1. NATURAL HUNGER
This is the meal equally set—this the meat for natural hunger;
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous—I make appointments with all…
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
In January 2001, the news from Europe read like a low-budget horror movie, and it worsened with the same implausible rapidity and reach. Human brains infected with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human variant of mad cow disease, were literally turning into sponge. And mad cow had spread because, in an abysmal twist, we’d been feeding cows to cows—and maybe also because, when that was outlawed, we went on feeding cows to chickens and chicken poop to cows. The media stunned us with lists of surreptitious beef-industry by-products: cow blood in fire extinguisher foam and plywood adhesive; tallow in waterproofing agents, acne medication, lubricants for jet engines, and wiring insulation for electronic appliances. Beef suddenly terrorized us, its menacing ubiquity enforced by the slogan “It’s what’s for dinner.”
The following month, the fields were aflame! To quash a second epidemic, hoof-and-mouth, European ranchers rounded up, shot, incinerated, and/or buried the carcasses of more than ten million animals. In Great Britain, the fat rendered from this mass slaughter, added to that of the hundreds of thousand of cattle culled to beat the first mad cow outbreak five years earlier, left the country with a storehouse of nearly half a million pounds of tallow. Entire herds lay stacked in mass graves, discarded like pallets of defective merchandise. To put it mildly, all things concerning the meat industry suddenly seemed a little bit suspicious and a little bit out of control. We watched the apocalyptic footage of smoldering cattle pyres on the nightly news and wondered how the flab of a living, 1,200-pound quadruped wound up coating the wires inside the television.
Then on January 17, 2001, in a stroke of purely accidental marketing synergy, Eric Schlosser published Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Schlosser provided facts and figures with which to buttress our newfound quease. Though mad cow and hoof-and-mouth barely received mention in the book, Schlosser exposed a beef industry that was both benignly negligent and purposefully exploitative of its animals, labor, and customers. His was a forceful work of muckraking at a time when troubling traces of that muck had already been wafting up on their own.
The book wrapped razor-sharp reporting in a literary style, quickly becoming the marquee work of an already burgeoning literary genre: Popular Meat Writing. Its runaway success with the general eating public helped cement a market for lively, incisive writing about livestock and meat production, on bookshelves and in newspapers and magazines nationwide—works like Ken Midkiff’s The Meat You Eat: How Corporate Farming Has Endangered America’s Food Supply; Howard F. Lyman’s colorful j’accuse Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat; Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber’s Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?; Jeremy Rifkin’s Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture; or Gail Eisnitz’s Slaughterhouse, which exposed abuses at a Washington State abbattoir. The U.S. has since discovered two mad cows of our own, and one human case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob. But the first cow came from Canada, and the human had lived in England. So we batted each around on the news for a while and, for the most part, went back to supper. Last month, the USDA actually eased regulations meant to protect against Mad Cow, putting small intestines back into sausage. We haven’t culled or cremated anything. Instead we’ve vaunted the muck of modern industrial meat to the height of hipness. Reading about how disgusting our food is has become a new American pastime.
2. DIGESTIVE DISSONANCE
It seemed to them impossible of belief that anything so stupendous could have been devised by mortal man… it was a thing as tremendous as the universe—the laws and ways of its working no more than the universe to be questioned or understood. All that a mere man can do, it seemed to Jurgis, was to take a thing like this as he found it, and do as he was told….
—Upton Sinclair, on an industrialized slaughterhouse, The Jungle, 1906
The first contemporary book of Popular Meat Writing was Orville Schell’s Modern Meat, which was published in 1984. Schell, a New Yorker writer, traveled the country investigating the perfunctory use of cattle hormones, feed additives, and other new “technologies” used on American farms. (Feeding cows their own manure, for example, is a “technology.”) Schell blends outrage with cynicism, juxtaposing the purported agricultural marvels with interludes about his dispiriting roadside meals. Is the modern meat-eater safe? It’s tough to say. Schell, who was also a rancher himself at the time, concludes that “ways of doing things that have been tested and proven safe over long periods of human history are now rapidly being abandoned and replaced by new ways that appear to be more efficient” without much foreknowledge of the cumulative effects.
