When William Hogarth was arrested in the summer of 1748 while making sketches of the old city gate of Calais, he took his revenge by painting The Gate of Calais. The famous satirical work depicts dishevelled French soldiers and a fat monk slobbering over an impressive joint of beef destined for an English inn.
Hogarth took his red meat seriously. He was a member of the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks, an organisation that met regularly to consume ritually the rarest of beef and sing anti-French songs. To him, and others, beef was the quintessential food of the English male: tough and bloody, a robustly masculine dish.
The French are now getting their own back on les rosbifs. Britain could be facing steep compensation claims from the families of French victims of the human form of mad cow disease – a malady believed to have been “exported” from Britain to France.
Clearly, beef matters – and not just because of the human tragedy engendered by vCJD. The thought that this very English and very masculine dish is rotten and potentially fatal is depressing because beef symbolises two qualities dear to Englishmen – patriotism and the hardy male. The BSE crisis may be seen as a metaphor for the crisis of both.
The importance of red meat in the English ideal dates back to the seventh century, when St Augustine wrote to Pope Gregory explaining that the newly converted Anglo-Saxons loved their meat so much that they would not eat fish on Fridays. It was consolidated by that figure of extreme masculinity and carnivorousness, Henry VIII, a portrait of whom eating a steak and kidney pie used to hang in the old British Library.
By the 15th century, the English Beefeater had been established; by the 19th century, beef had become a central part of the English narrative. Michelet wrote favourably of “a race nourished on meat. From this comes their fresh complexion, their beauty, their strength. Their greatest man, Shakespeare, began as a butcher.” Today, the butcher’s shop remains a distinctly patriotic arena, frequently replete with Union Jacks and boasts about the nourishing qualities of “British beef”. One of the first retailers to be threatened under new EU metrication laws was an Essex butcher.
Beef’s association with masculinity and the nation stems from its immediate aesthetic qualities. Red is associated with aggression and violence – and beef is the reddest of meats; indeed, we qualify it on a sanguine scale, whether it be saignant, bleu or tartare. Blood is the very essence of steak. It possesses almost homeopathic qualities: the man who eats steak will be given the “strength of the bull”.
It is food for men. “Real men eat meat” – for in nature, men are the hunters, women the gatherers. The more conspicuous the display of blood, the more masculine the consumer becomes. In the book Meat: a natural symbol (1992), Nick Fiddes quotes a businessman who eats raw steak at corporate lunches because it “totally unnerves the other guy seeing you eating this raw meat with blood dripping out of it”.
Beef finds its truest expression in the form of the soldier or warrior, an uber-masculine figure who fights for his tribe. Homer feeds Achilles on nothing but beef. The Mongol hordes lived on boeuf tartare.
In recent times, red-blooded masculinity and patriotism have been derided and rejected – and, as a consequence, consumption of red meat has declined. In 1992, each Briton ate an average of just less than five ounces of beef and veal per week; by 1995, beef consumption had fallen by a quarter.
This culinary trend pre-dated the BSE crisis of 1996 and was dictated by a philosophical stand rather than prophetic alarm. Gender played a role, with essentialist feminists endorsing the idea that women are naturally the more caring and more serene sex, and using this theory to suggest that women should express solidarity with animals, with that other “Other”. In her book The Sexual Politics of Meat (1991), Carol J Adams argues that eating meat is the quintessence of patriarchy. Like women, animals are the empty, passive subject of male power and aggression. (Our language subscribes to this view, with a predatory, courting male being regarded as on the “prowl” or the “hunt”.)
Beef is not just redolent of sexism today; some also associate it with little Englander sentiments. This may explain why the cosmopolitan liberal prefers to dine on more “European” food, such as sun-dried tomatoes, ciabatta and quiche. Ostensibly, we are told that a Mediterranean diet of oily fish and vegetables is better for us, but the message the consumer also gives out is that he or she is more sophisticated by virtue of being more “international”.
Seen from a similarly global perspective, beef is considered ecologically damaging. Grazing cattle are blamed for large amounts of methane emission, and we are frequently reminded that land used to grow crops instead could feed a far greater number of those starving in the developing world. In this respect, a beef-free diet is commended as part of a more ethical, more globally sustainable lifestyle. In not eating beef – which, horror of horrors, may have been reared in the deforested Amazon – you show that you care about humanity in general; that you are a citizen of the world, not just a nation.
Beef used to symbolise what was good about the upstanding English male. Today, however, where non-confrontational feminine values are held in high regard, the red-blooded male’s favourite food is seen as politically incorrect. The archetypal beef eater used to be the soldier. Now he is a mad football hooligan, a fat, red-faced, bull-headed, meathead who, like our mad cows, brings fear and trepidation wherever he goes.