A Weighty Issue #2 - The Meaty Question

This blog will feature many things that interest me or that I'm involved in. I've also chosen to use it to share my personal lockdown weight loss journey. My first post on the subject seems to have gone down quite well. So here's Part 2.

I'm going to be talking about my approach to the emotive subject of meat. Veggie and vegan chums may want to look away now.

I'll start by saying that I am a meat eater. But I'm a picky meat eater. And an informed and ethical meat eater. Much of my attitude towards meat stems from my childhood.

It's fair to say that a great deal of  the protein I was served up as a child came fresh and direct from the land or the sea. Growing up in Cornwall, and coming from a family of shooters and fishermen, my diet regularly featured game. I ate rabbit, pigeon, woodcock and pheasant, and I enjoyed freshly caught fish like mackerel, pollock, and gurnard, along with prawns and crab. Some of my earliest memories involve hunting for delicious winkles in rock pools. And many of the oldest photos I have of my late father show him proudly displaying what he'd bagged or hooked for lunch.




That's me in the final photo with my dad and grandad Fred and looking slightly bemused about holding a dead woodcock or snipe (snipe are very difficult birds to shoot because they have an erratic flight pattern, so now you know where the word 'sniper' - meaning a crack shot - comes from). 

I grew up in a house where it was normal to see dead animals hanging in the cold store or being gutted and skinned for the pot. And when I was old enough to hold a gun I was given a single bore four ten fowling piece and allowed to go shooting with my elders. I eventually moved up to the classic twelve bore. And, in turn, I learned to hunt animals, kill them cleanly and quickly, and prepare them for eating. 


Me aged 17 or 18 with Holly and Spring, our pet dogs. Along with ferrets, they were part of the hunt too.

This was a very sustainable and healthy way to feed the family. Game tends to be low in fat and cholesterol. None of my family were chubby. We kept bantams for eggs and grew a lot of our own veg. Occasionally we bought from local farms and we weren't above foraging for wild herbs, fruits and safe-to-eat mushrooms. We were, in essence, living the lifestyle that is now promoted by people like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on his River Cottage TV shows. And, of course, this is how people lived in this country for thousands of years before food production became industrialised. 


A selection of chicken, duck, goose and turkey eggs from a local farm.

My relocation to London in 1980 was, therefore, something of a culture shock. First of all, there was my exposure to new cuisines like Indian and Greek and proper non-takeaway Chinese that had all been denied me in rural Cornwall. But, on the negative side, there was the realisation that the meats I'd grown up with, and to some degree regarded as 'paupers' food', were considered posh nosh in the city. I couldn't believe the price of pheasant or lobster. And mention of eating rabbit or grey squirrel led invariably to looks of shock and sometimes disgust that I'd even contemplate such a thing. I felt like a complete yokel. 

I got a similar reaction when mentioning offal. I grew up very much in the tradition of 'waste not want not'. I've always believed that if an animal is to be killed so that we can eat it, it should be given the best life possible, then despatched in the most humane, quick and painless way. I also believe that you should respect the animal by using every part of it that you can. If you can make a chicken last for eight meals rather than one, that's seven other chickens that haven't had to die for your table. 

Therefore, I'd grown up loving things like kidneys and liver, haggis and pigs' trotters, ox tail soup and black pudding. But even back in the early 1980s, the tide was turning against offal and now, here in 2021, I can't even get liver in my local Co-Op. 'There's no call for it', they tell me. 'The young people won't even look at it.' It's such a shame as, again, it's low in fat, low in cholesterol, packed with vitamins and minerals and very tasty. Thankfully, I am hugely spoiled by having three exceptional award-winning family butchers within minutes of my house - Halls of Hazlemere, R S Troutt's and J P Gleeson's.



All three feature a great range of local produce, game and home made items like sausages and burgers. The staff are knowledgeable and they are family-run businesses so the money I spend there goes back into the community rather than into some giant corporation bank vault (I'm not on a percentage, by the way). 

All of which leads me to my current weight loss journey and my decisions about meat.

It's a fact that I was eating too much. The Department of Health advises that you should eat no more than 70g per day and probably less. To put that into perspective, a Full English breakfast with two sausages and two rashers of bacon is equivalent to 130g of meat. Red meat in particular is a problem as there is strong evidence that over-indulgence increases the risk of developing cancers in the digestive system, particularly the bowel. Plus, while vegetables may make your body produce a lot of gas, it's the meat that adds the odour.

Then there are the cows to think about.


When we think of cows on farms we imagine them on green pastures. But that's not the reality for the millions of cattle raised on industrial feedlots as this video shows. And this form of farming has already arrived in the UK and could become more prevalent if we continue to consume so much meat.