That drive toward efficiency began in the 1950s, when Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson issued this ultimatum to American farmers: “Get big or get out.” Aided by the government’s generous subsidies, leniency to trusts, and less-than-vigilant health code enforcement, the industry got big fast—bulging and morphing like the Incredible Hulk into today’s pharmaceutical-laden, mass-production factory farms. Meat became inexpensive and abundant. (The country’s most profitable agricultural products per unit are now pigs.) This cheap bounty is regarded as a triumph by the industry, but to Meat Writers—those inclined to investigate the system’s many hidden costs—it’s a telltale sign that something’s gone atrociously wrong. “More than any other institution,” wrote Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine, “the American industrial animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory constraint.” 1
Read enough Meat Writing and you begin to see entire species frozen in a state of perpetual life-support, with no other purpose or capabilities but fattening up and dying. We’ve bred the Broad-Breasted White Turkey (the species of turkey now available in supermarkets) with such absurdly large breasts, it can’t even mate without human assistance.
Carroll’s Foods’ mass-confinement hog farm operations in North Carolina are emblematic of the New Agriculture. (Carroll’s is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, one of America’s two major hog corporations.) In Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, Matthew Scully visits Carroll’s and concludes that they’ve taken the farm out of farmer and the live out of livestock. Farmers are “hired hands on their own property,” contracted by Smithfield to raise (at their own expense and own risk, and in accordance with stringent guidelines) a share of the 82,300 animals the corporation acquires for slaughter every day—killing seven million a year in North Carolina alone, or just shy of one per second.
Meeting such a quota requires “managerial intensity.” The five-hundred-pound sows are kept virtually immobile, twenty to a pen, and twenty-five pens every seven and a half square feet. These are, at first glance, not healthy hogs. What’s that tumor-looking thing on pig #NPD 40-602, Scully asks a young female employee who gushes over the dispirited, often half-comatose swine as though they were family pets. “That’s just a pus pocket,” she tells him. “They all get those.” The New Agriculture can work around pus pockets. It can even work around death. “Not only can factory farmers afford to lose some of the stock—they’re counting on it,” Scully writes. “The whole system now presupposes a high attrition rate outweighed by a massive production rate.”
Read enough Meat Writing and you also begin to see an entire industry running on a kind of life support. It goes off half-cocked making everything “efficient” and then plugs up the resulting problems with shortsighted, quick fixes. The meat industry teems with idiosyncrasies—the accumulated commonsense solutions to its multiplying nonsensical problems.
Several writers note that cows’ diets often include recycled cardboard and other waste-material “carbohydrates” designed to quickly and cheaply bring them to slaughter weight. Rather than remove stray, hazardous staples from the feed, ranchers might simply feed the cow a magnet at the beginning of its life to safely collect them. Another example which Scully brings to light is “tail docking.” Because piglets are separated from their mothers before they are weaned, they will often use the tail of the immobilized pig directly ahead of them as a teat, gnawing the tail and sometimes biting it off. A depressed pig has little reason to defend itself against such misuse, which results in frequent infections and even death. Rather than expand the pigs’ living quarters, farmers partially snip each pig’s tail to leave a raw, extra-sensitive nub. “Docking” the tail this way makes nibbling excruciating enough to warrant at least a little resistance.
Schlosser, however, identifies the most potentially disastrous quick fix of them all:
Instead of focusing on the primary causes of meat contamination—the feed being given to cattle, the overcrowding at feedlots, the poor sanitation at slaughterhouses, excessive line speeds, poorly trained workers, the lack of stringent government oversight—the meatpacking industry and the USDA are now advocating an exotic technological solution to the problem of foodborne pathogens. They want to irradiate the nation’s meat.
Aside from the safety of the consumer, one slaughterhouse engineer Schlosser interviews is sensibly “concerned about the introduction of highly complex electromagnetic and nuclear technology into slaughterhouses with a largely illiterate, non-English-speaking workforce.”
But as the industry got big—growing more idiosyncratic and more abominable as it went—it also became less visible. As Wendell Berry notes in his essay “The Unsettling of America,” a former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture boasted that 95 percent of Americans have been “freed from the drudgery of preparing their own food.” At this distance, things look to us much like they did to Jurgis—the immigrant, meatpacker protagonist in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, an ancient forebearer of Popular Meat Writing. The origins of our meat are “no more than the universe to be questioned or understood.” We can only do as we’re told: eat a lot and eat cheaply.
