Meredith Leigh has worked as a farmer, butcher, chef, teacher, nonprofit director and writer. This broad range of experience has yielded the reflections, advice and instruction presented in the Asheville resident’s forthcoming book, The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore. The book is due to be released Nov. 10 through New Society Publishers.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth in the local and organic agriculture movement over the last 15 years, but there are still major gaps in our ability to produce clean food, restore land and ensure that farmers stay profitable,” she explains. “The problems within our food system are epic and touch nearly every sphere — economic, political, social, environmental — you name it. As I’ve moved through my career, I’ve taken many approaches to helping people understand the complexities facing us without discouraging them from taking positive action. And in no other area did I feel that a book of this kind would be more beneficial than in the way people think about and endeavor to consume animal products.”
The Ethical Meat Handbook begins by explaining what a more humane and sustainable food system might look like, highlighting consumers’ central role in transforming our foodways and expanding the availability of more ethically produced meats.
Rather than serving up vivid descriptions of pink slime and concentrated animal feeding operations, however, Leigh tries to give the reader an idea of what could and should be. Ethical meat, she writes, “is most succinctly summed up as meat from an animal that lived a good life, was afforded a good death, was butchered properly and efficiently, and cooked correctly.”
But the heart of her argument is an extremely hands-on approach that encourages readers to change the food system themselves rather than expecting change to arrive via some external agency or in response to new food regulations.
Making this happen, Leigh believes, is up to what she calls the “first and middle economies.” The first economy embodies the types of activities we can engage in ourselves at the individual household level. The middle economy takes place at the community level, with a strong emphasis on enterprises steeped in the mantra of local.
On this platform, Leigh builds a vision of ethical meat that empowers farmers and consumers alike, fostering a shift from a global meat economy that allows a chicken to make a transoceanic voyage before it arrives on our plates.
It’s up to all of us, she maintains, to go beyond the plastic-wrapped trays that have come to define our experience with meat in the modern supermarket economy.
“When we begin to dissect all these aspects,” says Leigh, “we see that no one is exempt, and we need many changes and community effort to realize it.”
The author’s concept of ethical meat empowers consumers by allowing them to take charge of their own consumption rather than merely being passive participants in a marketplace that operates beyond their control. But with that empowerment come new responsibilities. “We not only need to cook more often,” she writes, “but we need to eat everything we’re provided. The whole plant. The whole animal.”
A field guide for omnivores
To that end, the book immerses readers in the topic of meat, clarifying the meaning of product labels such as “pasture-raised,” “organic” and “grass-fed,” and helping them understand what Leigh believes humane animal husbandry should look like.
Essentially, The Ethical Meat Handbook functions as a sort of “field guide.” Step-by-step photographs dispel the mysteries surrounding the various cuts of meat. Meanwhile, flavorful recipes enable home cooks to take full advantage of each type of protein as they move beyond the choice cuts we’ve all been trained to crave.
Alternating between theory and practice, Leigh’s book ably guides readers in applying the concepts she presents. And by framing an emotionally charged topic in different terms, the author comfortably navigates this challenging terrain, creating space for a new conversation that goes beyond the traditional vegetarian vs. omnivore dichotomy.
“I believe if we can begin to see our challenges and opportunities around ethical meat production, and make improvements in this sector of our agriculture and our diets, we can begin to shift our thinking and our action toward all of our food,” she explains.