A Carnivorous Culture

I recently included a link in my newsletter to an Epicurious article that got me thinking about the intangible values about eating meat, and how hard it will be to bring around dietary change in western cultures. Below, lightly edited and expanded, are the notes that I included alongside it.

No new beef recipes on Epicurious

In an effort to encourage more sustainable cooking, Epicurious won’t be publishing any new beef recipes. To my knowledge, they are the first omnivorous recipe site that has done this. It was perhaps made easer after the recent false accusations about Biden ‘taking away’ red meat from US citizens elevated the discussions around eating beef, but the decision was actually taken over a year ago, and no-one noticed.

While I still eat red meat, it only happens relatively infrequently. It’s never been a central part of my diet, so I find it fascinating how outsized beef’s impact is on western culture.

Natural resources shape food cultures

The English are of course les rosbifs. But this—historically at least—is due more to resources than tastes. From the middle ages to the industrial revolution the British Isles had a now-unimaginable abundance of two things: grass for grazing animals, and firewood for cooking them.

The obvious thing our ancestors (the wealthy ones at least) did was to roast huge animal carcasses over large fires, adding as many logs as they liked until the meat was cooked to their liking.

This is an example of how the specific makeup of an area’s historic natural resources hugely affected the development of cuisine in ways which persist today. Another is that China’s hot and fast stir-fry cuisine is in part due to the smaller amount of faster-burning wood that grew there.

This has played a part in ‘meat and two veg’ being a part of our food grammar. For more on this history of what and how we eat, try Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork.

The language of meat-eating

I’m also reminded of the distinction between English being the the language of the farmyard (think: ox, swine, calf, fowl etc) and French as that of the table (beef, pork, veal, poultry). But this isn’t, as some people imagine, a case of the English language being crude and French sophisticated.

During the rule of Normans and Plantagenets, this farm-table separation was mostly due to enforced class divisions. The upper classes spoke and were served in French while those responsible for the planting, growing, harvesting, slaughtering, cooking and serving knew only English. Bill Bryson has written about this, and it also features as a small part in Robert Tombs’ lengthy The English and their History.

A consequence of this is that by calling the meat of a cow ‘beef’ we are shielding ourselves from the moral consequences of eating animals—we are rarely if ever the ones doing the husbandry, slaughter and butchery involved to bring cow meat to our plate. A cooked carrot is still called a carrot, while meat is elevated to a language of strength: consider the downward trajectory in terms of activity and responsiveness from ‘beefy’ to ‘couch potato’ to ‘vegetable’. 

Environmental consequences

So, we’ve been eating beef for a long time and it uses up a whole load of our natural resources. Around the turn of the nineteenth century we realised this was unsustainable—Britain wouldn’t be able to produce enough food for its inhabitants, given the existing methods of food production and predicted increase in population.

There were two schools of thought to how this might be solved:

  • Small planet thinkers sought cautious protectionism. They prized self-sufficiency and advocated new ways to experiment with crop varieties and production methods while managing population growth.
  • Large planet thinkers argued that the world was more than capable of producing enough cheap food; that these were short-term problems that could be solved by leveraging Britain’s Empire and removing tariffs and trade barriers.

As you might guess, the latter approach won out. The industrial revolution shrank the world and, by 1930, 90 per cent of Argentina’s beef exports made their way to British shores.

This pattern of behaviour—prizing foodstuffs that require huge amounts of energy, time and space to produce; exhausting local resources; then expending even more energy, time and space on importing from other countries—is clearly a colossal problem. The planet is simply not large enough for everyone on Earth to adopt this western attitude of eating what they want and hoping that some other part of the world will solve the issue and absorb the problem. Large planet thinking reinforces a belief that some lives are more important than others.

You can read more about how the British Empire built the food system that is destroying the planet.

(As an aside, this is not to say that all vegetarian and vegan food is whiter than white. The fastest growing vegan foods are industrially produced ready meals, and co-option of the vegetarian movement in a political programme can have the effect of perversely disadvantaging small-scale, traditional farming in favour of large-scale industrial farming.)

Global crises

We must also not forget the upending impact of global crises on our modern diet. Almost 50 years ago Russell Baker wrote about ‘beef madness’: soldiers in the second world war were sent to the front with tinned meat, then once war ended and these rations were over, a massive steak became a symbol of this new era of peace and prosperity. In a very short time period, meat went from a luxury foodstuff to an everyday staple, where it has remained ever since.

And people’s behaviour changes in a pandemic. Anecdotally: for every person that took to making sourdough bread in the first half of 2020, others were struggling to make ends meet or suffering with the mental health impacts of the virus.

In these situations people often return to the comforting, nostalgic (and often cheaper) foods of their youth—particularly when supermarket supply chains turned out to be completely broken during the early UK lockdown. I saw and read on my social media feeds lots of friends who were embracing comforting, often beef-heavy dishes like shepherds pie, bolognese sauce and chilli con carne.

It’s not going away

These assorted points and anecdotes are included here to demonstrate that getting people to stop eating so much beef isn’t just a case of promoting alternatives. The invisible, intangible values that surround eating meat are firmly implanted in our culture and will take many generations to fade away.

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