(London Magazine, October/November, 2011)
While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect any ideal conditions on this earth?
– George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
The appearance in men’s lives of domestic animals as a reserve of meat and energy, proved to be a continuing originality of the West
– Fernand Braudel (1902-1985)
Last year I paid an illuminating visit to a French food market in Libourne, outside Bordeaux. At the entrance, among teeming ‘fruits of the sea’, a proud fisherman unfurled a bag of writhing eels. They bore contorted visages that betokened awareness of a fate involving slow-cooking in red wine to form Matelote – a delicacy in those parts.
The real action, however, was to be found inside at the butchers’ stalls. No inanimate chicken breast here; instead, whole birds with patches of unplucked feathers and proud heads nuzzled demurely against one another. Not far away lay a ghoulish array of tongues – mostly cow, but also of pig – arranged in apparent homage to The Rolling Stones’s Forty Licks album. It is startling how long they are. I began to anthropomorphise, roll my own, and, recalling a buried fondness, gulped nervously at karmic prospects.
Next I came to a wild-eyed horse-meat seller who whinnied disconcertingly before launching into enthusiastic instructions on how to stew his, to me repellent, meat. It looked like beef and I wondered whether it should be accompanied by horseradish. Then I felt nauseous at instinctive gourmandising.
On a certain level it was a house of horrors, not dissimilar to the triumphal marches of antiquity in which vanquished warriors were paraded incages through dusty streets en route to ritual execution. Yet the apparent necrophilia of the market stall is a tourist attraction and a flowering of France’s gastronomic tradition that prizes the sometimes brutal terroir of ingredients.
As a consequence, vegetarians are often regarded by the French as po- faced ascetics, removed from the pleasure of dishes like foie gras, coq au vin or confit de canard which define regional identities, forge family bonds, and channel culinary skill. A refusal to eat meat is almost taboo in France, a contempt that may be traced to the Albigensian Crusade of the thirteenth century when heretical Cathars were identified by their refusal to consume flesh.
Britain has a different relationship with meat. Early urbanisation disconnected most from agriculture, and industrial packaging sanitises it; the ubiquitous chicken breast is dissociated from its animal origins. Indeed, an encounter with a blood vessel can serve as an alarming – horrific to some – reminder that this flesh was once living, and not unlike our own.
Just as we are removed from the brutality of war so the abattoir is out of sight. We receive reports of foreign conflicts in news clips of laser- guided weapons that leave puff balls of smoke on infra-red landscapes, and we are quite detached from its shocking reality. Similarly we rarely encounter any hint of the squawk and screech of production-line killing. Even once-ubiquitous butcher shops are now a quaint presence on the cityscape as supermarket-packaging draws us one stage further from the bloody business.
Of course nowadays even the French do most of their shopping in vast, quite sanitised hypermarchés, while a new generation of British ‘foodies’ usually embrace the brutality of meat. Unusually, a few weeks ago I witnessed a succession of rabbits being decapitated in Oxford’s fashionable Covered Market. I recalled Uncle Monty’s sensitivity in Withnail and I (1987) when he revealed: ‘As a youth I would weep in butchers’ shops’.
Apparently, the French consumer is more desensitised to the reality of meat-eating than her English counterpart.
A tendency to ignore the animal origin of meat in Britain is furthered by a linguistic disjunction between the words for most meat, like beef, and the animal from which it derives, e.g. cattle. Only in unusual (reindeer), taboo (horse) or, oddly, immature animals (lamb, chicken) do we find correspondence. In contrast the Frenchmouton and porc identify both the meat and the animal, but as loan-words these were adopted in English only for the comestible meats: pork and mutton. The original Old English terms for pig and sheep are little changed. In part this disconnection is the legacy of the Norman conquest of 1066. The words beef (boeuf) and veal (veau) also derive from French. The conventional explanation is that the vanquished Anglo-Saxons tended the animals while the tiny minority of French-speaking Anglo-Normans ate them. This linguistic separation casts a long shadow, and reveals how little meat was actually eaten.
Meat eating is less enshrined in the English psyche. In the nineteenth century a puritanical aversion to fatally French-inspired gastronomy meant any talk of food was considered dangerously sensual. Meat, with two veg, was the national staple but its popularity derived from its being perceived as ‘filling’ and nutritious. English food was so self-consciously plain that, in the second part of the twentieth century, foreign cuisines were rapidly embraced. Vegetarianism, while unusual, is not controversial as it can be in France.
In recent times a ‘foodie’ movement of celebrity chefs has attempted to alter the national relationship with food, meat in particular. Stately, plump Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the self-styled diabolic Gordon Ramsay and the slick marketing empire that is Jamie Oliver, have extolled the gastronomic value of meat. The descendents of the victors at the Battle of Agincourt have determined that the French blood-and-guts-approach should be embraced. The factory farm has been eschewed in favour of a pastoral idyll in which seasonality and provenance are the buzz words.
