Monday, 18 February 2013

#Meat-free every day

Processed meat sludge
"Why don't you eat meat?  Is it for ethical reasons? Do you like it? If you were dying of hunger would you eat meat? I love meat. Vegetarian food is awful. I've never met a healthy vegetarian." 
These are the kind of questions and statements I've had to put up with for years, so, intolerant of boring conversation and fatigued by fatuous argument, I avoid answering.
Today is hashtag meat-free Monday but it would be saner to make Monday, or another day, the only day in which we eat meat. I say 'we', but I haven't touched meat in 33 years nor would I.
The horse meat scandal induces a sensation of schadenfreude in me. Somewhat cruelly, I have chuckled at your discomfort. What the hell do you expect? You eat cheap unidentifiable pink sludge formed into patties or sausages or scooped into frozen TV dinners, and you think what? That this is food?
There are several lessons to be learnt from this scandal. Don't eat processed food. Don't eat cheap meat. Don't let multi-national supermarkets beat down suppliers. Shorten the food chain. Eat local! Eat more vegetables and fruit! Value cooking from scratch. Teach kids to cook.
In short, all the stuff that food activists, suppliers and writers have been banging on about for years. To the point that people have tuned them out. More guilt-tripping they think with a sigh. Just like all that eco-bollocks we are supposed to feel bad about. Life is hard enough.
Cheap food is also a feminist issue because it's us that cooks it. When you've got in from work, picked up the kids from the nursery, the school or the childminder and you have unpacked the shopping done en route or in your lunch hour and the kids are hungry and you are tired, what do you do? You reach into the freezer and pull out a pack of food that merely needs heating up.
Jamie can repeat ad nauseum that it's just as easy to cook something from scratch in the same amount of time but that still requires creativity and effort. The message isn't getting through. Cooking is only easy if you've done that dish a million times. I can cook a pasta with a tomato sauce (not from a bottle) in 15 minutes start to finish with my eyes closed.
But we are now several generations from the last generation (post-war?) that always cooked fresh food albeit badly. The habit has been lost.
Most of the foodie world, that is chefs, critics and bloggers, have had a downer on vegetarians: they don't get a good press. The food is brown, tasteless, not worth the money, even strips you of your manhood. (Food again is gender based just like everything else. Men eat meat, women eat cupcakes).
It doesn't help that there are few good vegetarian restaurants. For decent and cheap veggie food, you must eat Indian. In Brighton we have posh and expensive Terre à Terre, in London Vanilla Black, of which I have also heard good things. The vegan raw restaurant Saf, closed down in Shoreditch, unfortunately only the lunch place in Kensington remains. I've never been to any of these restaurants. As this blogpost says, if vegetarians don't support vegetarian restaurants, they can't stay in business.
Amongst supper clubs, there are some vegan and vegetarian options. I call The Underground Restaurant a 'pescetarian' restaurant, for while I never cook and serve meat, I do sometimes serve fish.  In fact I must admit I've kept the fact that I don't serve meat somewhat secret. I don't make a song and dance about it. I figured if I serve a delicious, umami-rich meal and simply don't mention that there is no meat, perhaps people won't notice. If I say I run a vegetarian supper club, am I chasing away potential customers?
I don't feel entirely comfortable about serving fish either, although I do occasionally eat fish. Sometimes when I've received a delivery of beautiful creatures from the sea, I feel sad. I look at their silvery muscular bodies with admiration, then I look at their dead eyes and feel guilt. But I like the taste of smoked salmon, taromasalata, caviar and pickled herring. So I'm a hypocrite.
And while I could easily give up all fish, I would find it tougher to give up dairy (butter! cheese!) which also has many issues: cruel factory farming, wrenching calves from their mothers, forcing cows to lactate, not even for their own children, their entire lives.
I haven't even gone into the environmental reasons of why meat eating is a bad idea. Those animals you are eating, use up an awful lot of land, for grain, for grazing, for water. This is an inefficient use of land of which, obviously, there is only a finite amount, which could be used for growing crops to feed the world, specifically the poorer majority of the planet. Less meat, more food for everyone.
So my answer to the first question, why don't you eat meat? is, I don't like the idea of eating animals. I've always been suspicious of minced meat and it's origins (since I was a child). I feel cleaner not eating meat. There is no cross-contamination in my kitchen and food hygiene is a doddle. I can't stand the idea of dripping blood from flesh, of eating body parts from dead animals. The bottom line is I think eating other animals is rather discourteous. This sounds kind of loopy but I also think we don't know enough about animals, they are probably more intelligent than we know, maybe they even talk to each other. It's rude to eat other species. If you start thinking about animals in this way, soon you will not like the taste and texture of them either.
We are not perfect. It's difficult to live a virtuous cruelty-free life. But if you are going to eat meat, eat the meat of properly cared for animals, rarely. 

