Among other things, 2008 may be remembered as the year of meat. Or, as author Susan Bourette says, meat is the new black, with North Americans eating a record 260 pounds of meat a year. But it's not just quantity, it's ardor.
"It's true that the vegetarians once held the counterculture high ground. Now, it's the carnivores who rule cool," the Toronto journalist writes in her red-blooded romp, Meat: A Love Story (Putnam, $24.95). This is just one among a spate of new books that delve into the fleshy topic. And while these books can be loosely sorted into two camps — the "Yay, up with meat!" side and the Michael Pollan-inspired "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants" side — there's an uncanny unanimity of opinion. Most of these authors insist we should eat meat less often and know more about where it comes from and how the animals are raised. We should encourage corporations to treat livestock and fowl humanely, on a smaller scale and with fewer chemicals and growth hormones. In essence, we should be compassionate carnivores.
Bourette's book starts at roughly the same place Upton Sinclair's The Jungle did just over 100 years ago. Bourette goes undercover on the kill floor at Maple Leaf Pork in Brandon, Manitoba. But far from being a searing indictment of the meatpacking industry and wage slavery (well, she doesn't make it sound fun or remunerative), this is just a first stop in her quest for delicious meat. On a cattle drive at a Texas ranch, a Canadian moose hunt, on a whale hunt with the Inupiat in Alaska, in a boudin-making class in Louisiana and a lot of fragrant places in between, Bourette is moving away from the mandate of the first cookbook she owned, Diet for a Small Planet, in favor of some more nuanced understanding of the food chain and our connection to other creatures on this planet.
In a similar vein, 81-year-old author and food historian Betty Fussell has penned a celebratory book of that most American food, the beefsteak. Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef (Harcourt, $26) starts right where it should: at a re-creation of a 1920s beef bacchanalia in Manhattan. The "beefsteak" phenomenon was not for the faint of heart: No utensils, slabs of spit-grilled beef atop hunks of bread (this was the plate) and huge flagons of beer. It was all you could eat, no dames allowed. Steak is a little more refined and certainly more gender neutral these days, but Fussell explores the steak as a symbol of the Wild West and rugged individualism. Through profiles of today's cattlemen, meat scientists at Texas A&M, buffalo breeders, mad cow disease watchdogs and ethanol experts, rodeo bull riders and others, Fussell weaves a complex tale of the push and pull between cowboy and machine, wrapping it all up with a bunch of recipes collected on her journey.
As George Orwell famously wrote, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." In keeping with Orwell's allegory, John Barlow's new book, Everything but the Squeal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), pays homage to all that is porcine as he travels through northern Spain to sample every last part of the beast. There are stops in Negueira for pig's feet, Coruna for pig hearts and Galicia for caldo (a rich pork stew), all with his vegetarian wife looking on bemusedly. Where travel writing meets sheer gluttony, it's a sometimes funny look at just why pork is the most popular meat on the planet (about 100-million tons produced annually).
Meat of the matter
Decidedly weightier in nature, Paul Roberts' The End of Food (Houghton Mifflin, $26) may be one of the most chilling books published this year. Among a growing number of food-politics tomes, it presents an analysis of the global food economy, addressing issues of rising costs, food-borne illnesses and safety scares, obesity and food scarcity. In clear and compelling terms, Roberts explains why the demand for food is rising precipitously, far outstripping supply. One of the culprits? Our love affair with meat.
Roberts insists that as certain parts of the planet get richer, their inhabitants eat too much of the wrong thing. In fact, meatier diets geometrically increase overall food demands. Linking things like China's changing diet to deforestation in South America, his conclusion is that we need to be more global, not less, in devising alternatives to the current system.
Some of these same paradoxes in the world's food system (800-million people remain hungry while 1-billion of the planet's citizens are overweight) are addressed in Raj Patel's Stuffed & Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Melville House, $19.95). A former policy analyst for the think tank Food First, Patel attributes some of the current food crisis to bad harvests, climate change and an emphasis on biofuels (which drives up the price of commodity grains), but he also sees meat as a culprit. As more countries shift to something approaching an American meat-heavy diet, grains end up being diverted from poor people to feed livestock. Really a condemnation of free market policies, the book offers 10 things that we all can do "to promote justice and food sovereignty." Among them are transforming our tastes (away from fat, salt and sugar) and eating locally and seasonally whenever possible.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.