My grandmother kept hens on a small scale in the west of Ireland. She would say that ‘every hen dies in debt’, meaning the cost of feeding them, even offset by the addition of household scraps, outweighed any saving on egg expenditure. But she continued to tend them until near her death because hens allowed to roam freely produce eggs with vividly orange yolks that surpass in taste anything produced in industrial-agriculture (the description ‘free range’ found on many egg packets is simply untrue).
Canny Granny Armstrong recognised that her energy inputs outweighed the energy output of her eggs. The factory farm could produce eggs more efficiently, but industrial-agriculture contends with the same deficit.
All animals draw their nutrition from plant-life which photosynthesises; but the converted energy of animal by-products never equates to the energy value of the plant-matter prior to consumption. There are, it is true, marginal landscapes and grasslands unsuited to field crops where ruminants may graze without encroaching on yields from arable land. But most ruminants, especially cattle, are now fattened in feeding lots, mainly consuming grains previously reserved for humans. Less than twenty percent of the corn maize grown in the US is eaten by humans; much of it is fed to cattle even though its acidity leaves them sick with indigestion. The energy-deficit of beef is particularly bad: an energy input to protein output ratio of fifty-four to one normally applies. Consequently, according to a UN report from 2006, cattle-rearing generates more greenhouse gases than driving cars: as well as the methane that is produced in their intestines, most grain fed to animals is grown using artificial fertilisers, the production of which is dependent on natural gas.
Cattle, however, play a crucial role in traditional agriculture due to the manure they provide which restores nitrogen to the soil. Also, their hoof indentations assist the growth of new grass. Oxen once provided crucial energy for ploughing. Between man, beast and grass varieties there has been a fruitful co-evolution that once operated sustainably. The industrial- farming model, by contrast, involves a specialisation in which grain-fed livestock are limited to one single use: food production.
The energy inefficiency of beef is recognised by ‘primitive’ pastoral societies such as the Gaelic Irish prior to the Tudor conquest, and the present-day Masai Mara in Kenya. Cattle are slaughtered only in extremis; instead they extract milk, or blood more rarely. Most famously the cow is sacred to Hindus. The historic popularity of veal in Europe is explained by the male’s inability to yield milk. Scarce fodder from productive dairy cows would have to be diverted in order to bring the male to maturity. Killing the fatted calf was a necessity as well as a rare aristocratic treat.
The challenge of allowing much of the Western world to eat meat and other animal by-products at almost every meal has been achieved by two means: first by increasing the yields on arable land with artificial fertilisation, pesticides, and genetic selection and (occasionally) engineering, and, second, through deforestation. In the last century the Amazon jungle has been radically reduced, but the same process occurred in once-forested Europe. Continued growth in global population and, more importantly, the increasing spread of the modern meat-heavy Western diet motivates further encroachment with unknown consequences. However, any environmental Armageddon can be averted if eating habits change. Research by Cornell University (1997) established that if livestock were restricted to grasslands the United States could feed 800 million people, with no nutritional deficit.
Delusions of Grandeur
In the hierarchical societies of feudal Europe, despite the population being a tiny proportion of current levels (England’s population is reckoned to have been between 1.4 and 1.9 million in 1086 at the time of the Book of Doomsday, compared to fifty million today), meat was usually reserved for the aristocracy. Only in the wake of the Black Death (1348-1350), when as much as a half of Europe’s population was wiped out, did its consumption increase at all social levels before receding as populations grew in the sixteenth century.
Slaughtering an animal foreclosed an important agricultural resource and a steady supply of food; the only exception was the pig which was raised exclusively for meat. But in the past pork was a rarity for all but the nobility, and deployed sparingly. As late as 1852 a travellers’ guide for Tarn in the south-west of France recorded how the poorer peasants greased their vegetable diets with a little lard in a small bag which they plunged briefly in the cooking pot and used over and over for as long as it would last.
Along with the increased productivity of European agriculture, where Holland led the way in the early modern period, the colonisation of the Americas held out the possibility of increased meat consumption. The desire for a diet heavy in animal by-products motivated the continuous expansion of European settlement, at the expense of the indigenous population. According to Deborah Valenze, in ‘the bestiary of the New World … [a]nimal protein was always the subtext of early colonial braggadocio’. Cowboys staked a claim to the land with their choice of food. The railroads allowed city dwellers to partake in the edible bounty.
Meat eating is primarily associated with urban living. Previously this was because towns held the critical mass to consume a large animal before putrefaction set in. Refrigeration arrived only in the late nineteenth century, and accelerated the consumption of meat in technologically advanced cities. As recently as a century ago, the average annual consumption of meat per capita in England was twenty-five kilos, a figure that has risen to eighty kilos today; hence Carolyn Steele’s conclusion that ‘the inexorable rise of burgher and burger go hand in hand’. Meat-eating is now present at all social levels from haute cuisine to kebab shop.
