What Is Meat?
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Posted on 03 Dec 2016 14:34

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Here on CulinaryLore, I have often shied away from writing articles about things that most people take for granted. For example, I would probably not write an article explaining what bread is, as most people take bread for granted, and even if they don't know exactly what makes bread bread, they also don't care. However, I have begun to realize that certain things are not so obvious as they seem at first glance. A recent comment on Facebook regarding "test-tube meat" made me realize that meat is just such a subject.

For example, in regards to test-tube meat, a commenter expressed the opinion that meat "has feet and a mouth." Different people probably do have different ideas about what constitutes meat. These ideas may be cultural or personal. If you glance at the URL of this page on your browser, you'll see that I've placed this article under the category of food culture. That is because meat is different things to different people. But, can we define meat from a culinary or technical standpoint?

Words for Meat

The first thing to recognize is that our words for meat do not always correspond with our words for the animal the meat comes from. I've already mentioned this in my article about the curious case of beeves, the plural of beef. It may seem that an animal being domesticated is responsible for certain meats having their own word, but it seems that the more popular certain animals are for eating, the more likely our name for their meat will differ from our name for the animal.


Busy meat market

Do you see any chicken or fish at this meat market?

Busy meat market

Do you see any chicken or fish at this meat market?



In general, then, we are more likely to have "meat-words" for the flesh of herbivorous grazing animals. Here are some examples:

  • Meat from cows: beef
  • Meat from pigs: pork
  • Meat from sheep: mutton
  • Meat from deer: venison

Some may theorize, then, that our various names for the meat of different animals is based on squeamishness. Yet, there are no hard and fast rules and we have no problem with forthright naming for chicken, turkey, etc. The meat from chickens and turkeys is sometimes called poultry but poultry is just an umbrella term. We use chicken or turkey for describing the individual foods. However, some have questioned:

Is poultry meat?

Some people consider meat to be restricted to the flesh of mammals. Birds, they say, don't count as meat. In fact, many food science or meat processing books and experts will describe poultry as if it is a separate category from meat. The same thing goes for seafood or fish. Others will consider poultry as meat, but may further qualify it as "poultry meat," and we will often hear people talking about "meat and poultry." Poultry is only used to described domesticated birds, not any birds hunted from the wild, which are called game birds.

If you consider meat to be the edible muscle tissue of an animal, then the muscle of cows, pigs, chicken, or fish are all meat. But this is not the only definition of meat. Some define meat much more broadly. For example, meat is sometimes defined, as by the Culinary Institute of America's Guide to Meat Identification, Fabrication, and Utilization, as "the parts of animals fit for human consumption."

This broad definition means that edible internal organs, tongues, etc can all be considered meat. It also means that what is meat from one animal is inedible from another. For example, we don't always remove the skin from pork, and it is considered edible if cooked thoroughly, but the skin of cattle, lambs, and goats is always removed. Therefore, the definition of meat can vary from species to species.

What about Fish?

The broadest definition of meat is that it is the edible parts of various animals such as mammals and birds. This category may or may not include fish, depending on your viewpoint. But, why shouldn't fish be meat? Ask around and I'll bet you don't get a satisfactory answer. One possible reason that fish is not considered meat is because, in Catholic tradition, the abstinence from meat on Friday or during Lent did not include fish and eggs. Other than this, most explanations are, in a word, convenient. Fish is not meat "just because." Some vegetarians eat fish for this reason. I don't eat meat, they say. But you eat fish? Fish is not meat. Why not? Because I don't eat meat!

Origin of the Word Meat

If you think the above definitions of meat are a bit broad, the original meaning of the word was even broader. Up until the 13th century, meat referred to all food. It may have derived from the Old English word for food, mete or maet.

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