackellar

I had a similar SDA experience Phil. But I asked my SDA guests why they ate the meat dish I offered, and they said it would have been "inhospitable" to refuse to eat it and that therefore they had been absolved of any sin relating to the eating of this food.

Arthur Williams

At last I’ve found someone who admits to loving Spam. Thank you Dave. I never fail to have a tin in my fridge. Loved it for as long as I can remember; except for getting the meat out of the cold tin.

I wonder if my taste started when we had USA forces billeted on the common outside my chapel in 1944.

Whenever possible I took a couple of tins with me during my going bush days. Also took tins of sliced peaches which were my favourite tinned dessert.

Of course those tin foods were merely standby items if my host village failed to offer me any local meals.

The most surprising menu I ate was on a ‘scheme’ during training from Pirbright during my time in The Welsh Guards. When going out on a field exercise each platoon member had been given a few anonymous tins of food to carry in our packs.

The tins were without labels apparently as the producer had won a contract with the War Office but seems they weren’t allowed to advertise. There were code letters or numbers on the bottom of the tins and I guess eventually ‘old sweats’ would discern what food was canned inside.

Anyway at grubs-up time some of us were told to donate a tin and tip its contents into a large billy. I was amazed to see some fruit get dumped into the container along with veggies and if we were lucky some goulash or stewed meat.

The resulting multi-coloured offerings were stirred and later served into our small rectangular metal dishes. It was thus that I discovered why they called them mess-tins.

Another fact I noted was that the food had been heated on what was supposed to be a smokeless wood fire; apparently so that the ‘Wogs’ wouldn’t note the location.

Some of my mob were veterans of having been stationed along ‘The Canal’ (Suez) hence that nickname for the Egyptians in those pre-political correctness days of the fifties.

You could tell an old soldier who had been there because many of them loved to wear their sun-faded khaki ties. Mind some of the new boys would gently boil their startling coloured new ties to trick others soldiers, particularly their historic ‘enemies’

The Paras or any local dolly-birds in Aldershot of being hardmen who had done time in the Middle East. Barrack room gossip had it during my time in khaki that The Guards weren’t sent East of Suez.

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst / Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst [Rudyard Kipling, ‘Mandalay’, 1890]

Philip Fitzpatrick

I had an interesting experience while I was at Nomad River Ross.

Tom Howie, the local SDA bloke, had a large group of church people visit him but he only had a limited space in his house so we put some of them up.

When they left they presented us with several cartons of tinned food. The tins had pictures of bulamakaus on them and to all intents and purposes looked like cans of corned beef.

Not being any wiser we all took a few tins on patrol. When we tried the tin meat it tasted awful. Turns out it was nut meat. Fake meat made from peanuts and other nuts.

The SDAs who had stayed with us had been happily gobbling the freezer meat we cooked so we were well and truly conned. The poor buggers obviously craved meat and took the opportunity to eat ours. I guess they justified it by claiming they had no choice.

Nowadays, of course, you can get fake mince, fake sausages, fake cheese, fake eggs and pretty much any other fake animal product.

I've tried a couple of them just out of interest and they all taste dreadful.

Ross Wilkinson

My favourite on patrol was to fry slices of tin meat in tinned butter together with sliced kaukau. Occasionally I'd make a curried slush of tinpis on boiled rice.

I nearly became a vegan courtesy of Steamships Country Orders. I asked for tins of sausages and vegetables but didn't look at the label before I went on my next patrol.

First night out I quickly found that Steamies had sent tins of vegetable sausages. Had to keep eating them for the next two weeks. Bloody dreadful!

Dave Ekins

Kiap stew with chips or perhaps it's kiap stew by Chips -either way, it sounds good. For me, my staple was chopped Spam and rice with soya sauce, occasionally garnished with sautéed pipit or even a spring onion if it was available. Lunch was usually Spam on a Morobeen biscuit.

I think I could still live on such a diet despite being happily married to the world's greatest cook. I have fond memories of slipping a few tins into the shopping trolley at the supermarket and being roundly abused by my dry-retching children.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I was still eating meat, but very little of it, when I left PNG Chips. I didn't go completely vegetarian until a few years later. So I did experience the the joys of bully beef and other gastronomical delights like mackerel pike and those strange whole chickens with the soft, pliable bones that came in cans from China.

I never tried either of your recipes however. For me it was a matter of dumping whatever was in the can on top of a mound of boiled rice, picking out the more obvious bits of tubal offal and eating it with a spoon. If I was really adventurous maybe a spurt of tomato sauce. Maybe that's what put me off. Just think, if our paths had crossed I might still be a carnivore.

Chips Mackellar

What a pity Phil, that you never sampled the basic ingredient of traditional patrol cuisine - Bully Beef.

Then you might have experienced the exotic flavours of "kiap stew" and "bully beef and rice."

Known variously as "taper meat" "square meat" or simply "corned beef" this formidable staple is still available in our supermarkets in the canned meat section.

For kiap stew, the bully beef had first to be denuded of its fat content - usually about 20% by volume. This was done by punching several holes in the can with a police bayonet.

Then the can was tossed into the camp fire.

A burst of flame erupted from the sizzling fat, then the can was removed before its meat was burned. Too hot to handle the can was split open with a single blow from a bush knife, then left to cool.

Meanwhile a vegetable stew was brewed, with sweet potato, taro and yams, and green pawpaw. When cooked, the bully beef minus its fat was then added to produce the most delicious meal.

For bully beef and rice, these ingredients alone lacked a nutritious vegetable content so this was added by chopping up a heap of sweet potato leaves and vines.

These were added to a heated pan of bully beef with fat included. The heap of leaves and vines would reduce in size to produce a manageable volume. Mixed together with boiled rice, the result was a gastronomic delight.

To this day there are still old kiaps who, distraught at the commercialisation of junk food, will instead cook up a meal of bully beef and rice. But in the absence of sweet potato vines they use a few packets of chopped frozen spinach.

The end result tastes the same, giving them happy memories of patrolling in PNG.

Philip Fitzpatrick

As long as I stay away from baked beans I'm okay William.

Believe it or not but meat eaters also fart and produce flammable methane.

One of the things I strictly adhere to as a vegetarian is not criticising or trying to convert meat eaters. Humans are, after all, omnivores.

William Dunlop

Tell me, Phil, Do you as a vegetarian experience flatulence. A while back, here in the Northern Territory, a wise guy applied a lighted match to his scrotum as he passed wind, 'farted' got a nasty burn for his effort.

The animals from where most of our meat is sourced are largely vegetarians. Myself I am not contented unless I have meat etc twice daily. I'll be 77 in a couple of weeks.

Having survived a rather nasty trip and fall at the Casuarina Repco store in late October 2019 (eight days in hospital) now almost 80% of my old self again. Slainte.

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