The diet promoted by the original gastronomes, Jean-Anthelm Brillat- Savarin (d.1826) and Grimod de La Reynière (d. 1837), in France evoked pre-Revolutionary aristocratic taste. This meat-heavy diet was equated misleadingly with a traditional rustic one and popularised as ‘French’ food. Fernand Braudel writes: ‘the diet of peasants, that is the vast majority of the population, had nothing in common with the cookery books written for the rich.’
So-called French food was a global hit. The great chef Auguste Escoffier (d.1935) boasted: ‘I have “sown” two thousand chefs all around the world … Think of them as so many seeds planted in virgin soils.’ ‘French’ cuisine became the dominant idiom in Western elite cooking over the course of the nineteenth century and has only latterly been overhauled.
The present English foodie-gastronomy essentially endorses French cuisine, unsurprisingly as most top chefs are trained in that style. The American diet is rejected for its perceived vulgarity. The fabled, pre- modern, edible-landscape of Melton Mowbray pork pies, Cumberland sausages and ten-bird roasts that has emerged in the imaginations of foodies disguises a humbler reality. As late as 1797 Sir Frederick Eden describes in The State of the Poor how farm labourers in the south of England were ‘habituated to the unvarying meal of dry bread and cheese from week’s end to week’s end’.
Doubtless, meat enthusiasts would counter that people should be willing to spend a greater proportion of their income on food, and prize the entirety of an animal. However, this ignores the inescapable impact of widespread meat-heavy diets with population at its current level. It hardly matters whether offal is prepared in posh restaurants or ground into meat patties. Our leading celebrity chefs popularise aristocratic meat-based dishes while maintaining a veneer of environmental-correctness which suggests a rejection of the American consumption model. Nonetheless the selection of choice cuts is the thin end of a hamburger-shaped wedge.
Man the Hunter
There is no reason to suppose that meat tastes better than other foods. Taste is learnt and trends are followed. Braudel observes: ‘fashion governs cooking like fashion. Famous sauces fall into disrepute one day and after that elicit nothing but condescending smiles.’ A gastronome reflects popular taste but also informs it through writing and broadcasting. If you told a Londoner in the wake of World War II that Japanese food would be all the rage today they might laugh at you, or perhaps attack you for sullying the memory of fallen comrades.
Perhaps part of the appeal of meat is that it identifies us with man-the- hunter, even if wild animals are rarely consumed, much less hunted. Men in particular seem to enjoy the experience of the barbecue which, it is often suggested, connects us with hunter ancestors. But hunting came very late in our evolution and only ever formed perhaps one fifth of a pre-agricultural diet. Gathering, usually done by women, was far more important.
Pierre Bourdieu observes of male eating habits: ‘the practical philosophy of the male body as a sort of power, big and strong, with enormous imperative,
brutal needs, which is asserted in every male posture, especially when eating, is also the principle of the division of foods between the sexes … It behoves a man to drink and eat more, and to eat and drink stronger things.’ He continues: ‘Meat, the nourishing food par excellence, strong and strong-making, giving vigour, blood and health, is the dish for the men, who take a second helping.’ This stereotype was confirmed to me by the cover of the Esquire magazine cookbook which I recently noticed in a bookshop. It reads, ‘Eat Like a Man’ and features a huge char-grilled steak on the front cover.
A conventional gesture of maleness suggests that he should order the steak or other large joint of meat, idly flexing his bicep as he points to the menu. This view of maleness is reinforced by the gastronomes and celebrity chefs that inform macho tastes. The male vegetarian is considered an androgynous oddity, and wags recall that Hitler was one.
Nutritionally, however, it is not a requirement for us to consume meat to the present extent. In fact it is positively unhealthy to do so according to important research. This is rarely emphasised by health authorities that seem fearful of offending powerful agri-business. The China Study (2005), a comprehensive epidemiological survey conducted over twenty years, revealed that a vegan, plant-only diet minimises or reverses the development of chronic diseases. Perhaps the lower life-expectancy of men compared to women is explained by a cultural equation of meat with masculinity. Contrary to popular perception, plant proteins abound, and are found in quite surprising sources like potatoes and most grains. The essential amino acids are available in tofu and miso.
Vegetarian food is still viewed as the poor relation, a position derived from the French pioneers of gastronomy who extolled a meat-heavy aristocratic diet. The challenge for a new generation of chefs is to break with convention and make vegetarian food something special, and hopefully gastronome-foodies will endorse their efforts. The recent volte-face of the foremost of carnivore propagandists, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, offers some encouragement.