There is also the impact on the environment to consider. Livestock emissions make up anywhere between 14.5 and 18 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions (beef farming is responsible for nearly half of that figure). Meanwhile, all of the cars, trains, ships, trains and lorries added together account for around 14 percent. And, while both cows and cars create CO2, livestock farming produces much more methane in the form of burps and farts - and methane is 23 times more potent when it comes to warming the planet. 


So, the very best thing we can all do to reduce climate change is to reduce our meat intake. If we all did that, the herds would be smaller. This would mean that the amount of space needed would not entail destroying any more wild habitats. In addition, grazing maintains the health of grasslands, improves soil quality with manure, and carbon is sequestered in the grasses and soils. A recent (2018) five-year study by Michigan State University (MSU) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), suggests that grass-fed beef can be carbon-negative in the short term and carbon-neutral in the long term. I'm delighted to read that in the burger-hungry USA, retail sales of organic, fresh grass-fed beef grew from $6 million in 2012 to $89 million in 2016, driven by consumers concerned about sustainability, health, and animal welfare. That's good news for us and the cows.

The sad truth is that the only farmed animals that get to enjoy their short lives are those that exist outside of the industrial production system. That's a fact that we, as meat eaters, have to take some responsibility for. We can do so much better.

At this point there will be some of you who, quite reasonably say, 'Why not just go veggie or vegan?' There are strong arguments for doing so and it's getting harder every day to refute them. But I'm not yet ready to cross that Rubicon. I enjoy the taste and texture of good meat. It's one of life's pleasures, like well-kept ale or a delicious cake - both of which are also not very good for me. Besides which, losing weight and placing restrictions upon your diet is tough enough without banning the foods you enjoy. 

I am therefore avoiding red meat in general. My weekly menus are set out in such a way that one meal per day is meat free, and I'll have an occasional meat free day. There are some amazing veggie recipes out there,  like sourdough toast with avocado and poached duck eggs. Yum! Plus I've created a few of my own, such as a delicious butternut squash and cashew curry. Meanwhile, the meat I do buy is organic at best, and free range as a minimum standard. 


This does mean that it's more expensive. 

Take the humble chicken for example.  A whole large chicken from ASDA will cost you £3.75 (it's about the same in most supermarkets). That's a pretty low price. And to keep it cheap, the farmer has to intensify their stock. So, despite the 'Red Tractor Assured' symbol and the fact that the label says 'reared to high welfare standards in natural light', these birds will have been grown indoors by being fed meal that puts weight on them quickly. It's notable that the front page of the Red Tractor website has a background photo showing how intensively these birds are farmed.


Birds that are reared organically grow much more slowly and in a natural environment in which they are free to roam and supplement their feed with foraging. This, naturally, reduces the farmer's profit margin - slim as it already is - so the chicken costs more. Again, to use ASDA as a benchmark, a large organic chicken will cost you £11. That's nearly three times more. But quality always costs more. That's a fact of life. A Rolls Royce is going to be better in almost every way than a Ford Focus. And an organic bird is going to taste much better, and have had a much better life, than an intensively shed-reared bird. 

Not everyone can afford to spend over a tenner on a chicken and many families have no choice but to plump for cheaper alternatives. It's another fact of life that the more money you have, the better you can afford to eat. It's criminal. But, you can eat better on a budget if you use a little imagination and if you have the time. You can make that £11 chicken last a lot longer by adopting a 'nose to tail' ethos: 

Waste nothing. Use everything. 

I'm in a household of just two people and a single chicken will easily provide us with EIGHT meals, maybe ten. That means that our organic £11 chicken has earned its keep, costing us as little as £1.10 per portion. 

We might start by traditionally roasting the bird and either having it for Sunday lunch or as an accompaniment for a baked potato and some salad. All we use for this first meal is the breast meat and, it being a large chicken, one breast feeds two easily. To eat healthily, your meat portion should never exceed a quarter of your plate. The other three quarters should be veg or pulses.

The other breast is then cubed and used in a curry, or a tagine, or eaten cold with a salad (with maybe some warm smoked bacon too). A personal favourite is to make a warming stew with chorizo and chickpeas (or butter beans) in a rich tomato sauce. To make it even cheaper, use a tin of baked beans but drain off the sauce (to be used in another dish) and wash the beans.



The legs are generally eaten cold but, again, the meat can be removed and used as an ingredient in curries, casseroles, stews and other dishes. Or bung it in a wrap with some salad and garlic mayo.

Finally, the bones are boiled up in a pot, with all of the meat juices that were released during cooking the roast, plus some stock vegetables and herbs. I now have a base for soups, risottos or anything else I fancy. And you'll be amazed how much chicken is still left on the carcase at this stage. There will be plenty enough for the meal and the stock tastes deliciously of chicken.


