Food, Ethics and Offal: An Interview with Charlotte Wood

Charlotte Wood is best known as one of Australia’s favourite novelists, but she’s also becoming known as a passionate food lover. She blogs regularly about food at How to Shuck an Oyster – and her next book, Love and Hunger, an ode to good food, will be published in May.

On the eve of tomorrow night’s Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, we talked to her about food, ethics, offal and going vegetarian for a month.

Reading your writing about food, you clearly have an ethical framework you apply to what you eat. What is it, how did you come to it – and how does it influence how you cook and eat on a daily basis?

My ethical framework is as rickety as anyone else’s, I fear. But my approach to food is just an extension of the ethics I try to live by in the rest of my life – doing my bit to ‘touch the earth lightly’, I suppose. To reduce environmental damage and waste, to support small independent producers and business people who I think have integrity and who contribute to a diverse commercial ecology, if I can put it that way.

In recent years, I have come to include attempts to reduce animal suffering in my consideration of food. When I’m eating out, it’s much harder, particularly as we tend to eat at local, cheapie ‘ethnic’ restaurants where none of these issues are particularly on the radar (or at least they’re not discussed with customers) and I am not the kind of person who enjoys questioning waiters about the origins of the chicken at the local Thai. Which means I am pretty much ethics-free in eating out, I suppose. Sigh.

But in cooking at home, trying to behave ‘ethically’ with food means shopping at independent food stores as much as possible – we have good grocers and fish shops nearby and a weekly farmer’s market within walking distance of home, so that is very easy for us to do. I try to buy as little as possible of anything – and certainly almost no fresh food apart from milk – from the big two supermarkets because I hate their domination of food production in this country, the way they screw farmers, and I don’t believe their prices are as competitive as we are led to believe.

I also try to keep an eye on the kinds of seafood we eat, because I have only recently come to understand just how detrimental seafood farming and fishing practices are. I try to buy stuff with the least amount of packaging possible, so I don’t buy vegetables in bags or on Styrofoam trays and so on as much as I can help it.

Almost all our meat now comes from Feather & Bone, a really fantastic small company in Sydney run by people who are committed to sustainable agriculture and humanely raised meat – they buy direct from farmers, visit all farms in person to inspect their premises and practices, as well as visiting abattoirs to ensure they are satisfied with the meat processing practices.

I try to avoid chucking food out because of the greenhouse gases produced by green food waste, along with the general philosophical aversion to waste. So that means using leftovers to make other stuff, freezing bits of this and that, and chucking any possible odds and ends into the worm farm rather than garbage. Recycling packaging as much as possible is a matter of course.

Writing all this down makes it sound rather earnest and plodding, but actually, we do it all so automatically and instinctively that it feels completely easy and natural and pleasurable.

We are not very health-conscious people and our food choices come down far more on the side of pleasure than health. But we do only eat fresh unprocessed food, mainly because of the pleasure I get from cooking it, we think it tastes better – and it’s just the way we were both brought up.

'Cooking and eating good fresh food is a very, very easy way to live for us – there's no sense of drudgery about it at all.'

'Cooking and eating good fresh food is a very, very easy way to live for us – there's no sense of drudgery about it at all.'

Working at home probably means I have more time than most people to devote to cooking, and not having kids means I don’t need to cook separate meals or coax reluctant little people to eat fresh food and so on. So cooking and eating good fresh food is a very, very easy way to live for us – there’s no sense of drudgery about it at all.

You’ve said that in recent years, you have thought a lot about your love of meat, and eating it has caused you ‘guilt and unease’. What is it that makes you feel that way? And how have you come to terms with that?

Two things: environmental degradation from meat production, and animal suffering. I suspect I will always feel conflicted about eating meat, and in one sense I think that’s good – it’s the only way to consistently calibrate my own ethical behaviour towards animals.

As Jonathan Safran Foer so baldly puts it, the most frequent contact most of us have with animals is eating them. I can easily avoid cruelty to animals by not actively harming them – but almost every time I eat a piece of bacon in a cafe, I am participating in extreme cruelty towards an animal more intelligent and perceptive and sensitive than most dogs. If I refuse to think about that, I’m not sure I can perceive myself as the civilised person I would like to be.

That said: I still eat some meat. I don’t eat nearly so much as I used to, but the major way I have come to terms with eating meat is to support, as much as I can, small environmentally responsible producers of ‘humanely’ raised and processed meat.

This means buying real free range pork (difficult as there are so few producers) and free-range chicken, and – as much as possible – lamb and beef that have not been finished on grain. This is relatively easy for me to do, given my access to what I have come to think of as my ‘meat conscience’, Feather & Bone. I have a very strong relationship with the owners, and over time have come to completely trust them to do the research for me, to observe the farming practices not only from a humane treatment of animals’ perspective but an environmental one too.

…as long as someone is eating or otherwise using it I’m happy and don’t feel obliged to stuff a heart again anytime soon!

They buy whole animals direct from the producer (unlike other so-called ‘ethical’ butcheries where meat comes from wholesalers where provenance cannot be guaranteed and blind eyes are turned to vague origins of meat that is then sold to well-intentioned consumers under questionable labels) and many of their producers grow ‘rare breed’ animals, increasing genetic diversity in agriculture beyond the limited breeds used in large-scale production.