22 comments:

  1. Bravo. So many varied points in this post that bristles with conviction. Admire your complete honesty as always too.

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  2. Thanks Sally. Your comment is much appreciated! I've come out of the veggie closet!

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  3. I think your point about gendered aspects of food is really valid. Many of my friends feel they have to serve their boyfriends meals with meat in because that is what is expected of a meal for a man, even though personally they prefer veggie meals. In light of the horsemeat scandal I have decided to completely eliminate processed meats and use only locally sourced meat. Even though this means I am financially constrained to one meat meal a week (student budget, noticed your daughter goes to York - so do I!)It’s a challenge to diversify my recipe knowledge and be innovative with vegetables!

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  4. Hi Bethan,
    What are you studying there?
    My daughter has never eaten meat in her life.
    It's funny when 'foodies' slag off vegetarians because it's true that cooking vegetarian is more effort than meat or fish. There's alot of prep involved. But you get used to it and find out your short cut dishes for when you are tired or short of time.
    Good local meat in Yorkshire so you are onto a winner there. But yes important to diversify with grain, fruit and veg. I love Sally Butcher's book 'Veggiestan' for something different.

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  5. Thank you so much for writing this - I feel reaffirmed. I only eat kosher meat, and as I can't afford it I only eat it about once every two weeks when i visit my parents. In the meantime my diet is mostly vegan with a little smoked macherel. I just can't comprehend how people feel they need to eat meat every day - it is heavy and bloating. My heart went out to the mothers writing in the Guardian months ago about how they couldnt afford to feed their children. A change in perception is desperately needed. Vegetarian staples like dried lentils and beans are super cheap and a delicious and nutritious source of protein.

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  6. You are absolutely right Miri and thanks for commenting.
    We've got to get away from the idea that if your meal doesn't contain meat, you haven't eaten properly. I lived in France for 7 years and they very much had that attitude.

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  7. Processed food tastes nothing like the real thing. If your on a low income then cooking from scratch is the cheapest option.

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  8. I'm in my third year studying History.

    I'm starting to think that meat free is the way to go. I've found having a slow cooker really makes cooking something like vegetable soup or chilli so much easier! Thanks for the book recommendation, I will be sure to check it out.

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  9. And we know about bringing up kids on a low income font we karen?
    Bethan I've never tried a slow cooker but I suppose an Aga is a slow cooker!
    There is also the issue of fuel poverty: cooking from scratch, hearty warming meals in winter are expensive in terms of fuel bills.

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  10. Very nice! I'm vegetarian, attemping vegan, but due to the common defensive reactions, I kind of hate to admit it to people. It is funny how people react to what you don't eat. I've never trusted what gets ground up into bits either. :)

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  11. I've been nosing through your blog for a few months now and it didn't occur to me that you did not eat meat.

    I confess I am not a vegetarian but I do recognise that humans eat too much meat and too few vegetables. When I bought my first house I cooked for myself and regularly found myself eating vegetarian or fish dishes.

    Only when my girlfriend came around did I cook meat. Now that we live together I eat meat more often but she does eat less than before. Her saving grace is that she does like beans and pulses but meat has to feature in there somewhere. The invention of baked beans with sausages in a tin was squarely aimed at people such as her.

    I believe this is down to social conditioning and the dismal failure of people to consider a meal as complete without the addition of meat.

    I am pleased that you used a picture of 'soylent pink' (google it) to head up your article - if more people understood the process they might be persuaded to eat less/unprocessed/no meat.

    Keep up the great work and the lovely recipes.

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  12. Bravo. WELL said and ugh, that picture.
    I eat meat from our farm shop, where there's an almighty hoo-ha because the local abbatoir is closing down. But seeing the trucks taking the lambs in - how they poke frightened snouts out between the slats in the traffic - and, once, seeing a mountain of bloody sheepskins piled up one on top of another, I felt sick at our apparently endless appetite for meat. And that's only the bits they let you see *shudder* Anyone in any doubt should read Jonathan Safran Foer on Eating Animals.
    I've done worse than eat farm meat, too - I've eaten strange pates and sausages myself, fed hot dogs to my kids at parties, and - yes, in a previous incarnation written ads for McDonalds. We all know what that means.

    So what am I going to do about it? have given up meat for Lent, as usual. But I think it won't be too long before I follow you into becoming a fully fledged veg. Easily said.

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  13. Annie: It's like people take offense and want to challenge you. I've not been a proselytising veggie, I seek to convert people via delicious meatless food.

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  14. Charles: haha. Yes I've not hidden it, but deffo under the radar on that subject.
    I felt like people would think of me as a lentil wearing loony and take me less seriously. As I say, it gets a bad press.
    I didn't know it was called Soylent pink. Brilliant!

