Meat's so unfashionable but I've no regrets about going from veggie to carnivore
One bite of a bacon-covered doughnut in downtown LA led Leonie Cooper to reject a life-long vegetarian diet
There is a small but important selection of defining events in everyone's life that I will refer to as "the classics". The first kiss. The first heartbreak. The first moment of crushing disappointment when you realise you won't be able to marry Elvis when you grow up because he's extremely dead. Like I say, the classics. But the major life event I'll never, ever forget is the first time I ate meat.
It's a moment that firmly sticks in my mind, not just because I was the grand old age of 28 and a lifelong vegetarian when it finally happened, but also because the first ever animal product to pass my lips was a bacon-covered doughnut in a weathered 1940s diner in downtown Los Angeles, the kind of shady, skid row establishment about which Tom Waits sings songs and Edward Hopper paints pictures.
The doughnut was thrillingly sweet and dreamily unctuous, but also boasted the sodium content of a Polish salt mine. It was bad for my health and even worse for the moral code I had rigorously stood by all through my childhood, teens and student days, the latter being a time when living off cheap mystery meat, boxes of fried chicken and reduced Tesco ham sandwiches was de rigueur for others.
Despite this doughnut marking an ethical about-turn, it was still utterly, utterly delicious. Immediately I wanted to try meat in its more traditional, savoury context. And so I did.
It wasn't long before I was cramming hefty Reuben sandwiches from Canter's Deli into my mouth alongside tender al pastor tacos from the beaten-up truck near my Silver Lake home, extra crispy Buffalo wings from the dimly lit sports bar in Los Feliz and the holy grail for every Brit in California that is the mighty In-N-Out Burger (animal style, of course).
At the time I figured it was just a phase, a passionate affair that would fizzle out when I moved back to the UK.
But it didn't. In fact, when I returned to London after two years in the States I found myself driven by a kind of insane bloodlust - making up for lost time, quite possibly.
I took on restaurant chain St John as my church, where I worship as regularly as my bank balance will allow, and whenever I'm out for dinner I have a habit of ordering the most carnivorous option on the menu. Three meaty cheers for Black Axe Mangal's lamb offal flatbread and tete du cochon, the biblical jumbo mixed grill at Green Lanes Turkish food institution, Gokyuzu, and literally everything at Tayyabs.
I'm a sucker for bone marrow, chicken hearts and a nice bit of tongue - the weirder the meat, the more I want to eat it.
But let's go back to the start and to my life BF (Before Flesh).
Growing up an only child in London's Wood Green, I was raised vegetarian from the mid-1980s by my still-vegetarian hippy-ish mother (sorry if you're reading this, mum, I know I have betrayed you). Those were the days when being a vegetarian was less of a chic lifestyle choice and more of a reason for people to crinkle their nose up at you and ask, "But why?". As a quick aside, I was, and still am, perfectly happy with being raised vegetarian. In fact, I think everyone should be vegetarian until they're 18 and old enough and dumb enough to make their own decisions about what they put in their mouths. But enough about my plans for culinary utopia.
My early years were heavily coloured by the classic Cranks Recipe Book, a weighty, tomato-stained thing with a scratchy cover and a rotating cast of satisfying, 1970s-style dishes my mum would make for the two of us in our tiny terraced house, including a flaky but filling onion and grated-carrot pie and shepherd's pie that I would slather with ketchup.
Then there were the thick lentil soups, butter beans and/or chickpeas in everything, endless jacket potatoes with beans and grated cheese - still my desert island dish - tangy cucumber cous cous, fluffy Spanish tortillas and the revelatory discovery of pesto at some point in 1996. At school I would never be envious of other kids' lunches; meat simply wasn't on my radar.
Just as I wasn't pining after a glass of Malbec at age seven, meat wasn't for me, so there was no point in even thinking about it.
Being a vegetarian was easy, or at least it was for me and my mum. Things became a touch more difficult when I stepped out of our veggie bubble. I vividly remember the time, aged 11, I went to a friend's house and, after a moment of panic, her baffled but well-meaning parents offered me a plate of grated cheese for dinner.
As a teenager on my first restaurant outings with friends, there would often be only one meat-free option on the menu, and that would always be a limp goat's cheese salad.
Naturally this was terribly unexciting, but I accepted my fate. I was a vegetarian and if I wanted something yummy, well, I'd just have to make it myself.
When I moved out of my family home and into a flat in north London I developed my own repertoire of tasty dishes and, of course, carted a jar of my beloved pesto with me almost everywhere I went.
I also began thinking less that eating meat was wrong and more just a different way of doing things.
But still, I remained untempted by meat. In kebab shops at 3am after kicking-out time at whatever divey indie disco we were in, I'd always plump for chips and hummus in pitta bread while my mates devoured a doner.
I didn't mind what they were eating, but I could never picture a time when I'd be joining them, let alone getting so fully stuck into nose-to-tail eating that I'd have genuinely considered eating roadkill. I still would, if anyone's offering. Waste not, want not, right?
So what changed? Even now, five years on, it's hard to pinpoint why I decided the bacon doughnut in particular would be my first foray into meat - something to do with the ludicrous novelty factor, I think - but I do know that it certainly wasn't supposed to spin off into this.
It was only ever supposed to be an experiment.
I was living out of the UK for the first time. I was trying new things and meeting new people. I thought if I really wanted to do something totally fresh, then opening my mouth and my mind to a whole new world of food would be a good way to do it.
Reader, it was. Did I ever feel guilty? Or suffer from existential angst over my decision?
Nope. Life's too short for guilt, I think.
When it comes to my own meat mission, I'm well aware that I'm swimming against the dietary tide.
Meat has never been less fashionable. Some doctors warn that eating certain types increases your chance of getting cancer, while some scientists say it poses an existential threat to the planet.
There are now 3.5 million vegans in the UK, more than ever, including the likes of Ellie Goulding and David Haye.
And I know more vegetarians than I ever did when I was one, too.
The result is that I'm often faced with those same crinkled noses I saw in the 1990s when I tell people of my veggie-to-carnivore conversion.
They, however, can keep their seitan and their sneers and I'll keep my gorgeous, heavenly meat.
© EVENING STANDARD