History of British meat/promotion of meat in British society

Today, proponents of meat products and/or the industry in general stake their emotional claims in a bedrock of British nationalism, arguing that the acting of eating meat is tied in with the very essence of Britishness. Beyond the dogmatic trappings and spurious logic of the Buy British Beef sort of supposition lies a central explorable truth, however: The history of British meat consumption is interwoven with that of the country itself.

British meat-eating: The past

As in most European nations, ownership of chickens and at least a head or two of livestock (goat, sheep or pig) were pretty much necessary to the common man’s agrarian lifestyle. As the ruling families increasingly gained in power and the hierarchical social structure was consistently tightened, the size of the average individual plot of farmland increased and livestock populations swelled. By the Elizabethan Era, sheep outnumbered people in Wales, Scotland and Ireland (though not Britain due to the burgeoning populations of London and other cities).

By Elizabeth’s time, the importance ascribed to eating animal flesh was full-blown, even having incorporate a blueblood element to the diet: Vegetable matter was thought of as food for common folk, and the notion of eating food grown directly from the ground was unthinkable for most elites. Those who actually bred and tended the animals producing such meaty treats were typically denied the product of their labor altogether.

This dietary consequence of the iron-rigid class structure may still be evidenced in modern-day English. While nearly all European languages have a single commonly-used word for both the animal and its meat product, pairs such as “beef” and “cow”, “pork” and “pig”, “poultry” and “chicken”, “mutton” and “sheep” are rife in English because those eating the animal and those producing it were speaking literally nearly different languages.

Victoria Era labour and the populism of meat-eating

In the 17th and 18th centuries, banquet-style dining was generally abandoned by the upper classes in favor of the buffet – yet another idea borrowed by the French. However, the tide turned again and by the Victorian Era, the nobility enjoyed multi-course affairs reminiscent of Renaissance Europe – except with much more meat.

The real revolution in British meat eating going into the Victorian Era, though, was its popularization for the working classes. In cities, prepared meats and meat products became standard fare for labourers and desk jockeys alike. The pasty, invented way back in the 16th century, could well have been considered the official British meal by the 19th.

And the return of meat-as-status symbol was back in full force by the 1950s, as those who’d dealt with rationing for so long were now freely able – and certainly encouraged – to buy as much of the fleshy stuff as possible. Alongside this regained feeling of privilege was the popular belief that the health benefits of red meat were numerous against very few (if any) detriments. Within a couple of decades, commercial proclaimed, “You can’t do better than beef. British beef.”

British meat-eating: The present

But as they say, all things come to an end. According to annually updated statistics released by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, overall consumption of meat and meat products in Britain for 2015 (the last available statistics available as of this writing) was down over 15.5% since 2000 and a smidge under 32% since 1980. This is how social progress comes: patiently, gradually, persistently and barely noticeably day to day.

The reality of this changing attitude toward eating meat in Britain – for the healthier, we might add – is certainly making industry insiders nervous and has resulted in a sort of unofficial propaganda campaign by meat enthusiasts who evidently seek to justify their habit by publicly proclaiming the Britishness of chowing down on carcass meat (the official term used by DEFRA to describe non-offal animal meat products).

One such proud carnivore is Telegraph columnist Jemima Lewis, who farily well sums up an entire column written in December 2014 with an article entitled something to this degree: ‘Meat eating plays a major part in the character of British people – so what becomes of those of us now as who are eating less flesh?’ (At least she was honest enough to use the term “flesh”, we suppose…)

“Meat-eating is written into our poetry, our collective consciousness,” philosophizes Lewis, who then quotes (guess who?) William Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson out of context to “support” her central conceit. She ultimately concedes that “Eating less meat will do most us no harm at all … And thus makes us appear unpatriotic to others on the outside. Now what exactly is a nation aside from its mythology – with so many stories that in turn are passed down; highlighting our traditions, about what and who we are are ultimately how we came to be this way in the first place?”

What is a nation for all of its own mythology? Erm, maybe its history…? Perhaps that culture from which you borrowed a sentiment or two in the writing of your piece, Ms. Lewis…? Call us crazy, but you couch all your importance on mythology in the past tense; can we not leave certain facets of said myth in the past?

British meat-eating: The future

As stated on the homepage, we believe that a future in which modern-day practices of livestock breeding and care, meat production and industrialized food processing are extinct is inevitable. Britain’s trend to lesser consumption of meat and meat products go hand in hand with the 21st-century change in consciousness that brought about decreases in tobacco consumption and high-carbohydrate diets.

Further, this greater awareness of human health extends holistically to our environment and greater society itself. We know that massive cow and pig farms are responsible for a great amount of greenhouse gas production and elimination of rain forests. And in terms of prestige the globalism-fueled world has reproduced the attitude of Elizabethan England. Today, Earth’s rich may proclaim to the drought- and disease-ridden, “let them eat vegetables” while resources are shifted to the plates of the 1%’s dinner tables.

Turning the page on the history of British meat-eating would most assuredly do worlds of good on all levels – with nary a bit of culture lost.

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