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  15. CDaventry: started Jonathan Safran Foer's book and must finish it.
    I like a bit of junk food from restaurants because, yeah, frankly it tastes good. I hate ready meals from supermarkets though as they are too sweet, too fake.
    People have freezer fulls of cook chill meals, ugh it's just like airline food which, admittedly has a certain appeal because you are trapped in a chair for hours... but at home, no way would I eat it.
    We are all lazy arses, we have to work harder.
    They've closed many of the local abattoirs down I heard and now they are all corporate death factories.

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  16. Thanks for this great post! I agree on so many points and I understand so well why you don't want to talk openly about being a vegetarian. So many of my friends have been showing their contempt on my diet (well, until I lost my patience and had a good shout at them), but then they come over for dinner, have great food, praise it, ask for recipes, come over for dinner again and again...I guess they do not find vegetarian food so awful then...

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  17. Chiarag: are you making vegetarian italian food? Italian food is perfectly adapted to the vegetarian diet.
    I bet your food is delicious

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  18. I found this so interesting to read. And that picture of sludge was the appropriately repulsive! I try to only meat once or twice a week - watching 'earthlings' was enough to put anyone off mass meat consumption (if you haven't seen it - be prepared to cry) It's totally unnecessary to base every meal you have around an animal :)

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  19. Hi Saskia,
    I don't know Earthlings, will check it out.
    Thanks for your comment, and it's great that you don't eat meat too often. See my next post, lovely indian food, no meat!

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  20. Yes, a lot of Italian food and a bit of Indian food, which I am slowly learning. I agree, Italian food is perfect for veggie diet, which makes it even more infuriating how most Italian are "against" vegetarianism!

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  21. Great post! I've been a vegetarian for 7 years but have been eating meat again for 6 years now. I was a vegetarian for the exact same reason, you don't eat other species - animals - I was horrified by the texture and scared of what to put in my body if I saw the news regarding the swine flu and other nasty cattle issues. Here in Belgium farms aren't allowed to keep pigs outside, they can't even peek outside to get some fresh air. They have to be kept in barns at all times so when there is a swine flu outbreack it can be contained. BElgium is very small, pigs are nearly always kept near to other houses. But then I found out beef cattle is also kept indoors - not cos of the law but cos of the lack of land to keep them on. Horrid!
    I have an autoimmune condition and was forced to start eating meat again when I was 16, once a week I had to eat minced beef steak. BAck then there weren't any soy or tofu things at the stores so my mum served me: the veg potatoes that go with the meat. So I became ill. BAck then eating meat was the best choice but now there are so many alternatives. Although... I'm not to sure about all these alternatives as Soy is been proven to be just as bad for the environment as meat due to foodmiles and other things, I like to eat quinoa because I have protein shortage as I use it up fast with my health. But the Quinoa hype is leaving the native population that used to eat quinoa as a staple of there diet can no longer afford it as 'the west' is paying more for a kilo than the natives can. It's all very difficult. The meat I eat now I buy from a local farm with just a few animals. You have to order a week in advance and pick up your pack once a month. Their cows are outside and their calves stay with the mums, the pigs have to be kept indoors but have a huge barn for themselves with car tires and stuff to play with. They have little holes in the side of the barn so they can walk outside for sadly only 1 meter and in a cage. But at least they see day light.
    The farm family love their animals and are very proud of what they do. Keeping it local and treating the animals with care.
    We should all become vegetarians or try and buy our meat at these small farms. I won't force anyone to become vegetarian but I can't stand people closing a blind eye to animal cruelty for their bacon sarnie. I eat meat once a week, this is the sensible thing to do. OR become a damn smart veggie! :) The world has got some changing to do...

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  22. I follow almost the same diet as you. Largely veg, a little fish. Honestly I would eat more fish if it wasn't for the fact that (a) one of my housemates isn't a big fan and (b) I have a really hard time staying on top of which ones are MSC allowed and which aren't.

    I do, however, occasionally eat meat - basically when I go to someone's house and they have cooked it. If I can get round it and just eat the side dishes I do, but sometimes people take extraordinary offence (particularly when they know I eat fish - so...you're not vegetarian...but you do eat fish...what?! etc) and I figure that I am already being quite hypocritical since I eat dairy.

    And there's the rub - like you, I do feel like a hypocrite avoiding meat but not dairy, and I think it is largely because I actually don't like meat very much (at least, not now. I did when I first 'gave it up') but I LOVE cheese, yogurt, milk, etc. I know that there are vegan alternatives for all of these but... I am clearly putting my taste buds before my ethics.

    So I have to ask, how do you reconcile your conscience?! I do have a hard time with this - and usually point to the environmental repercussions of eating meat, which are still there with dairy, albeit less so.

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