THE RIVER COTTAGE MEAT BOOK | Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Ten Speed Press)

It’s startling to read a history of vegetarianism and a meat cookbook and find the cookbook more concerned with animal welfare. But on the evidence of The River Cottage Meat Book, a cult sensation in the UK just out this month in the U.S., we’re entering an era of conspicuous compassion, in which ever more people are talking about the care and feeding of the pigs they eat as intently as they talk about the taste of the pork. Since Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma conscientious meat-eating has evolved into a counter-vegetarian movement with a moral code that doesn’t bow before fruits and vegetables.

The young British scholar Tristram Stuart, on the other hand, gets more than halfway through The Bloodless Revolution, his study of the moral ascendancy of vegetarianism in the West, before any of the vegetarians under discussion bother to think about the lives of animals. Starting in the 17th century and ending with Hitler, he takes readers from a time when vegetarian sympathies were suspicious and closeted to our age, when people have been known to apologize for not being vegetarian (“I know, I know, but I just love bacon”).

The earliest European vegetarians were blood-soaked refugees from the English Civil War. As Stuart thoroughly documents, all shared a single trait: they were deeply, deeply weird. The radical Robert Crab, for instance, who “inaugurated the English school of vegetarian Bible exegesis,” wielded his vegetarianism as a political weapon and claimed to have had an epiphany when a squirrel brought him bread in prison. Then there’s John Evelyn, a paragon of the Enlightenment whose book on salad enumerated 18 types of “lust-calming” lettuce.

But despite Stuart’s exhaustive research–his bibliography runs 65 pages–he finds very few people who wholly abstained from meat. The book’s far more about the idea of vegetarianism than the practice of it, full of men arguing about abstractions rather than actual behavior. Stuart spends a long chapter on Newton, for example, without ever pinning vegetarianism on him. Instead he argues that Newton’s beliefs, in particular his attempt to revive a primitive Christianity focused on the natural world, meant that he was logically, if not technically, vegetarian. Much of the remainder is about the viral impact of India on European and especially English diets: early visitors to the subcontinent were shocked, and then entranced, by a people who lived without meat. (The book’s British subtitle was Radical Vegetarians and the Discovery of India.)

Today’s activist vegetarians, with their videotapes of chicken batteries and sow crates, have very little in common with their forefathers. In fact, the early arguments for vegetarianism had to do almost exclusively with human welfare. In a society that was perpetually at war, a vocal minority concluded that eating meat was debasing man and making him violent: if people stopped shedding the blood of animals, went the logic, they’d stop shedding human blood. That argument’s still around today, but it isn’t as prominent. It isn’t until Stuart discovers Rousseau’s arguments about sympathy that he finds a language for talking about animals and humans that sounds truly modern. Animals had feelings much like our own, Rousseau said, which meant we did not have an intrinsic right to kill them–as our own sympathetic instincts should tell us. But while this line of thinking made Rousseau a founder of Romanticism, it didn’t turn him into a vegetarian.

Meanwhile, the “counter-vegetarian mascot,” as Stuart calls it, was Alexander Pope’s “happy lamb.” Pope argued in An Essay on Man that if animals were well-treated and killed painlessly, there could be no moral objection to eating them. His lamb had been given a good life, in other words, and our right to eat animals should derive from what we have given them. The author of The River Cottage Meat Book, a writer, farmer, and BBC host with the impossibly British name of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, speaks from this tradition.

The River Cottage Meat Book is perhaps the only cookbook ever to begin by discussing whether making its recipes would be a morally acceptable act. In the remarkable opening chapter, “Meat and Right,” Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose River Cottage farm, the set for his popular BBC series, may be the best-known small farm in England, argues that since we’re responsible for the lives and deaths of what we eat, the only coherent rationale for carnivorousness has to justify both. It’s ultimately a utilitarian argument, which is somewhat surprising, since the most significant contemporary animal-rights philosopher, Peter Singer of Princeton, is a utilitarian too. But where Singer sees more net suffering, Fearnley-Whittingstall sees more net happy beings–until they’re killed. That’s why Fearnley-Whittingstall is a near-hysterical advocate for humane husbandry. “It’s an excellent word because it also acknowledges the contractual nature of the arrangement,” he writes. After rejecting vegetarianism for minimizing and misrepresenting the importance of death in nature and for disregarding the mutual benefits of domestication (the pigs got something out of it, too), he concludes, with rhetorical brio that makes you want to flip forward and start prep work on the “Bacon, Sausage and Blood Sausage Pilaf,” that “meat eating is, on balance, morally acceptable human behavior.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall has a simple goal: he wants his readers to know that meat comes from dead animals. Cookbooks typically show meat after cooking, not before, and they rarely show animals at all. The River Cottage Meat Book gleefully violates both taboos: the cover is a close-up of a standing rib roast taken from a nose-length away and the sections on individual animals feature photos of each relevant animal, dead but not yet butchered. And if you’ve killed it, he argues, the least you can do is eat all of it: England has always been more enthusiastic about odds and ends than the United States, and in addition to a chapter about offal (“Fries are the euphemistic, and prevailing, culinary term for the testicles of bulls, pigs, and sheep”) there’s a final chapter titled “Meat Thrift,” illustrated by an unnervingly jaunty pig’s head.

But the coup de grace comes right at the beginning: a three-page photo spread of a River Cottage cow being slaughtered. It’s a best-case scenario–a small and conscientious slaughterhouse, a gently handled and minimally stressed cow–but Fearnley-Whittingstall’s point is that there should only be best-case scenarios. He doesn’t show a factory slaughterhouse because he agrees with PETA: he wouldn’t eat that meat either. Photos of the killing floor are normally only used for agitprop–for either shaming or being shamed–and printing them here is a powerful cry for the importance of good slaughterhouses.

Last fall I spent a morning in a garage-size Wisconsin abattoir. It was the sort of old-school establishment that still uses a .22 to do the deed and I watched as the lamb I was going to eat was shot dead, skinned, and eviscerated. Afterward its eyes looked piteous and hurt. But it was an honorable business, strangely beautiful, and walking out I felt sorry only that more people would never see this sort of death. Fearnley-Whittingstall’s written his book with that same thought in mind. The only question is whether he’ll create better meat eaters or more vegetarians.