Two years ago, food journalist (and GT contributor) Richard Cornish realised he had a problem. Driving home from a friend's house with a plate of still-warm roast lamb in the passenger's seat, he found himself pulling over, unable to wait.
When a school bus drove by, Cornish realised how he looked from the pupils' viewpoint: a man hunched over the back of a ute, tearing lamb apart with his hands on the side of a dirt road. Possibly dribbling. The moment inspired Cornish's "gonzo-style leap" into vegetarianism, and then a book: My Year without Meat.
"There's no Betty Ford clinic for meat addiction," he says, "so I just went cold turkey."
It wasn't an easy year. Beyond missing meat, Cornish spent the year playing defence as friends and chefs alike struggled to understand why he was going without. Australia, after all, is a country of meat-eaters - on average, Cornish says, an Australian consumes 33 kilograms of beef each year. And if we include pork, chicken, game, and fish, we're each eating 110 kilos of meat annually. Historically, this level of consumption is unheard of.
"The great civilisations around the world historically have always had diets based upon whole grains and pulses," he says. "The Aztecs' diet centred on corn and beans; India's, rice and lentils; China's, rice and soy. Complete foods, but we see them as lesser."
During his year without meat, Cornish cherry-picked recipes from across civilisations and cultures to find the right balance of nourishment and flavour. He includes his favourite tips and tricks in My Year without Meat: roasting vegetables in miso butter or sprinkling Spanish migas onto broad bean, asparagus and pea pasta.
He argues that the supermarket-driven industrialisation of farming, with its associated ethical issues of GMO-packed feed and cramped conditions for animals, has changed our relationship with meat, particularly chicken.
"A generation back, chicken was definitely a special meal. For most of Australia's history it was something to be cherished," he says. "Now, we can stuff it down our faces at $4 a kilo. If meat is cheap, there's a reason, and it's not a good one."
In My Year without Meat, Cornish contends that Australia has become too reliant on meat, both at home and in restaurants. Cornish believes some of the country's best cooking is vegetarian, citing David Green's meat-free tasting-menu option at Daylesford's Lake House and Brent Savage's cooking at Potts Point restaurant Yellow as his favourites.
Just shy of a year without meat, Cornish travelled to Andalucía in Spain for work, and temptation overwhelmed him.
"I was considering getting jamón patches for the trip," he says. "I should have."
A single piece of aged jamón Ibérico shattered his resolve: "In a rapid piece of self-reconciliation I knew that my time of self-imposed penance and reflection was over," he writes. "That jamón was a work of art."
He's no longer vegetarian, but you won't find Cornish getting handsy with roast lamb by the side of the road again any time soon. There are fewer impromptu feasts now, he says, as he considers more thoughtfully where his meals come from.
My Year without Meat by Richard Cornish is published by Melbourne University Press, $29.99.