The Meat Writer is attuned to this prevailing disconnect between what we eat and how little we know about it—digestive dissonance, if you will. A good Meat Writer seeks to explore and explode that rift, a mission often evident in the structure of the work itself. Eric Schlosser uncloaks “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” by working backward from each component of that meal, linking burger to feedlot and fry to farm in successive chapters. Peter Lovenheim’s meat memoir, Portrait of a Burger as Young Calf (2002), in which the author raises two calves for slaughter, begins with his own epiphany of digestive dissonance: At McDonald’s, Lovenheim finds Beanie Baby cows named “Snort” and “Daisy” being given out free to children who purchase hamburgers. Immediately he locks on to the “deep disconnect between what we eat and where it comes from” and sets out to “connect the dots” from “birth to burger,” “conception to consumption,” so as to know intimately the gray area in between.2
In March 2002, Michael Pollan undertook the same exercise in an article for the New York Times Magazine, “Power Steer,” buying and raising a calf “to find out how a modern, industrial steak is produced in America these days, from insemination to slaughter.”3
It’s interesting to note that both Lovenheim and Pollan are middle-aged, professional, suburban family men. Lovenheim has a law degree and lives with his wife and two kids outside Rochester. Pollan is similarly of the upper middle class, residing at the time in an affluent town in Connecticut. In short, each epitomizes an American freed of the drudgery of preparing his own food, and perfectly capable of writing off the meat industry’s machinations as, in Sinclair’s words, “no more than the universe to be questioned or understood.” But each is a Meat Writer, and a Meat Writer does not stand back in awe or ignorance. A Meat Writer craves information, systematically unraveling the grotesque truth behind each bite. The less we know about the industry’s many perversions to begin with, the more details with which he can dazzle us. Or repulse us. Or both.
3. THE HOG-SQUEAL OF THE UNIVERSE
It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics. And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs…. One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and hear the hog-squeal of the universe.
Upton Sinclair didn’t intend to be the grandfather of all Meat Writers. He merely considered the Chicago stockyards a sufficiently ominous backdrop for his novel about wage-laboring immigrants. But the drama of The Jungle was overwhelmed by the sodden stench of its setting. The public fury the novel inspired led directly to sweeping federal reform of the meat industry. “I aimed for the public’s heart,” Sinclair later wrote, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
In contrast, today’s Meat Writers aim explicitly for the stomach. But turning our stomachs these days requires more than just gory observation. Magnifying and challenging our digestive dissonance, the Meat Writer must draw connections and think critically about what he sees. He must report meticulously and incisively but also deal in symbols and signs, hear the hog-squeal of the universe through all the industry has erected to obscure it. In short, the Meat Writer must see the big picture, the little picture, and traces of each in the other.
Pollan excels at this in “Power Steer,” as he watches his calf, No. 534, reared for slaughter. Lovenheim, in Portrait of a Burger, however, often ambles through the process obliviously—less interested in the transformation of his new, beloved pets into food than he is in the transformation of himself from suburban dandy into ranching man.
Lovenheim attaches himself to an idyllic nine-hundred-head family-run dairy farm in upstate New York. (Fast-food burgers, he learns, are largely cobbled together from dairy cattle whose milk production has proven unsatisfactory.) It’s “a peaceful place,” so idyllic, in fact, that its proprietors, the Smiths, are the poster family for Monsanto—supplier of BST (a controversial growth hormone), owner of a great many proprietary seed strains and fertilizers, and reviled by many small farmers and foodies around the world. The Smith family portrait takes up a full page of Monsanto’s BST brochure. Yet Lovenheim barely pays the issue of hormones lip service. Conversely, Pollan boards No. 534 on a typical grand-scale industrial feedlot in Kansas, where a computerized feeder tends 37,000 head. He compares it to a premodern human city—“crowded, filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads and choking air.”
Meanwhile, Lovenheim meets Bonanza, the steer who will artificially father his calves. Well-known in the industry for the fat-marbling of his offspring, Bonanza provides semen that goes for around twenty bucks a dose. Artificial insemination has fast become the norm, Lovenheim explains, to keep the end product at a uniform high quality. This means certain exemplary studs like Bonanza see a lot of work. “For the nine million or so cows in the United States today,” Lovenheim writes, “at any given time there are probably fewer than a thousand stud bulls providing semen.” (It is estimated that, during his peak, a legendary Holstein named Sunny Boy had a son or daughter born somewhere in the world every two minutes.) But looking at Bonanza’s seed through a microscope, Lovenheim chooses not to speculate what might be detrimental or even questionable about shrinking a species’ gene pool in the name of well-marbled fat, nor what it might mean for the species eating those thousands and thousands of half-brothers and half-sisters. Instead he sees “the real beginning of my journey.”
