Having spent many of my formative years under the influence of vegetarianism, the diet has always held a certain sway in my way of eating. I can recall vivid images of tofu ice cream in our household freezer, of kejap manis marinated tempeh crisping under the grill, and the unctuous potato mash topping of my mother’s lentil shepherds pie. I can feel your horror, believe me, what with the inherent repugnance of hippie food that so many people experience, but my recollection of the flavours is all very pleasing, not to mention comforting. When I was pregnant – both times, in fact – the only ‘cravings’ I ever experienced, perhaps somewhat oddly, were for these nostalgic and very vegetarian dishes. I remember frantically emailing my mother for recipes for hunza pie and spinach, cheese and brown rice filo rolls, which, though somewhat perplexed by the requests, she faithfully sent along to me – after ridding them of their proverbial dust and cobwebs, of course.
Though we made the switch from vegetarianism to carnivore quite early on – perhaps when I was seven or so – I have dabbled in it continuously over the years, with a considered stint in my teen years (though the occasional exceptions were made for quarter pounders) which ended around the age of nineteen due to a rather vicious case of malnutrition-based hives. By and large, I have been subject to what I call ‘vegetarian cycles’ where suddenly, I won’t be able to consume meat. My mind begins to focus on the source of it, the process by which it came to be on my plate and the transgressive nature of consumption itself, i.e. the sinking of teeth into flesh and fat, and my mouth literally begins to reject it. Pork is usually the prime catalyst for this response, as it so closely resembles human flesh. Bacon especially, invokes all sorts of macabre imagery… heretics being burnt at the stake in Tudor England is often one of my more colourful mental correlations. Ham, even the posh stuff, suddenly makes me think of nothing but the offal scrapings off the bottom of the abattoir floor, pulped and smooshed together to make a pink, wet paste. Lips and arseholes, as my mother would say. My recent viewing of Godard’s Weekend provided a fairly confronting vision of the realities of farmyard butchery – all the more grisly given the sow actually died in order for him to make his point.
The cycles are never strictly vegetarian, but there is often a severe drop in most varieties of meat, if not a complete eradication of some of them and the cycles can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months.
Having recently observed myself falling into yet another one of these ‘cycles,’ I now see them as the foundation for the confluence of factors that are currently affecting not only how I eat, but the culinary trajectory I am encouraging my children and the Doc to take.
Every now and then, a video clip circulates, usually on Facebook or Twitter, illustrating the brutality and moral apathy of the mass meat market.
Or a scandal takes place (I’m looking at you, horsegate) which causes us to be a bit more conscious of how we shop for food and how we consume. But then, for a variety of reasons (it’s expensive, not easily available at the supermarket, etc), a certain lassitude takes over, a complacency in our purchasing patterns. We’d like to eat organic for example, if it wasn’t so prohibitively costly in these financially straightened times. And gradually, the cruel imagery fades into some darkened recess of our brains and we’re back to buying the ‘mix and match’ chicken options.
In a recent issue of London Review of Books, Bee Wilson reviews two books (Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Alex Renton’s Planet Carivore) on the subject of the mass meat market and the longevity of the planet. The upshot, the intensity of which differs slightly between authors, seems to be that we all need to not only reduce the amount of meat we eat but also where we source it from. How we go about encouraging people to do this is complex. Do we encourage them with baby steps – as Wilson says, instigating a practice of meat-free Mondays – or do we scare them? In order for Britons to come into line with sustainable meat consumption for example, there would have to be a drop from the 89kg of meat the average UK inhabitant eats per year, to just 15-30kg. This isn’t insurmountable, but it would be more like having, as Wilson argues, Mondays as the only meat-eating day of the week.
However, vegetarianism is not without its sustainability issues either. Developed countries’ predilection for healthy eating has led to an aggravation of the world’s north-south divide. Locals in Bolivia can’t afford to eat their staple quinoa, water resources in Peru have been depleted by the production of asparagus, and the production of soy has become a major cause of deforestation (although the vast majority of soy is harvested for the purposes of feeding livestock).
There’s little doubt here that moderation is key. Whichever path you begin to examine becomes fraught with a number of further ethical dilemmas (the dairy industry is a whole other issue), but it’s necessary to start somewhere. I’m not imaginative enough nor the Doc’s palate amenable enough for a fully fledged meat-free diet. But there is something profoundly disturbing about the notion that, as a species, we may eat our way into extinction. Strangely though, we seem quite adept at ignoring this great looming spectre. For me, every now again, its presence trickles in to my day to day existence and I am grateful for these small triggers of consciousness. Aside from visions of burning heretics or slaughtered pigs, there are moments when I look at the meat I’m preparing and I begin to feel sullied. I recall a specific moment last week when I was pureeing some leftover bolognese for Child Two and I suddenly lost my nerve. The idea of spooning this mass produced gristle into his infant system, so far only accustomed to the likes of sweet potato, lentils and peas, became completely reprehensible. I couldn’t help but think of that episode of The Simpsons where all the children are unsuspectingly guzzling rat milk.
Perhaps much of this is my own displaced neuroses. But however nightmarish my motivations, it’s no bad thing that the family eat less meat. Therefore, I am beginning a trial period of reducing our meat meals to three days per week, purchasing meat only from specific providores or if from the supermarket, ideally Duchy or, at the very least, organic. If we want to continue enjoying these things then we have to be prepared to have it more selectively and pay a little more for it.
Post Script … Okay, so I failed within hours of posting this. When faced with the cost of organic chicken at the supermarket this evening, there was an unfortunate disconnection between my moral standpoint on the one hand and the realities of my wallet on the other. I am determined to correct this disjuncture and will report back when the tide of my hypocrisy has abated.