Meet the 'Ethical Carnivore' Who Spent a Year Only Eating Animals That She Killed Herself
Louise Gray is author of The Ethical Carnivore, a book documenting the year she spent eating meat she saw raised and slaughtered herself.
"Quickly, before the bar comes down!"
Louise Gray runs back to the car as her aunt shouts from the driver's seat. We pass under the £3 toll booth bar for Seacliff beach, four miles east of North Berwick, Scotland. Down we drive onto a dirt track, where the road forks off in two directions into the wood. We clamber out of the car—an ungainly collection of thermos, coats, and camera equipment—and her aunt leaves us there.
Through the trees and we're down to the beach. Dark sand stretches out to the coastline, near to which a white pickup truck perches on flattened rock. We're running a little late, and Gray stalks across the sand at a speed I can barely keep up with, let alone in wellies.
After working as environmental correspondent for The Daily Telegraph for four years, Gray moved from London to Edinburgh. She set herself the challenge of putting that dinner party idiom to the test. She wanted to find out where her meat came from, and decided to only eat animals she'd killed for a year. The Ethical Carnivore, published this month, follows Gray through 18 months of examining what it means (and whether it is even possible) to eat meat ethically.
"There's no justification or easy way [to eat meat]," she tells me. "You don't get out of it by saying you did it yourself or that you did it ethically. People who disagree with taking an animal's life—there's no way I'd ever argue against that. I accept that as their view, otherwise, the whole book falls down. It's not a philosophical treatise. It's just my personal journey, and people can take their own judgment from it."
The Ethical Carnivore certainly has the awful scenes of factory farming most readers will expect to find in a book about the ethics of meat-eating—but it's not as clear-cut as I thought it would be. Shutting down that conversation doesn't help anyone.
And so, I join Gray to sample a day in the life of an ethical carnivore. We're going to catch and eat our own lobster.
As we reach the small Scottish harbour of Seacliff, Gray's cousin and his fishing crew greet us. We climb into the boat and our lobsterman for the day, Sam Lowe, reverses us out into the Firth of Forth, the estuary that borders the North Sea.
The belly of the boat is small and covered in rubber matting. There isn't room to not get involved. Among buckets of fish heads and radio equipment, sandwiches and flasks of green tea, Lowe drags up pulling pots full of flapping fish and crabs.
He carefully pulls the lobsters out for Gray to measure from check if they are big enough to keep. It's a strict process, resulting in a £1,000 fine if they get it wrong and take back one too small. My hands shake as I stretch a small pincer open to enable the bands to hold the lobster claws in place. Their claws tied together, we then place them in a bucket at the back of the boat and sail around to another set of pots.
Back on land at North Berwick harbour, we head to Lobster Shack, a tiny hut that serves freshly caught langoustine, mussels, and mackerel to visitors during the summer months. Owner Stirling Stewart helps us "dispatch" of our lunch.
The chosen lobster is placed on a blue chopping board and we step out onto the shack benches so Gray can kill it. Stewart produces a huge, sharp knife from the Shack, and I watch as Gray's posture changes ever so subtly. So far today, she has been slightly scatty—a whir of activity and lost car keys. Now, she is quiet and still. Taller than before, she squares up to the lobster, feet now hip-width apart and adjacent to the table.
I hear the lobster crunch as Gray cuts right the way through the middle. The sound of utensils shaking on the top of the wooden bench follows, then a final "Phew" as the creature eventually stops moving.
Gray and Stewart wipe the guts away, pull the claws off, and places the flesh on the grill. It crackles as it cooks, changing colour from midnight blue to peach, before becoming a rose red. Gray points out that the claws move as the meat contracts from being heated.
I've never had lobster before but it tastes exactly as I expect it to: incredibly rich, sweet, and melt-in-the-mouth. It's a taste that finds its way easily to cliches.
"I think for our generation in particular, it's one thing where you have to reconnect, you can't do it through a screen," Gray tells me between shreds of lobster. "Meat-eating and eating food is a way to reconnect, and eating meat that you've sourced is the ultimate experience. I don't agree that we should only eat meat we kill ourselves, because I think loads of people are really sensitive and couldn't do it. Also, it's taken me so much time and effort and money to do this. That's why I've done the book—so you don't have to do it."
Less than a minute's walk from the Lobster Shack, we find Maggie Sheddan waiting to show us around the harbour's lobster hatchery. Based in shipping containers, the hatchery releases thousands of juvenile lobsters out into the Firth of Forth every year.
Sheddan tells us that in the wild, a lobster hen will lay between 8,000 to 10,000 eggs, with a 0.01 per cent chance of survival.
"If the hatchery gets them, if we get 100 out of 1,000, we're really happy with that," she says. "They're here for 12 to 18 days, and they've got more chance here than if they were just alive in the sea."
The hatchery is lined with huge white containers, full of minuscule creatures I first mistake for sea monkeys. In fact, they're tiny lobsters, split into age group, and making their way up to what Sheddan calls their own "apartments" in the lobster high rises stacked at the back of the container. This where they live until they're old enough to be released.
"The hatchery isn't regulated or under a European law," says Gray. "It's led by the local fishermen because it's their patch, and they want to protect the lobster numbers."
"We're not saying don't eat them—just take what you need," adds Sheddan. "They're giving us jobs, we're employed, we're providing education, and it's all from lobsters and making people aware of them."
The next day, I find Gray at her home in Edinburgh, dealing with a steadily mounting press build-up ahead of the book's publication. She shows me the freezer she had to buy to accommodate the huge influx of meat she found herself with when working on The Ethical Carnivore, telling me that some of it was also doled out to friends and family.
Aside from the freezer and the pair of waders she acquired, has spending the last year slaughtering meat changed anything else about Gray's day-to-day life?
"It's changed how I see meat," she says. "I've begun this incredible journey of understanding where my food is from. Sometimes I wish I hadn't started it, because it's much easier to go on in happy ignorance. But I have a real passion for explaining things to people, and try to see and understand the world. It's made me better at it."
I wonder how people living in cities could react to The Ethical Carnivore, or how people without access to livestock or lobster hatcheries could make a move towards being an ethical carnivore.
"Farmers and gamekeepers often aren't that good at talking about what they do," admits Gray. "But I think that's changing. Then I'd say try to cook or find some meat you can connect with—either through a good butcher or a box scheme or a farmers market."
People will always want to eat meat. Gray's experiences seem to show that providing them with meat raised responsibly is vital.
I end up travelling back a ludicrously long way from Edinburgh to London. As we reach the Lake District, the clouds shift from a wash of grey to bright spotlights on the land. I realise I spent barely a day living Gray's ethical carnivore life, and I'm already looking at the landscape differently.
All photos by Will Eckersley.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES UK in September 2016.