Both writers feed their calves a steady diet of corn—by far the cheapest, quickest way to bring a calf to its roughly 1,200-pound slaughter weight.4 Pollan seizes the opportunity to explain the hidden costs—namely the massive government subsidies and petrochemical fertilizers (derived from oil) which have made corn so cheap, as well as corn-fed beef’s much higher saturated fat content, compared to grass-fed.
Lovenheim doesn’t like the corn diet either and pleads with his rancher to take his animals off it—not because he seems to have accumulated any understanding of the system but because he knows it’s hurting his calves. After much soul-searching and fruitless consultation with the guru His Holiness Jagannatha Dasa Puripadasat—an ex–Ronald McDonald costume wearer and Beatles biographer who warns Lovenheim, “If you kill them, instant karma gonna get you and give you shit!”—Lovenheim jumps ship and sends his beauties to live out their lives at a place called “Farm Sanctuary.”
Lovenheim’s claim “to move backward from ‘billions and billions served’ to just one” so as to better understand “the feeding of a nation” thus proves fallacious. He zooms in on his specific calves but refuses to zoom back out. He ignores the foundational fact of modern meat production: it’s an economy of scale. Lovenheim uses his individual calves to learn only this: it is difficult to kill individual calves.
Pollan, meanwhile, uses his one steer to paint the whole picture for us, arriving at precisely what’s so absurd and so destructive—ecologically, medically, and even politically—about the industry. “But you can go further still and follow the fertilizer needed to grow that corn all the way to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf,” Pollan writes in “Power Steer,” a piece published amid intensifying whispers of an Iraq War. It will take 284 gallons of oil to feed his single steer. “We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.”
It’s precisely this kind of big-picture conclusion that makes the best Meat Writing so riveting. Though there are also always smaller ironies along the way. Scully, for example, presses a Smithfield spokesperson until he can offer only this feckless defense of their mass confinement facilities: “Animals that are outside risk getting mosquito bites and things…. Our animals don’t have that.” Often all of the industry’s ironies can be encapsulated in a single image—a chilling symbol betraying the universal hog-squeal behind it. In Modern Meat, Orville Schell writes, “On one occasion, for instance, I witnessed a Texas cowboy pick up a syringe as if it were a water pistol and shoot a coworker in the face with estradiol cypionate, an injectable estrogen… used to abort animals or induce them to expel mummified fetuses.”
One hormone Schell focuses on is DES, a synthetic estrogen liberally used to promote cattle growth. The FDA eventually outlawed the practice, linking the compound in meat to cysts and premature sexual development in children exposed to it—i.e., toddlers of both sexes developing pubic hair and breasts. In Ruth Ozeki’s novel My Year of Meats, a young documentary filmmaker discovers the illegal use of DES at a Colorado ranch with tragic consequences for the ranchers’ five-year-old daughter:
She was wearing little white cotton underpants, hiked up high over her belly. Bunny stood over her and raised her small hips and drew the underpants down around her thighs. The baby skin continued, smooth uninterrupted, down over the swell of her belly to her pubic bone, where suddenly, like grotesque graffiti, her skin was defaced by a wiry tangle of hair.5
Eventually, the truth starts to seem like satire. Tail-docking, quotidian pus pockets, hermaphroditic fish—to a fundamentally moral culture still not entirely comfortable with its capitalist instincts, all of this, and our complicity in it makes for morbidly fascinating reading.
Once cognizant of the callous, bizarro world of meat production, we can all laugh at the naïve schlub blowing on a carcinogenic, environmentally devastating, morally abhorrent spoonful of chili—even if that schlub is us. The more ignorant we are, and the more fraught with digestive dissonance, the more dramatic irony the Meat Writer has to work with. And given what’s at stake (life, death, morals) that irony frequently reaches Shakespearean heights. We carnivores and capitalists are our own King Lears.
4. BUT IT’S DELICIOUS
Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude;
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?
—“Song of Myself”
In one of The Jungle’s most shocking passages, Sinclair unfurls the truth about sausage production. After cleaning out the plant’s waste barrels—a job done only once a year to save money—the resultant scraps, dirt, fat, rust, nails, and general swill are unceremoniously rechristened Ingredients. And worse:
There would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white—it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped into the hoppers… This was no fairy story, and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.
This passage comes shortly after the death of little Kristoforas, the protagonist’s toddler cousin. What killed Kristoforas? “Perhaps it was the smoked sausage he had eaten that morning—which may have been made out of some of the tubercular pork that is taken out at the bottom of the tank,” Sinclair writes. “At any rate, an hour after eating it, the child had begun to cry with pain, and in another hour he was rolling about on the floor in convulsions.”
