The River Cottage Meat Book
543 pages, $50
Look at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Actually, first just say “Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.” Now look at him, absconding with that rib roast. No doubt about it, The River Cottage Meat Book is sure to be a lighthearted romp through meaty pastures.
As if. The RCMB has plenty of recipes, but they’re entirely beside the point. This is a polemic. Fearnley-Whittingstall, his jovial hairstyle notwithstanding, wants you to think about your meat. Is it as humanely raised as it is delicious?
You can probably already intuit the substance of Fearnley-Whittingstall’s oversized pamphlet, but he has issued his wonderfully illustrated and readable proclamation at an exciting time to be a meat-eater.
It’s an exciting time because until a few years ago, the only people I heard talking about the ethics of meat didn’t eat any themselves. Nothing will send you to McDonald’s faster than a lecture about factory farms from a vegetarian.
Nowadays, the most eloquent voices for meat reform are people like Fearnley-Whittingstall, Bill Niman of Niman Ranch, and Michael Pollan, whose landmark New York Times Magazine article, “An Animal’s Place,” began like this:
The first time I opened Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” I was dining alone at the Palm, trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium-rare.
What these folks, other than Peter Singer, have in common is that they love eating meat. Fearnley-Whittingstall waxes eloquent about eating all parts of the pig, the cow, and the sheep with as much fervor as a PETA member haranguing you not to eat any such parts. And he is brutally unsentimental about it: there is a series of photos showing the slaughter of one of his cows.
The most interesting fact I learned from the Meat Book is that 70 percent of meat in Britain is sold in supermarkets. Fearnley-Whittingstall grumbles about this, but it made me wonder what percentage of American meat is sold in supermarkets. It has to be more than 90 percent, don’t you think? I guess the grass-fed beef is always greener on the other side.
Since reading this book and Peter Kaminsky’s Pig Perfect, I’ve been trying to buy better meat. I haven’t made an amazing amount of progress, for the obvious and inexcusable reasons of expense and convenience. But my lard is organic. We often buy breakfast sausages at the farmers market during market season. Sometimes I buy meat at Whole Foods; their beef is from Oregon Country Beef, and their chickens are organic. I’m not sure about the provenance of their pork, but that’s where I got my pork roast from for Christmas dinner.
The farmers market season starts in late May, so I’m going to make it a project to buy as much of our meat as possible from the ranchers there. The prices can be shocking, but leave it to Jamie Oliver to smack up my Wal-Mart mindset:
Very rarely does anyone go into a garage, phone store, or shoe shop and ask for “the cheapest, most rubbish one.” So why do we walk into supermarkets and support those companies that are producing cheap products? (from the intro to Jamie’s Dinners)
Besides, our favorite cuts of meat (shoulders and ribs) are among the cheapest to begin with. The only other drawback of buying from the market is that all the meat is frozen. I’m not worried about the quality, but it does take a bit of the spontaneity out of the purchase. At the same time, it means I can plan ahead for the week if I can clear some freezer space.