All their producers are located in my home state to reduce ‘food miles’, some are slaughtered in their own on-site certified abattoirs, and all are committed to trying to improve the land the animals are raised on, for example some run beef on native grasses, having comprehensive land regeneration and soil improvement programs and so on. Some producers are certified organic or biodynamic while others use chemical-free farming practices but are not certified for various logistical reasons. All the animals are raised outdoors as much as possible – not just having ‘access’ to sunlight and water but really living outdoors and being free to roam and express their natural instincts.

Because I live in a large city where a service like this is available, it’s far easier for me than for people with less access to this stuff, less time and less money and so on.

Seafood is a whole other kettle of fish (boom-tish) and something I am just starting to address – but for starters, we are eating more sustainable species as advised by sites like Good Fish Bad Fish and Sustainable Seafood.

'Seafood is a whole other kettle of fish ... and something I am just starting to address.'

'Seafood is a whole other kettle of fish ... and something I am just starting to address.'

Another conscience-easing tactic I have is to promote and talk about ethical and sustainable producers and businesses wherever I can, and to discuss these issues quite often on my blog while trying not to preach. I think my approach is far from ethically pristine, but I’m happier with this compromise than if I didn’t do anything to address the ethical issues at all.

You’ve recently undergone a couple of fascinating experiments in your cooking and eating. First, you cooked and ate offal for a week, after realising that your aversion to eating some parts of an animal runs counter to your beliefs about ecologically sustainable food. How was this experience?

I think I basically failed the test.

I wanted to overcome my own illogical aversion to handling, cooking and eating innards of animals that I would normally avoid, so at the suggestion of Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine, I spent a week working my way through the organs of one animal, the cow – and wrote an article about it.

The philosophy that offal-lovers promote is that whole-beast eating is more ethical than just choosing parts you like and chucking the rest. I found the experience rather confronting (as the article attests) – there are deep psychological barriers that the psychologist Paul Rozin has researched, relating to our fear of mortality and so on, but also I just found the taste and texture of much of the meat unpleasant. This was absolutely more to do with my inexperience in cooking it than the meat itself. But there are also long, involved processes needed for some of it – like brining, boiling and peeling of the tongue, for example before pan-frying it – that also make cooking it more complicated than just slinging a piece of steak into a pan for five minutes.

The ecological argument comes undone a bit when you are told, as I was in a letter to the editor following the article, that no part of animals are ‘thrown away’ in abattoirs – many organs are exported to countries where they’re much more popular than ours, and other parts are made into pet food and other products. For me the upshot is that as long as someone is eating or otherwise using it I’m happy and don’t feel obliged to stuff a heart again anytime soon!

Last month, February, you embarked on your own version of FebFast, going vegetarian for a month. What led you to that? What were the challenges? And what, if anything, did you learn from it?

This was almost a direct result of the offal experience. I was kind of overwhelmed by the physical fact of eating red meat for seven days in a row – something we would never normally do. But also, I had been dimly aware that almost everyone we know has at some time in their life had a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian phase (only eating fish, for example) but that I had never even gone a week without eating some part of an animal at some stage. Our Veg Feb was purely experimental, just to see what it felt like to stop eating meat and seafood for a while.

That said, we had a couple of caveats in place that meant it would never be a proper vegetarian month. First, while we told our friends what we were doing, we would not refuse meat if served it in their homes or socially out with them if it felt rude to refuse meat. And second, I thought living without anchovies, fish sauce and shrimp paste would kill me, so I decided we were allowed to cook with them. All in all, we ate some kind of meat (sometimes just a mouthful) five times in that month.

The surprises were that:

  • I never once craved meat of any kind.
  • I actually only used anchovies and shrimp paste twice and didn’t miss it otherwise.
  • Eating out as a vegetarian is still pretty difficult to do long-term, as especially the cheaper end of the cafe market seems almost opposed to vegetarianism, there are so few options.
  • The expected weight loss didn’t happen (too much cheese!).
  • I did grow quickly bored with having to plan for some protein intake each day, and eventually tired of the limited protein options available.
  • We did some fantastic cooking and ate many wonderful meals, but found that more planning and consideration was required to eat really interesting, varied and flavoursome vegetarian meals than there is if you can include a little meat or seafood in your diet.
  • I was surprised to learn how much the structure of a meal mattered to me – bowls of mish-mashed veg stuff are kind of depressing.
  • Textural variety was more important than ever (see mish-mash comment above).

I concluded much the same as Michael Pollan did in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: that conviviality and the easy sharing of food with other people matters more to me than sparing the life of an animal, especially if it is humanely raised.

Portrait of Charlotte Wood

Charlotte Wood is the author of five novels and a book of non-fiction, and for three years edited The Writer’s Room Interviews magazine. Her latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, was awarded the 2016 Stella Prize. It will be published in the UK and North America in 2016.

Her work has been shortlisted for various prizes including the Christina Stead, Kibble and Miles Franklin Awards. Two novels – The Children and The Natural Way of Things – have been optioned for feature films.

The Australian newspaper has described Charlotte Wood as ‘one of our most original and provocative writers.’