How Nose to Tail Taught a Former Vegetarian to Respect Meat


This cookbook is one of our all-time favorites. In fact, it’s on the list of 13 Healthyish Cookbooks That Changed the Way We Eat.

“This is a celebration of cuts of meat, innards, and extremities that are more often forgotten or discarded in today’s kitchen; it would seem disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast: there is a set of delights, textural and flavorsome, which lie beyond the fillet.” —Fergus Henderson, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating

I know what you’re thinking: What the hell is a book called The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating doing on this, a list of essential “Healthyish” cookbooks? Indeed, Fergus Henderson’s paen to cooking with blood, guts, and off-cuts, originally published in the UK in 1994, would seem to have about as much in common with The Moosewood Cookbook as a pig’s foot has with a parsnip. (They’re the same-ish shape, at least?) Inside, you’ll find no recipes for zoodles, no bee pollen-topped toasts, no superfood-infused smoothie bowls. And though it may have been at least partially responsible for inspiring the meat-centric, bro-tastic, pork-belly-and-chicken-livers-on-everything cooking of the late aughts and the years that followed, I got something very, very different out of it. It made me a better, happier, and, yes, healthier cook—and I think it can do the same for you.

I was a vegetarian (plot twist!) when I first cracked a copy of The Whole Beast back in 2008. I was a sophomore at Oberlin College, a famously-crunchy liberal arts school in northeast Ohio where I ate in one of the college’s mostly-vegetarian on-campus living and dining coops. We made our own tofu, elected full-time “Granola Makers,” and regularly had hours-long, hundred-person facilitated debates over which refrigerators members would be permitted to use for their contraband meat. I had stopped eating animals back in high school, not because I felt that meat was wrong per se, but for all the regular reasons—factory farming is bad for people and the environment, Americans consume way too much meat—and had taught myself how to cook as a result of that. If I was going to decide to eat specific things, I reasoned, I would have to learn how to cook those things.

And while I still believed this reasoning to be true, I was beginning to grow weary of my soy-protein-and-undercooked-chickpea-based diet. Meeting local farmers who made their livelihoods raising animals lovingly and humanely, I became, for lack of a better word, meat-curious. I decided that maybe there was a way to honor the values that brought me to vegetarianism and still eat meat on occasion—to have my beef and eat it too, as it were. The rub? I didn’t have the faintest idea how to, well, cook meat. That is, until I met Fergus.

I first stumbled upon The Whole Beast in the college library while searching for books about meat cookery. It’s an unassuming book by today’s standards: small, softcover, black and white, devoid of the glossy, food porn-y photographs we take for granted today. (The book has since been expanded to The Complete Nose to Tail, a compendium of Henderson’s tips and recipes). But the whole thing made intuitive sense given my situation: If I was going to eat meat again, I would have to learn to cook it all: not just steak and chicken thighs, but all the other parts of the animals as well. Perhaps it was exactly the lack of photos that captured my imagination; having no idea what cow tongues or pig trotters or lamb kidneys looked like made me want to cook them even more. I found that a lot of the farmers I knew had such a hard time selling these cuts that they would give them to me for free, happy to see them used, and as I timidly started to cook through the recipes—Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad; Boiled Ox Tongue; Warm Pig’s Head—I felt the enormity of the idea of eating animals, whole animals, slowly come into focus. And, of course, I was captivated by his writing. With quiet humor and characteristically-British understatement, Henderson held my hand the whole way through, making the project of cooking intimidating cuts of meat feel not like a project at all, but something deeply necessary, quietly spiritual, and endlessly rewarding. I was eating meat again, but on my terms. And, man, did it feel—and taste—good.

But the book taught me about so much more than preparing cuts of meat. I was introduced to a whole world of vegetable dishes I didn’t even know existed: celery root salad, crisp little gem lettuces, the simple pleasures of cold radishes and warm butter. This wasn’t about “extreme eating” or showing off your in-the-know-ness in the kitchen; it was about cooking confidently and practically and with love. This moment from early in the book sticks with me to this day: “Don’t be afraid of cooking, as your ingredients will know and misbehave. Enjoy your cooking and the food will behave; moreover it will pass your pleasure on to those who eat it.”

The Whole Beast didn’t just teach me how to cook meat; it taught me how to love it, and all of the food that I prepare and eat, fully and deeply, with pragmatism, humanity, and respect. And if that hasn’t made me a healthier cook and eater, I don’t know what has.

Buy The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail or the updated Complete Nose to Tail.



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