You Must Read—Meat: A Love Story: Pasture to Plate, a Search for the Perfect Meal

Eat less meat.  Eat better meat.  (Page 258)

Meat is central to our idea of food.  It is primal.  A person’s position on meat—somewhere along the well-defined spectrum of vegan to Texan—defines so many other food beliefs that it is difficult to imagine a discussion about the future of food, or the present for that matter, without delving into meat.

9780425227565Susan Bourette’s Meat: A Love Story: Pasture to Plate, a Search for the Perfect Meal seeks to forge a conversation about meat’s place in the modern discussion about food.  In the prologue, the author writes:

The carnivores are back.  It’s like a bitch-slap to all those reedy, high-minded herbivores who have demanded nothing short of a bloodless revolution, dictating the parameters of the discussion, decreeing the rules for years.  Now it’s the meat-eaters who have wrested control of the food debate.  (Page 5)

No doubt.  Sometime during the past decade, vegetarians and their various sub-categories of various extremes have ceded control over the debate about the future of food.  It’s not about finding a tofu-based alternative to bacon, but finding bacon that comes from pigs raised and slaughtered in the best way possible.  The debate is over what is best now.

The problem is that we are separated from our food in a way that would have been almost unimaginable decades earlier:

Yet for most of us, meat is a mystery.  We know less about how it arrives on our plates than ever before in our history.  In part, this can be traced to urbanization, a population disconnected from agriculture and major corporations investing in the industrialization of meat production.  But something more is at play: our knowledge of foodstuffs is gleaned from a reading list of ingredients on the back of the package and not from hands-on experience.  (Page 41)

Jamie Oliver did a smashing job of showing how disconnected our children, and therefore our future adults, are from food when he asked a classroom of kids what various fruits and vegetables were in whole form.  Pictures of fairly common vegetables—I am not talking about alien looking kohlrabi here—went unrecognized.  Meat is not an animal to most people anymore.  It is a shrink wrapped slab of protein on a foam tray in a refrigerated case at the supermarket.  It is always been said that no one would eat meat from the major U.S. suppliers if they saw first-hand what the conditions were like for the animals and the process of factory slaughter.  Bucolic it is not.

Meat comes to our table as part of a larger system.  Like anything in modern agriculture, the meat on your table is the end result of a lot of actions and actors.  Therefore, the way in which the meat is raised from day one is important:

Turns out, we not just what we eat but also what our animals eat.  It’s welcome news in this puritanical age of culture that has dissected gastronomy into minute bits and bites of fat grams and trace minerals.  At a time when we think of the dinner table as a booby trap, jerry-rigged with potential landmines and enemies.  When our first question is not “Is it good?” but “Is it good for me?”  (Page 164)

If you treat the animals right and feed the animals good food then the questions of “Is it good?” and “Is it good for me?” can be answered in the same positive “Yes.”

Some of the vignettes in Meat are odd.  Obviously, the foray into raw meat dining in the high country of Colorado counts as odd.  This is not a story about paleo diets, but pre-fire diets.  Given what we know about dangerous microbes—our knowledge of beneficial microbes is pretty small—there is something to be said for utilizing the cleansing power of fire.  I am not a total advocate of pasteurization, but I do not subscribe to some pre-pasteurization ideal in that everything bad with the world comes from our obsession with cleanliness.  Some destruction of microbes is good for our health in the long run.  Sorry to bust your bubble cave people in Aspen.

I also find the piece about whale hunting in Alaska off-putting.  It’s annoying when practices are defended as cultural tradition, therefore somehow immune from criticism, even if the larger world finds the practice abhorrent.  In general, we do not accept barbaric practices on cultural tradition grounds when it comes to concepts like slavery or infanticide or…pick something that seems like it is from Game of Thrones.  Sure, the killing of whales for sustenance has a long history in the native peoples of the Arctic but times change.  Whatever, I feel like I am screaming at the wind on that one.

At times, Bourette’s prose reads like a burgeoning treatise on the gender issues surrounding meat whether it’s regarding the whale hunt in Alaska or the hierarchy on the line in a Houston kitchen.  These are easy tropes for a writer to insert—little woman in the big, bad world of meat—but they do little to advance the central tenant that meat is a central component of our food system regardless of gender.  I suppose that the imagery is just loaded with gender stereotypes because of societal conditioning—the man of the house carving the turkey or tending the grill—making it almost impossible to write about meat, or food in general, without falling prey.  Michael Pollan was accused of gender “baiting” in his most recent book because when we hear the words tradition, kitchen, and food together people automatically assume it is a diatribe about female abandonment of the domestic arts.  Whatever.

The most salient point in the entire book is not reached until near the end:

The secret of boudin is the secret of all good food.  You can watch, you can learn at the hands of the master, but the fact is that all good food is rooted in time, place, and culture.  It is idiosyncratic, unique, and expressive of the place where it’s made and the people making it.  The closer the food is to the place, the more it defines its makers and eaters, the more intense its flavors.  (Page 248)

This is something I have tried to explain to people for years.  Some foods just fit a time and a place that does not necessarily correspond to its absolute place in the culinary world, as if such a ranking were to actually exist.  No one is going to place loco moco at the top of the food pantheon, but on the first morning in Hawaii no other food puts me on “island time” quite like the gut busting local favorite.

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