Visible from my office window is a bronze bovine sculpture by the River Wear. It celebrates a city’s origin, for it was to the spot where Durham Cathedral now stands that in AD 995, so the story goes, a dun cow led the monks who were searching for a safe place to lay St Cuthbert finally to rest. The authors of Beef do not tell this particular tale but, like many of the legends they do recount, including other dun cow stories and the Edda myth of the world’s creation by a cow, it testifies to the important place that cattle – versatile providers of meat, milk and heavy labour – have occupied in the human imagination. Such stories fall well short, however, of supporting the large claims made by Andrew Rimas and Evan D G Fraser on behalf of cattle as the main mover of human history. ‘History isn’t the story of sex,’ they insist, ‘it’s the story of food’, and it is cattle in particular that, as their subtitle has it, ‘shaped the world’.
Hyperbolic claims of this kind have become familiar in recent years. For example, when it was discovered that acorns were easily stored and nutritious, they were credited with driving the change from hunter-gathering to cultivation. Again, it has been proposed that the rise and fall of the taste