Chicken and vegetable soup.


Chicken, chorizo and asparagus risotto.

And any stock left over gets frozen in old juice bottles or in ice cube trays. Waste nothing!


Even if you're feeding a family of four you can easily get two or three meals from one bird. 

So, there you go. My change of lifestyle (the term 'diet' is too severe and negative) means eating less red meat and more locally sourced free range white meats (organic if possible). Fish is a trickier issue as I'm about as far from the sea as it's possible to be in the UK. But, again, I'm lucky in that a Grimsby wet fish van parks up near my village shops once a week. It's mostly locally sourced fish but the more exotic stuff - like tuna - is rod caught. If you don't have that luxury, check out the fish counter at your local supermarket. My local Morrison's has a superb counter and every item is clearly labelled regarding its origin.  


Grilled tuna steak with left-over roasties, broccoli pea and mint mash, and a butter sauce.

Getting multiple meals from one chicken makes that £11 investment in better meat seem like less of a bad deal doesn't it? Plus, the cost can be further offset by bulking out your plate with cheaper ingredients. A decent sized butternut squash can cost you as little as 50p and it's a firm and chunky addition to many dishes, as well as making a delicious soup (especially when you add a little chilli and a good dollop of peanut butter for extra unctuousness.)


Butternut and nut butter soup!

I'm going to continue to eat meat for the time being, but I'm eating a lot less of it and the animal will have lived its life as naturally as possible and to high welfare standards.

Will I go veggie eventually? It's possible. Two things currently stand in my way. Firstly, there's the lack of decent meat substitutes. The day they can make something that has the taste and mouthfeel of chicken, turkey or fish, I'll jump the meat ship happily. They're not there yet. 

Secondly, there needs to be a change in the way that vegetarianism and veganism is sold to us. At present, a lot of the campaigning seems to be based on telling us carnies that eating meat is wrong and that people who do so are bad people. I've actually had people accuse me of murder because I was eating some bacon. If you tell people that they're wrong, they will hit back. It's human nature. Imagine if you tried to do the same with beer or wine! Besides, eating meat was good enough for our parents and our grandparents and there is evidence of meat-eating right back to the origin of our species. You can't just overturn all of that history and tradition in a heartbeat. Food is also closely linked to memory and nostalgia. How many times do we hanker for mum's roasts or grandma's cakes or other tastes from childhood (for me it's home made Cornish pasties)? 

In my modest opinion, what's needed is better education and full exposure to the reality of meat production. Everyone should know where their meat comes from. Anonymous parcels in cellophane on a supermarket shelf divorce the purchaser from the reality that this is a piece of muscle, sliced from the corpse of a dead animal that has been killed for their benefit. It sounds harsh but that is the truth. I can deal with that as I've killed and butchered animals for food. But, even so, I want that animal to have lived well. 

It may be that we will naturally turn to a more plant-based diet in the future - children are already eating far fewer varieties of meat and fish than ever before. But they are still consuming a lot of fast food and, I can tell you now, that all that fried chicken and all those burgers have not come from animals that had happy lives. Nor did the animals whose final resting place is as a lump of poor quality meat made anonymous by coatings of breadcrumbs and batter. 

Perhaps they should watch more videos like this before deciding whether to have that next hot dog or budget chicken nugget ...
     


Comments

  1. Great post. I officially became a veggie in 1988 a few months after I left university, though I'd not been eating meat much for most of my time as a student due to affordability. The reason I became (and remain) vegetarian was the land use argument. The realisation that because each stage of the food chain loses 90% energy, you need 100 x the space for cattle. The methane realisation is relatively recent for me, but confirms my decision. I do, however, like your arguments for responsible meat eating & hope more people will do the same. Sadly, I think a big factor for people in making the most of food is time. I do now have time to prepare meals in advance, but when the kids were small, and I was working and writing, I would have struggled I think. Something that is probably worse for people juggling two or three jobs. Bring on basic income and a four day week!

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  2. Hi Virginia. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I do realise that not everyone has the time to do more complex cooking. And I also understand that some people are on a tight budget. Having raised three kids myself - and having been a single working dad for two years back in the 1990s - I do understand the pressures. That said, people can always do more with what they have without it costing huge amounts of time or money. For instance, making a big batch of basic beef ragout sauce at the weekend gives you the base for a whole host of meals during the week such as bolognese, chili con carne, burritos etc. I made some spicy beanburgers yesterday (based on a Tom Kerridge recipe) and I'm going to use those in a variety of ways this week. And seeing as how they were made from just onion, red pepper, kidney beans, puy lentils, garlic and a few spices, they were very cheap and took hardly any time to make. :)

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