sibling rivalry

‘I need that recipe for vegan chocolate cake again.’ It’s my sister Primrose on the phone.

‘Why – is that gorgeous vegan daughter of yours in residence?’

‘No, it’s for me. She persuaded us that now we aren’t flying any more, it’s ridiculous still to be pumping all that greenhouse gas into the air from livestock.’

‘So you’re all vegan now?’

‘Not exactly, no – just sustainable.’

My middle sister has always been the family saint. Already at four, in a photo taken at Butlins when she won the beauty contest, you can see it. That smile curling sweetly upwards, spreading over her face like a sunrise. By ten, a teacher confided to our parents that of course her schoolwork was outstanding, but she was rather worryingly good. These days she runs a charity devoted to bringing about world peace and I wouldn’t bet on anybody else to do it sooner. She is a total Pollyanna, as irrationally positive about everything as I am mulishly negative.

Up until now, however, I had been rather proud of staking out a small patch of moral high ground as yet unclaimed by her. This sudden flanking manoeuvre seems most unfair. Some people might say, if you’ve given up flying, surely that entitles you to the odd hamburger? 

But not my sister. For her, the logic goes the other way, further into self-denial. I need to know just how far she’s raised the stakes. ‘So what do you mean by sustainable?’

‘Well, no farting animals of course, so no dairy. No farmed meat, because of the land to grow feedstuffs and the nitrogen in the fertilisers. But you can have fish, of course, as much fish as you like. So long as it’s sustainable too, of course. So, no problem. It’s fun! Anyhow, can you email it over? The recipe?’

It takes me some time to respond. I’m lost in a gloomy haze, anticipating the family’s response to this newly punitive regime, and my own consequent ostracism. No cheese, no bolognese, no roast chicken, no… ‘…What about butter?’

‘Well, that soft margarine stuff is okay, you can cook with it fine and it’s all right on toast, if you cover it with lots of jam 

‘But it comes in a plastic tub! How can that be sustainable?’

Even as I speak, I already know that next time I’m shopping, I’ll be turning over all the tubs in Buzzybees to find one with a little triangle on it. Only to discover that the only spread in a recyclable tub also contains palm oil, which as we all know has already destroyed the habitat of countless adorable and endangered furry animals. It’s way down the list of ingredients, so I take a chance on it. On the other hand, the spread is made by a radical workers’ cooperative an endangered species in itself, who certainly deserve my support.

A couple of days later, I’m back on the phone to my sister. ‘This sustainable diet malarkey is a doddle, isn’t it?’ I begin, smugly, with an implication that anybody could have done this years ago, if they hadn’t been busy writing a book and saving the world another way (if only by ensuring they’d have no income to spend on consuming). ‘I found some spread, in the right sort of tub. And I’ve been using pecorino for parmesan, and feta’s okay in sauces, and the children seem to like goat’s cheese too. They even seem to be all right about giving up tomatoes, you can make lots of things with tinned and sun-dried tomatoes, can’t you?’

‘Giving up tomatoes?’

I’ve got her. Roasted baby tomatoes are, I happen to know, one of her family staples. ‘Yes of course – you must have seen all that stuff about the carbon footprint of  tomatoes? The British ones need loads of heat, and the Spanish ones fly here. Either way, tomatoes are the enemy. Except in mid summer. You can’t really justify them, if you’re doing all this other stuff can you?’

Now it’s her turn to go quiet. I hang up the phone, trying not to gloat, and spend odd moments in the next few days on the meat conundrum. This whole green thing has become a bit like a party game, which almost certainly means I no longer have what normal people would refer to as a life 

I start by discovering venison mince, which makes perfectly tasty, if not very fatty, burgers. But, like all meat, raises questions which it’s safer not to ask, unless you want to spend the rest of your days picking wild rabbit bones from your teeth. Do the venison eat grain, or do they roam about foraging? Can we be sure, even casting aside the methane question, that sheep live outside on hillsides and eat grass? How about pigs? Surely pigs just swill around in a trough full of potato peelings and cold rice pudding? The prospect of giving up crispy belly pork is particularly upsetting.

My other sister, the engineer, the one who knows all about waste disposal and science, would no doubt point out to me that any pork reaching the shelves of a shop in central London is unlikely to have come from a family pet, fed on leftovers. But luckily she’s not here, and if I don’t specifically go out of my way to find out, is that, in itself, a sin? 

A couple of days, and Primrose is on the phone again. ‘I tried the vegan cake recipe, but it was a bit dry. I think next time I’ll put in some mashed banana to keep it moist.’

‘Banana? You’re still eating bananas?’

‘What’s wrong with bananas?’

‘Nothing, of course, so long as they’re from the luxuriant plantations of NW5. There doesn’t seem much point in giving up long-haul travel yourself, only to force some poor banana to slog thousands of miles just to make your cake a bit nicer. Does there?’

‘So does that apply to your children’s hot chocolate too?’

My turn to be skewered. ‘I suppose it does… and of course, to the chocolate in your cake.’

A long silence, which gives me time to feel like a total witch. I seem to have condemned her to baking her lovely daughter a chocolate cake without chocolate, butter, eggs or bananas. Not surprisingly, she’s riled. ‘Can we assume that you’ve given up tea? And another thing, those tomato statistics, I looked them up. They’re long season glasshouse tomatoes, not the ones we’re eating.’

‘So did you look up the embedded water figures too?’

At both ends of the phone line, invisible pitons are dug a foot higher into the rock, and virtual oxygen masks are strapped on sanctimonious faces. We’re moving into embedded water. The high ground doesn’t get much higher than that.