Eat vegetarian

I’m not opposed to eating meat. That seems to be a natural part of life, whether you subscribe to evolution, creationism, scientology or anything that falls between those three equally valid and rational positions. Food chains, and all that kind of thing. I am concerned about the industrialized nature of modern animal farming though. In fact “nature” is clearly out-of-place in that sentence. Keeping farm animals in tiny cages, in-breeding, pumping them full of hormones and antibiotics, then squeezing eggs and/or sausages out of them until they’re turned back into feed for the rest of their relatives. It is clearly wrong, and it’s also commonplace. Most of our meat and dairy production in the UK and particularly the US is literally dependent on animal suffering to keep the price down.

That’s how capitalism works. I’m not saying that as a conspiracy wielding anti-capitalist Marxist utopian idealist, I mean it is actually how capitalism is supposed to work. The market adjusts until the price is right, taking into account other factors (such as the public’s preference for animal welfare). There’s a balance, and there should be a tolerance for some animal… let’s say “discomfort”. The majority of us tolerate the domestication of farm animals, keeping them and feeding them and so on, all things that wouldn’t happen in the natural world, but we would prefer that they be allowed to live healthy lives, and are given some degree of freedom to roam rather than being cooped up in battery farms.  I’m convinced that’s the balance most of us would actually prefer, if pressed.

But there’s a problem with the modern farming marketplace. Capitalism depends on efficient markets, and efficient markets depend on a degree of transparency. And modern industrialized farming engineers, and depends on, a lack of transparency. I’m not opposed to eating dead animals, but I think it’s important to remember that’s what we are doing. Modern farming allows us to keep a very safe distance from the reality of raising, killing and preparing animals destined for the plate. As an extension of the same thought process, I like the idea of eating every part of the animal, and using other bits and pieces as best we can. Killing a shark just for the fin, or an elephant for the tusks, just seems particularly wasteful and disrespectful of the life lost. It requires you to dismiss animals as thought they were potatoes or paperweights, there only for mashing or shaking to make it look like snow is falling on a famous landmark from your trip to a place. I digress, and tusks have nothing to do with meat anyway; the point is I think most of us meat-eaters would find that if we were truly exposed to the realities of modern industrial animal farming it would really cramp our munching pleasure.

And yet, this is where it falls apart. Most of us know what really goes on. We understand that chickens are crammed into small, dark places and huge spinning sharp things slice through literally millions of throats each year. We choose to ignore that information. We buy meat packaged in containers with pictures of cute little cockerel-on-barn-at-sunrise farmyard scenes, and names to match. Aside: the only place you’ll find Archer Farms is in the trademark office.

I’m the worst offender. Despite all that respect for using every part of the animal I mentioned earlier, I’m also a tremendous wuss. I don’t like stringy bits or blood veins. For quite a while I didn’t like eating chicken wings because they were so clearly chicken wings; bones and skin, and bits of tendon being pretty strong reminders. I like white chicken that bears minimal resemblance to what it used to be. I think that’s why the only shellfish I generally like are scallops. Octopuses and crabs creep me out. It’s a conflict; I don’t practice what I like to hear other people preach, and I feel a bit guilty about it.

So, it’s in the industry’s interest to keep the realities of modern farming under its hat, and we’re complicit through a kind of semiconscious denial. That’s why lots of animal welfare charities throw ugly videos of animal abuse up on social media, to try to shine a spotlight on the worst excesses and thereby introduce some transparency. If we were truly honest with ourselves and faced up to the realities we would almost certainly make different choices at the check-out, picking welfare brands, free range chicken and so on, and the market would correct, with meat processing facilities changing practices to accommodate the public’s new awareness and preferences. Some would eat less meat, or even no meat at all. Such a drift seems to me to be a very positive thing, so more power to those trying to raise awareness.

OK, so a lot more talk of economics and animal welfare in this one than I expected, thanks for staying with me, but the point is there are plenty of good reasons to question my consumption of meat, and there are regular reports of health benefits from cutting back, especially from red meat. Spending a week without meat seems like a good thing to do.

Stir-frying vegetables for a Thaish curry
Stir-frying vegetables for a Thaish curry

It was a good thing to do. I think meat can be an excuse for unimaginative cooking. A big chunk of heated meat is sometimes the center-piece of a dish, with some limp microwaved vegetables to one side as a token gesture to be ignored. It’s a disservice to vegetables that can be so much more varied and delicious, and deserve to be given the spotlight from time to time. Well, most vegetables can be varied and delicious. I’m not a particular fan of aubergine/eggplant, or mushrooms, ironically because I find them a bit meaty. But I respect them, and I know the failure is of my own palate and its poor appreciate for their many obvious qualities.

Brussels sprouts epitomise what I’m talking about here. In Britain at least they are almost uniformly accepted as a Christmas side that kids hate and adults tolerate for tradition or possibly health. But the reason brussels sprouts are miserable is that we do some a pathetic job of cooking them. Take that pan of water off the boil, and instead sprinkle those sprouts with olive oil, some grated parmigiano, perhaps some garlic or lemon juice, toss with pancetta or dip them in duck fat, and roast them for 25mins … and hold the phone it turns out they’re a much tastier addition to the Christmas table than the turkey.

This is a veggie burger. Veggie burgers are good.
Veggie burgers are actually pretty good.

OK, pancetta and duck fat sort of undermine my vegetarian leanings here, but perhaps that’s my point. Meat can maketh the veg, as well as the other way around. And there’s plenty of great food to choose from without eating meat at all.

So obviously I found spending a week without meat pretty easy (you would hope so, as millions of people manage it for a lifetime), and I tried a few new things in the process. I experimented with snow peas and bok choy in a not-very-authentic Thai veggie curry (using a bought lemongrass sauce), which was yum. Even cooked veggie burgers for the family one night because I’ve always been curious how those compared. Turns out, pretty well. Tastier than a cheap hamburger, in fact. All in all, it was easy, cheap and fun to go without meat for a week. Recommended.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, I accidentally ate cheese made with rennet. Did you know that a lot of cheese is made using an enzyme scooped from the stomachs of newborn calves? I did, but I sort of assumed that it would be listed on the ingredients of the cheese. It is not, in the US, at least (it’s just down as “cheese enzyme” which surely implies it’s a product of cheese not cute baby animals). Transparency, people.

  • Difficulty: Easy (now you know about the cheese thing)
  • Worthwhiliness: High

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