You might not expect that the literal handbook on the topic of ethical meat would come from a former vegetarian/vegan. But then again, maybe you just need to get to know Meredith Leigh who addresses the topic in very thoughtful ways, through the analytical and scientific lens that is the hallmark of her approach to any subject.
Photos by Erin Adams, Matheus Gomes & PIXELME
It took a trip to a rural Asian village to shift the way an urban kid from Louisville, Kentucky viewed meat and its relevance to our diet. As Meredith Leigh, author of “The Ethical Meat Handbook,” tells the story, “In Vietnam it is a gesture of friendship to place food in another’s bowl. When in 2004 in a rural Hai Duong village in northern Vietnam a small woman named Loi placed a stringy piece of water buffalo into my dish at dinner, I began my journey into the meaningful consumption of animals.” In this book, Leigh takes a deep dive into the four essential components of what makes that pork butt you’ve got on the smoker, ‘ethical meat’: the animal has had a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook. Each of these creates an entry point of sorts, making the subject matter eminently discussable.
We recently sat down with Meredith Leigh (virtually) to have a conversation on the meaning and importance of ethical meat.
Good Grit: Tell us, for whom did you write the book?
Meredith Leigh: I mostly started out writing it for chefs and home cooks because I felt like those were the people who had flexibility or imagination or hunger for what I was talking about.
But I also really fashioned it for people who kind of already get that the food system is broken and want to understand how to best effect change. These might be folks who already know their local butcher and know who Temple Grandin is and her role in the ethical treatment of animals at harvest.
GG: How did your journey inform this discussion?
ML: When I wrote the book, I had been a farmer and then sold my farm. I became really painfully aware of some big mistakes that I had made, based upon assumptions of what the customer knew or didn’t know and how the land worked or didn’t work. I felt ready for some more advanced and thoughtful analysis of better food systems. That is not as simple as throwing some cows on the grass; it takes re-tooling this system more competently, with respect to its complexity.
GG: What do you see as the main impediment to that education of the consumer?
ML: In general, it is just training—in how we shop, eat, and cook. Thinking outside the box about these things can feel pretty radical to people. The new chapter in the second edition offers cooperative buying and sourcing ideas for extremely urban people.
GG: Do you find you are still reaching new people with this book’s message and your own personal philosophy?
ML: I have found that the audience for this book has really exploded past my initial expectations. When I teach a class, I have people who are gun-toting conservative people standing next to granola-eating vegans listening to these topics. Because it is not just about meat and meat-eating, it ends up being a platform for talking about all kinds of different, really thorny issues our society is facing right now. I do think (the book) can reach a cross-section of people in a really accessible way.
GG: You have said that one of the foundational tenets of ethical meat is that the animal has had a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook.
ML: That concept gives people the full spectrum and allows them to hone in on the fact that we are talking about the full supply chain, but it also gives you really digestible bullet points. When I have this conversation with people, I preface it by saying, we could expand on this topic for a full week or for just five minutes—you choose.
GG: This is an intense subject matter, but there seems to be a communion of sorts that takes place when people are of the same mindset on an uncommon topic.
ML: There is sociological research showing that people come together when they bond over really comfortable or beautiful things as well as over really uncomfortable hard things—such as hurricanes or car accidents. I think the deliciousness of preserved or cooked meats—things we consider really flavorful—is the pleasure experience that brings people together. But slaughter, blood, knives—those are the things that bring people together through uncomfortable means.
I have been surprised myself about what brings people together and what they share in common.
GG: You recently posted on Instagram—I think you were harvesting peas or beans in your backyard garden—“Some food fills you over and over.” Tell us what you mean by that.
ML: It is true that a lot of the way food is sold or promoted in our society has to do with health. But if we start looking at all the things food does for us (working in the dirt, tending seedlings, time together with family preparing a meal), then people can kind of calm down and begin to examine how else their food feeds them, beyond just nutrition.
GG: You live in Asheville, North Carolina, which is a pretty progressive community and certainly one that embraces you and your passion.
ML: The land and the connection to the land that are so prevalent here and has been huge for me and the reasons I stayed. I was an urban kid growing up in Louisville, Kentucky with no sense of where my food came from. Coming to Asheville, I was awakened to all of this. And what is so close—wilderness, hiking, paddling, climbing, farming, gardening, and wild space—is just part of the experience here.
GG: How does Asheville feed you, and what do you get from the Asheville experience?
ML: All the food businesses and entrepreneurs here are very inspiring. I have the ability to work with many of them through board service and collaborative educational initiatives that go on here, but there are a lot of really savvy business people here who are trying to create small-scale economies in good food. It is inspirational and experiential and a way of not only practicing what we want to see happen but also troubleshooting the way we make food better. It is a great community for someone like me to live in because it is my business to be looking, thinking, and talking about all of that.