Notes from What It Means to be Human by Joanna Bourke
This is a fascinating read, as ever, from this Birkbeck historian, but I’ve no time for a full review so here’s just some interesting points…
“The great expansion in meat-eating in Britain and America only occurred after the 1860s… According to one estimate, meat consumption in Britain almost doubled between the 1860s and the 1890s, and had increased still further by 1914. .. in 1909, Americans consumed on average 51 kg of boneless trimmed meat each year…. by the late 1960s the average person was eating more than 70 kg of such meat a year — or the equivalent in animal flesh of his or her own body weight… Today, the average American consumes a staggering 125 kg of meat a year.” (p 278)
Historically of course what most people ate as meat varied widely. Bourke comes up with a fascinating list from early West Coast America: ” Teal, summer and mallard duck, plover, lark, robin, prairie grouse, quail, snipe, wild geese, swan, wild pigeon, while turkey, grey and white cranes, white and black tailed deer, antelope, beaver, black bear, hare, raccoon, opossum, grey black and fox squirrels and bison. If especially hungry, they might also tuck into the flesh of blackbirds, bluebirds, buzzards, crows, doves, dippers, Eagles, owls, hawks, mockingbirds, ravens, mice, gophers, prairie dogs, panthers, skunks, foxes, wildcats, coyotes, wolves or mustangs.” (p. 277)
Now of course, we’re down to cows, pigs and poultry – with a heavy stress on the last.
“At the turn-of-the-century, only around 10% of the world grain was fed to animals… In America today, around 60% of the grain is fed to animals. This shift is even more remarkable when it is noted that the animals being fed grain in 1900 were primarily those working in the field … As opposed to animals raised dissatisfied people’s carnivorous appetites.” (p278)
And in echoes of today … “A highly publicised incident of alleged cannibalism took place in Hampshire. at the Andover workhouse male paupers had been put to work crushing bones use as fertiliser. In 1845 a local farmer and member of the board of guardians discovered that the paupers was so hungry that they were fighting over the bones in order to eat them. To great consternation, it was revealed that some of the bones came from the local cemetery. The gruesome story caused uproar, forcing the government to institute a Parliamentary enquiry into what happened. The scandal was a godsend for people protesting against the stringent new Poor Law… The master … was accused of introducing increasingly harsh measures to prevent the workhouse from becoming overcrowded by the growing numbers of unemployed men and women. The English gentleman said every person in Britain was ” entitled to food – it is his inherent right, as much as the air he breathes but he is bound to burn it honestly. If we cannot employ him – if we cannot accept his Labour – or if he is incapable of work – still he is one of us, and must not be shut up to gnaw the bones of dead men. policy and Christianity teach us otherwise”. ” (p319)