Amber Husain was cooking dinner for a friend when she suddenly realised the meat she was preparing was a corpse. She looked at the chicken in front of her and was overcome with a visceral sense of disgust. Instead of food, she saw “a carcass – plucked, beheaded, and fleshy”.
Husain was 26 when she had this epiphany, and it served as a wake-up call not just for her stomach but her mind, too – as her personal tastes shifted away from meat products, her political outlook on the meat industry and food production more broadly also altered and expanded. Five years later, that moment of revulsion forms the opening of her new book, Meat Love, in which she scrutinises the idea of “ethical” meat consumption, and dares to ask how the contemporary middle classes have come to criticise “the worst violence against animals” while still happily feeding on their flesh.
Why, for example, has well-heeled, middle-class London gone nuts for slurping bone marrow from the shin bones of baby cows? Why is offal on so many trendy menus? How has contemporary culture at large come to accept that factory farms are monstrous, but that if animals are cared for, cherished and loved while alive, we should feel better about killing them for our carnivorous pleasures?
“For ages, I was one of those carnivores who felt mildly bad about eating meat but just turned that into this inane, self-consciously sadistic part of the pleasure of it all,” Husein tells me. “The more my diet started to revolve around stuff that wasn’t meat, the weirder meat started to feel. Interestingly, once my stomach had been radicalised, I found I had a much greater intellectual openness to thinking about the politics of meat.” Having freed herself from the conflict of eating meat but also feeling bad about it, she found she was able to go beyond those questions of morality – which she suggests can be “stifling” – and think politically. “Now that I have no desire to eat animals, there’s nothing to stop me reckoning with what it means that the meat industry [consists of] an underclass of both humans and animals who are exploited and – in the animals’ case – killed for pleasure and profit.”
This is the essential crux of Husain’s argument, and it’s something often lacking in discussions around the “ethics” of meat consumption. For Husain, the question is not, “how can humans eat meat responsibly?” but “how are certain lives devalued to an extent that their suffering can be written off, in order to ‘make a killing’?” What she’s saying, in other words, is that whether the meat on the table has come from a factory farm or an organic farm, or whether you’re tucking in at Burger King or the River Cafe, the path to the plate is still paved with violence. And, while current cultural trends may claim it is better to love and respect an animal before killing and consuming it, perhaps what this cultivates is the ability to embrace exploitation “in a spirit of virtuous indulgence”.
What does it really mean, for all living beings, if love is imagined as compatible with killing? “To slide your buttery hand between the flesh and skin of a thing that, if only for a moment, you have re-learnt to perceive as a corpse, is to give an invigorating massage to your sense of political possibility,” Husain writes in Meat Love. By the slim book’s end, her invigorated “sense of political possibility” has led to “a ravenous hunger – a desire for a different culture, a different society”; a new world “in which no one, neither animal, immigrant, worker, woman, or peasant, was considered a thing to be owned, controlled, killed, or left to die”.
For many, the leap from a chicken breast on a plate to the exploitation of oppressed people around the globe might seem like a vast one. Yet, it certainly seems clear that there has been a marked shift in the way meat is conceived and consumed – among the middle classes, at least. Since the turn of the millennium, foodie figures like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have been promoting “seasonal, ethically produced food” as part of a broader commitment to caring for the environment. At the same time, a distinctly carnivorous spirit has taken hold – one that professes to be an “honest”, “grounded” and “down to earth” ethos. “Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay,” Anthony Bourdain wrote at the start of the 1999 New Yorker article that would, eventually, catapult him into global foodie fame.
Then there’s Fergus Henderson and St John – the illustrious London restaurant, born in 1994 on the premises of a former bacon smokehouse, which popularised “nose to tail” dining. This offal-centric “no waste” approach is neatly summed up in Henderson’s oft-quoted phrase: “If you’re going to kill the animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing.” Traditionally “cheap cuts” are “elevated” from a source of sustenance for the working classes, to a source of virtue for the urban bourgeois. According to its own cookbook, St John dishes combine “high sophistication with peasant roughness” – that winning aesthetic formula that also sees middle-class urbanites flocking to farmers’ markets and chugging natural wine.
