Meat has received a lot of criticism recently, yet, in itself, it’s done nothing wrong. What has served up a big heap of wrong is society’s relationship with meat and the food industry’s pursuit of it, on a global level.
This is the first of a six-part story of meat and how I decided whether to continue eating it.
My childhood diet was firmly in the meat ’n’ two veg category. Cooking was the sole responsibility of my mother, who, despite adventurous tendencies, relied on the formulaic meat plus carbs and veg principle. Grilled chicken breasts, sausages, a piece of fish or pork chops, surrounded by vegetables and spuds, or a good smattering of spag bol made with beef mince and slippery pasta.
Birthdays gave the birthdee free-reign over dinner, choosing whatever delicious morsels their stomach craved and my favourite treat was a meat fondue. A cauldron of oil would be heated in the middle of the table upon a little burner, then using long, thin, pronged forks, we would skewer strips of raw meat and plunge them into the deep cauldron of oil, watching the flesh sizzle and bubble away.
Allowing small children to deep fry meat at the dinner table seems faintly ludicrous today, but it was great fun as we engaged in battle, using our forks like swords. Great care was taken to avoid the scorched bottom of the cauldron, the old enamel surface directly above the burner would famously grab meat, becoming stuck fast, lost from the fork until an adult worked it free. The entire meal revolved around the practice of cooking and eating meat; if there were any side dishes, I can’t remember, because this meal was about eating meat — glorious, deep-fried meat.
Once I’d flown the nest, the concept that a meal was only complete if there was meat on the plate perpetuated, anything else was a side dish or a salad. Even a vegetarian curry was deemed a minor actor, despite harking from a culture where vegetarian meals are commonplace. Another personal rule of this era was that any drink which contained below 3% alcohol should be regarded as a mixer. It was several more years before I fully understood that both of these statements are untrue, that holding food and drink in such strict categories creates a narrow conception of the world.
Nonetheless, I held onto the idea that teetotal vegetarians were weak yoghurt knitters who lacked the macho virility and strength of my beer-drinking, steak-eating manliness.
Vegetarians existed as targets for the derision of the enlightened, such as myself. I didn’t understand what a vegan was, and everyone seemed to know a vegetarian who had once worn a leather jacket or leather shoes, which, to my binary mind was the most clear and obvious sign of hypocrisy.
In my early twenties, during a university holiday, I held a dinner party for my pals, including a close friend of my girlfriend, who was a vegetarian. Her presence was utterly utterly confounding, I’d never cooked for a vegetarian before and simply didn’t understand what to do with her, like, seriously, what can she eat?
Everything except meat and fish, obviously.
However, I was preparing a having a roast and in my naivety, I made some pasta for her, because who doesn’t like more carbs eh? This included a sauce based upon my recipe for bolognese, a meaty dish which included an Oxo cube. As I maniacally prepared dinner for eight whilst cooking this single, awkward, annoying pasta dish, I absent-mindedly put beef Oxo into a vegetarian’s dinner. The mutual exclusivity of beef stock and vegetarian food only dawned as I sat down at the table and watched her tentatively serve vegetables and potatoes onto her mountain of beef Oxo laced pasta.
I froze. I’m not proud of it, but I couldn’t face the awkwardness and shame of admitting my failure in front of my best friends, or shouting “Nooooooooooo!!!!” and leaping through the air in slow motion to seize the dish as her first forkful of somewhat un-vegetarian pasta was hoisted from the bowl.
Instead, I gripped my beer, took a swig and consoled myself in the fact that it was all her fault for being one of those silly vegetarians.
Vicky, if you’re reading this, I’m truly sorry.
Cracks began to appear in this bullshit machismo of meat consumption when I began to eat a lot more fish. Although fish is still flesh, it showed that my diet was diversifying away from the formulaic meat and veg paradigm. Change began at the age of thirty, when some wholesale lifestyle and dietary changes dropped 16kg of bodyweight in 6 months (and another 10kg in the following few years). Then I discovered the breathtaking food of Yotam Ottolenghi.
Ottolenghi’s seminal vegetarian book ‘Plenty’ was published in 2010, one of the few cook books that I’ve rushed out to buy. Shops near my flat in Camden Town provided easy access to the exotic and unavailable ingredients which he was initially derided for using, such as sumac, za’atar and preserved lemons. Although Yotam isn’t vegetarian, Plenty is a vegetarian book, an apparent contradiction and confrontation to my carnivore vs vegetarian paradigm.
Who knew you could do both?
Ottolenghi’s food felt like the rebirth of cuisine, it demonstrated that plant-based food could be clever, bright, sexy, ridiculously tasty and infinitesimally more exciting than a grilled pork chop.
Over the next few years, I diced with vegetarianism, often going weeks without touching any meat. My girlfriend was pescetarian, then vegetarian, which encouraged a transient attachment to meat and I became perfectly comfortable eating meat or fish only on special occasions, when at a restaurant, or when I ordered a takeaway pizza with pepperoni. Which, ironically, is how meat was traditionally eaten — not on pizza — but as a food for special occasions, to be used in celebration, rather than being a quick, cheap and easy way to get protein.
A life of vegetarianism was a whisker away, it would have taken a mere push to transition into a completely meat-free diet. However, there was always one thing standing in the way.
Let me explain.
Continued in Part 2: ‘It’s an Eating Dog World’