Review of The River Cottage Meat Book (Gastronomica)

Originally published in Gastronomica, Summer 2008

The River Cottage Meat Book
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Photography by Simon Wheeler
Berkeley/Toronto: Ten Speed Press, 2007
544 pp.  Illustrations. $40.00 (hardback)

This is a big book, with full-page photographs of big animals and big hunks of meat, first published in England in 2004. A book this big is appropriate to a country as big as America, but England is the size of Alabama, and rural Dorset, site of the author’s River Cottage series of television programs and cookbooks, is smaller than Jefferson County, just one of the 67 counties of Alabama.  This isn’t to say that meat isn’t a big subject wherever it appears, but exactly where and how we get our meat is dependent on geographic scale, on the specifics of place. That’s why I couldn’t help feeling that despite the many issues  that America and England share in the perversions of meat production in our modern industrial food system, Fearnley-Whittingstall’s primer of meat from pasture to plate reads like a nostalgic version of British pastoral, set in Thomas Hardy’s West Country, remote in time and place.

“A really good butcher’s shop, like a really good fishmonger’s, is an exciting place to be” (p.49), our English author writes with the best of intentions, but I don’t feel he’s writing to me. Julia Child urged us to seek out a local butcher shop nearly 50 years ago and that’s when we still had one or two in my New Jersey suburb. While our English Meat tutor admits that 90% of US shoppers buy their meats at supermarkets in comparison to only 70% of UK shoppers, the cultural gap between our countries is much wider than 20%. England’s mixed agricultural practices of plowed fields and livestock on small-scale farms on a small island is a heritage of their landscape, which was blotched  but not utterly destroyed by the Industrial Revolution. In America only the colonies along the Eastern seaboard,  and especially those of New England, furnished an ecology anything like that of Old England. The rest of America was the West and, as successive waves of homesteaders discovered, it was not pastureland but vast prairies and deserts,  where small-farm sustainability was never possible, except in the minds and imaginations of our founding fathers.  In America the speedy  takeover of an entire continent by the mass production and distribution of agricultural products after our Civil War created a network very unlike England’s primarily because of scale.

For the same reason, agriculture in England suggests a coziness quite foreign to a country where buffalo and Indians were part of the wild. In England, this author has created a media persona suggestive of an aging Wild Child (his first book in 1993 was A Cook on the Wild Side) simply by wearing hippy hair and mud-stained boots and blood-stained aprons. In such a highly tamed countryside, “wildness” means we see him actually at work on a farm, with his dogs and young children,  tending his heritage-breed cows, sheep, and pigs on all that green grass. We see him plucking feathers of some game bird he’s shot himself and carving a four-rib roast from one of his North Devon cows and spit-roasting one of his Gloucester Old Spot pigs.  I have to remind myself that he’s an Oxford grad, with a degree in philosophy and political economy,  and that he’s made up this regular guy image with an engaging tell-it-like-it-is voice. According to Bill Buford in The New Yorker,  this image has sustained him through “nine television series, three specials,  and ten books.”     In America this country boy stance translates into a thinking man’s Emeril.

The fact that the author is not a farmer born, however, has lured him to think through the moral issues of meat eating, and he does so with straightforward commitment to the animals he raises to be killed. Part of “the symbiotic contract” (p.23) between men and animals as fellow creatures, he says,  is “the contract of good husbandry” (p.24), which  works only if we give animals a better deal than they’d have in the wild.  His idea of the “consensual domestication” (p.23) of certain animals resembles the argument of  Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire, where he wittily claims that  plants got the best of the deal in getting man to perpetuate them.  The husbandman’s contract is that he makes the short life of his animals a happy one and that he respects them after their death by treating their meat with care.  That means cheap meat is a contradiction in terms.

The author’s plaints about the abusive persecution of  animals in our industrial system and the cheapening of meat in our supermarkets are familiar,  but bear retelling because what’s true in England is far more true in the States. Far more than the English consumer, we demand cheap meat, which doubly degrades the animal that provides it. Perhaps Fearnley-Whittingstall’s best contribution in his celebration of meat is to connect directly good and bad farming not only to good and bad meat, but also to good and bad eating, and to place responsibility for the lazy use of an animal squarely on us, the cooks and eaters. The moral contract depends on our using not just the prime cuts but the whole animal for food—the offal, bones, fat—the 60% of each carcass that most Americans never see because it’s been disposed of as waste.

What we don’t see can hurt us. Near the beginning of his book, he devotes a double-page spread to a picture sequence of the killing, skinning,  and butchering of one of his cows. In America, this might fill a wall-size television screen with images nowhere visible in the forever glossy sequences of Emeril and Rachel Ray. It appears that American cooks and eaters haven’t yet got the courage to look at the big picture of meat. Perhaps the big picture depends less on scale than on moral depth, and for that we might well look to ancient roots in  England’s green and pleasant land.

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Posted on Jul 1, 2008