In a sharp and searing piece for food and culture newsletterVittles, writer Sheena Patel dubs this “Rich Person Peasantcore”, asking: “Why are these influencers pretending that they themselves till the land and eat like 17th-century French peasants when in fact their chopping boards cost more than most people’s rent?” In the face of swathes of small plates adorned with offal, and slices of ham served for upwards of £20, it seems like a pertinent question not just for influencers, but also for today’s trendiest restaurateurs and diners.
Lewis Bassett is a chef and the host of The Full English podcast, which, over its two seasons, has dived into everything from the birth of “modern European” cuisine to high food prices, factory farms, and why Britain is in love with Greggs. “It’s interesting the way we create these fantastical worlds for us to eat within,” he says. “It is clearly a fantasy to imagine that you can have the rural experience of a peasant in France or Italy, in modern-day Britain.” Yet, he also says that this trend is far from new. The current “rustic” style – typified by “nose to tail eating” – is, he suggests, “intimately tied with what you could call a culinary and broader cultural movement that appears in the wake of countercultural movements in the Sixties, and eventually finds its way into food, especially as some of those countercultural people get a bit older and a bit more affluence”.
Essentially, “it’s the same thing that manifested in places like Habitat,” he says, of the homewares and furnishings brand founded in 1964 by Terence Conran. Both design and dining were transformed, offering experiences to the middle classes that were both refined and casual at the same time. Alongside that cultural shift, and “that fashion for pared-down forms of eating out”, Bassett notes the arrival of a broader awareness of environmental and animal welfare concerns. “It’s obviously easy to ridicule these middle-class forms of culture,” he says, “but these concerns are ones I certainly share and I think should be considerations for everyone. I find it easy to laugh at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and people like that, but I’m not totally convinced that they’re really the bad guys.” So is there a danger that legitimate backlash to the “thrifty rural”, “nose to tail” trend – and bourgeois “peasantcore” more broadly – could spill over into an attack on all food industry attempts at sustainability?
“I think people don’t want stuffy fine dining experiences,” Bassett says, “but at the same time, having the kind of pared-down, rustic, ‘peasant food’ – like, having ham served to you at St John costs you 20 quid – maybe people are slightly sick of that.” He quickly adds, though, that he is “not saying it can come any cheaper than 20 quid, because when you spend a lot of time and effort rearing animals properly, and paying chefs properly, and paying rents in your restaurants, that racks up”.
It seems there is a tension, then, between practical and immediate ethical matters – such as paying food industry staff liveable wages or reducing food waste – and broader questions about what kind of society we wish to live in or create. Is the question of “ethical” meat consumption, as Husain suggested, “beyond morality” – a question of politics only? Or is it still, at heart, a moral dilemma, based on people’s personal sense of “right” and “wrong”? Summing up Husain’s attitude towards animals in Meat Love, Bassett suggests “she’s saying that, if you love them so much, why are you killing them? I suppose where Amber Husain and I would slightly disagree is that I’m not convinced that killing an animal is inherently wrong.”
Away from the carnal appreciation and “peasantcore” of contemporary restaurant culture, meat-eating often seems to be conceived as either a “guilty pleasure” or a “grim necessity”. In all these cases, however, there appears to be an overriding sense that there is “no alternative” to a meat-eating status quo. The late cultural critic Mark Fisher famously used similar terms to define “capitalist realism”, meaning that capitalism is the only viable economic system, and thus there can be no imaginable alternative. Is it possible we’re also stuck in a kind of “carnivorous realism”?
If so, it might be because the two are so interlinked. As Husain puts it, “meat is the inevitable outcome of an economic system that relies on cheap labour and cheap life. But that doesn’t mean meat is a necessity, it means a new economic order is a necessity.” Perhaps taking the leap from a vegetarian diet to full-scale social and economic revolution still seems unthinkable to many. But, in nasty, brutish and austere times, it has also perhaps never been more necessary to seriously consider who can eat, and who is made meat.
“I think we need an avalanche of political will from within the food justice, land justice, climate justice and labour movements to radically transform society,” Husain says. With that as the goal, she believes it isn’t helpful “for us to be clinging to the idea of meat as a pleasure”: “If we can’t imagine something other than animal flesh to eat for dinner we might struggle to imagine an entirely different society.”
‘Meat Love: An Ideology of the Flesh’ by Amber Husain is out now via Mack Books
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