Commonplace, Vol 2, Issue 3

In which the writer considers the cow, Lent, and the future.

Hello! Living in Ireland, dairy is a huge part of the cultural heritage. Our butter is the best in the world, we’ve a tradition of cheese-making that goes back to at least the early medieval (modulo a bit of a wibble in the mid-20th century), and most of our national epics centre on the kind of cattle-raiding that puts the Old West right back in the shade. And we eat a lot of beef; the two go together. But there’s a problem with cows.

[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as ramble and swear, has a Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/drewshiel, about which people have said some nice things of late. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit (still constrained by unemployment), and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]

Cows emit methane. Cows emit a lot of methane. According to the details in the link above, which shows the emissions per kg of food for various sources, each kilo of beef is responsible for about 60kg of CO2-equivalent emissions. Which, to some degree, is ok, because producing food mostly has to emit something. The trouble is that beef is right at the top of the scale, and the next most emission-y food, lamb or mutton, emits only 24 such CO2-equivalent kilograms. Pork is at 7kg; chicken at 6kg. You see the problem here.

(I went looking for a picture of a cow to put in here, and Google photos found me a black and white cat, a heraldic statue of a unicorn from some British stately home, several goats, and these beans. Apparently I have never taken a picture of an actual cow. Also, I am looking forward to getting back to the shop that sold these.)

Dairy doesn’t get off free here; cheese stands at 21kg in this scale. Milk, because there’s so much less processing involved, comes in at only 3kg. But I’m pretty sure that most of us do not consume nearly the weight of cheese that we do of beef, and cheese is still literally three times better in this regard.

Part of why I’m looking into this is that my research over on Gentle Decline discovered quite a lot of anti-environmental propaganda being circulated by agricultural industry groups. And whenever I see that these days, my main question is “what environmentally dodgy practices are you trying to hide and continue?”. And it turns out that just plain not eating beef can do more for your diet’s impact on emissions than avoiding Peruvian asparagus, which is, on the face of it, mad. The numbers are there, though.

I’d like to say that we’ve cut beef down a long way here, but at least up to this week, we’ve been eating it two or three days a week. This is partly because we both like beef, and partly because weight for weight, it’s pretty cheap. Weirdly, this is far from being the first time in history that it’s been an inexpensive foodstuff; Adam Smith had a note in The Wealth of Nations (1776) that:

It is not more than a century ago, that in many parts of the Highlands of Scotland, butcher’s meat was as cheap or cheaper than even bread made of oat meal.

(“Butcher’s meat” was, I believe, to distinguish it from pork and chicken, which would have been slaughtered at home in the late 1600s.)

But this particular datum has been enough of a jar to the system, though, that I’m going to have to reduce it. Usefully, however, that ties into a food project that Nina has suggested: a medieval-inspired Lenten fast. Neither of us is remotely Christian, mind, but I’ve long held that trying to engage with medieval history without taking account of religious practice is anachronistic and misguided. So Lent.

The rules for a medieval Lenten fast varied over the period, of course, and people engaged in as much wiggling on the rules as people ever do. In modern terms, though, if you were to describe the fast period diet as “vegan plus fish and honey”, you’d be about right. We will dispense with the various period rulings declaring seals, whales, beavers, waterfowl and sea birds to be fish. This also eliminates dairy and eggs, and to be honest, the one thing that gives me some level of pause in this (admittedly there is no mention of caffeine) is the prospect of doing without butter. However, the rules also allow for Sundays to be feast, not fast, and certain saint’s days, when they fall in Lent. St. Patrick’s day is the one most observed in Ireland. Interestingly, sugar is not a forbidden thing under the medieval rules - probably because it wasn’t common enough to be an issue, or indeed a sin. The feast days will, I suspect, be much looked forward to.

Obviously, the medieval diet did not include the potato or the tomato or the chili pepper, all of which will go a long way toward making the diet more bearable. And since the point here is to adhere to the spirit of the fast, rather than the precise conditions, we’re going to include those. That said, there are a fair number of Lenten dishes in al-Warraq, and this seems like a good time to try them, as well as vegetarian dishes from other cuisines.

Lent begins on Wednesday, February 17th, and I’ll report back at the end of it - at Easter, or maybe a little after - with news on how the overall project went. I’m also going to experiment with providing an every-day-or-two report to Patreon backers. There’s a new €1 tier on Patreon, by the way, should you want those reports and nothing else.

Speaking of paid things, I am in the process of creating merchandise (T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, stickers, so far) for Gentle Decline, which has a bit more of what in marketing we’d call a Brand Identity. Is there any interest in Commonplace merchandise? I don’t have anything in mind, but I thought I’d ask. The printing company I’m using are European-based, use minimal-route shipping, and are adopting eco-friendly products at a steady rate, if that helps. Hit reply, let me know.

In the meantime, I’d like to make some predictions about the world of food in 2021, because it’s the time of year for it. I don’t know how to measure, test, or verify these, mind, so they’re not hard and fast metrics against which to evaluate myself as a Food Prophet.

Casual Vegetarianism: I think we’re going to see more people experimenting with vegetarian food. Not becoming vegetarian, mind, but changing the level of meat they’re eating. Ideally, this would be a decrease in beef, as above, but I’m seeing a huge interest in vegetable-based cookery across all the food media I read (or, reluctantly, watch).

Last Mile Food Delivery: There is a huge opportunity in food delivery in rural or semi-rural Ireland in the pandemic and likely post-pandemic conditions. It’s probably impossible to get takeaway food out to areas like my homeplace (the hills of North Wexford; 8 up-and-down-and-dark km from the nearest takeaways), but getting next-day delivery of all kinds of foodstuffs there shouldn’t be any harder than normal courier services. And takeaway delivery could, with some proper organisation, be extended from provincial towns to surrounding villages. Indeed, there’s plenty of scope right now for someone to set up ghost kitchens doing Chinese or pizza or the like in some of the bigger villages; there’s almost literally a captive market.

Mostly-pre-prepped meals: One of the things that’s appeared on the Irish (and Dutch, I know, and probably some other) markets is the meal package. This is where you get a box containing all the stuff for a specific meal, prepped, chopped, etc, so that all you have to do is some assembly and some heating. These aren’t new; Blue Apron has been doing them in the US for years. But in the pandemic, restaurants started to do it, and it seems to be continuing. Restaurant prices for it can be quite high, though; approaching the cost of the same meal in the restaurant. I think it’s virtually certain that this will see more popularity this year, and combined with the previous Last Mile stuff, could really change the way some segments of the population consume food.

And a thing which isn’t as much prediction as observation: Brexit continues to be a slow-release nightmare for the food industry. Specialty Food, a British magazine that does what it says, reports that lorry traffic is making a continued mess of shipping. Some choice quotes:

“For the first two weeks of January most companies deliberately cut the trade they do with the EU and Northern Ireland down to a very low level (on average 20% of normal volumes),” the [British Meat Processor’s Association] said.
“This was so they could tentatively test out the new system. But even at these low volumes, there have been catastrophic delays for perishable products.”

and

According to the BMPA, customs declarations for shipments going to Dublin Port alone have increased from an average of 5,480 per day last year to an expected 164,382 per day in 2021. “Multiply that across all our export borders and the magnitude of the problem becomes apparent,” the group says.

These do not sound like fun situations, and the Belfast Telegraph has dug up a bunch more such issues. Things aren’t as disastrous as they would have been with no trade deal at all, but they’re really not working in any thought-out way, mostly because no thought occurred.

Anyway. This issue has been brought to you by superb potato bread, some excellent research by Cee, an elder cat with new food enthusiasm, and a full desk diary. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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