Why are the immigrant packers—those knee-deep in the rat-shoveling trenches—feeding their children the sausage? Schlosser ate a tremendous amount of fast food during his work, and Orville Schell goes out of his way to dine on whatever meat he’s covering on his trips, cutting into a steak “possible DES contamination notwithstanding.” At the end of “Power Steer,” Pollan awaits a box of No. 534’s cuts in the mail. Watching his calves’ mother dismantled at a slaughterhouse, Lovenheim, who rarely eats meat to begin with, feels hungry. “In fact,” he writes, “my mouth is watering.”
When it comes to reconciling digestive dissonance, it seems there is simply no overestimating the moral authority of the stomach. Underlying all of this is the fact that meat, even industrially farmed meat, tastes good to a great many of us. It’s delicious. Though meat consumption is declining very slightly in the United States, the rise of Popular Meat Writing virtually coincided with the Atkins explosion and the South Beach Diet, two notoriously meat-heavy dietary fads. Moreover, variety meats, such as hearts, kidneys, and intestines, are now turning up in the haute-est of haute cuisine.6 Therefore, it’s safe to assume that many, if not most, of the millions of people who are reading Meat Books, as well as the legion critics who slop praise atop them like gravy, are conventional carnivores, feeding perfunctorily from Big Beef’s trough.
So we’ve encountered a new strain of digestive dissonance: the disconnect between what we eat and how very much we know about it.
We can shift the blame, partly. As most writers note, the industry has done its best to thrust ignorance—or at least sufficient distraction—upon us. It has reinforced our digestive dissonance by perfecting the transformation of millions of unique, living animals into uniform, plentiful products. “What grocery-store item is more silent about its origins than a shrink-wrapped steak?” asks Pollan—especially when that steak has been trimmed, scraped free of gristle, primped, and positioned into the exact arrangement proven to look most appealing.
But if we are unwilling to shift our appetites to more humanely and soundly raised livestock, or no livestock at all, why do we keep reading about how nasty it is? The cynic in me thinks of Radical Chic, Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of certain Park Avenue socialites’ infatuation with the Black Panthers in the late ’60s. Wolfe reports from a fund-raising event for the Panthers at Felicia and Leonard Bernstein’s thirteen-room penthouse duplex. There he finds the same breed of dramatic irony the Meat Writer finds at the factory farm. For example, what color skin should the servants have at such a party?
Just at this point some well-meaning soul is going to ask: why not do without servants altogether if the matter creates such unbearable tension and one truly believes in equality? Well, even to raise the question is to reveal the most fundamental ignorance of life in the great co-ops and townhouses of the East Side in the age of Radical Chic. Why, my God! servants are not a mere convenience; they’re an absolute psychological necessity. God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events… but it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status.7
It is delicious, all of it. It’s delicious the way regular guys like Pollan and Lovenheim—guys a lot like us, in the throes of digestive dissonance—can put on denim shirts and shitkickers and be redeemed. It may be shallow, but Popular Meat Writing affords us this opportunity for vicarious, PC catharsis. Still I suspect, and I hope, there is more.
When Walt Whitman began what would ultimately become his masterpiece “Song of Myself,” this was one of the first lines he wrote: “And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue.” The nobility of the grazing cow, changing grass into protein, jolts the poet into an impassioned announcement of his own identity and an instant awareness of himself thatched in the expansive web of the world. Thus Whitman, in some small way, may be America’s first Meat Writer. The recognition and immediate reconciliation of digestive dissonance—the linking of himself to his food and beyond—is a catalyzing moment in his ecstatic celebration of life. No lesser a figure than Mohandas Gandhi drew this same conclusion, claiming “To me, the cow is the embodiment of the whole infra-human world; she enables the believer to grasp his unity with all that lives…. The cow is a poem of compassion.”
Popular Meat Writing is about making connections, tying the ubiquitous to the sensational, restoring a place and face to the rootless and indistinct. It puts our Christmas ham back in a cramped pen at Smithfield and plops the Iraq War squarely on our plates. Horrifying as these connections may be, they’re also reassuring. For the details may foster in us, as they did in Whitman, self-awareness—a greater sensitivity to our responsibilities, whether we can ultimately live up to them or not. After all, Meat Writing ties us to something, and no one likes to dine alone.