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The meat revolution

(article, Camas Davis)

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At a recent gathering hosted by a local-food publication, I got called out by a pig farmer. We’d been chatting pleasantly, but then I briefly tuned out, lost in thought.

“What’s going on in there?” the farmer asked, pointing to my head.

I apologized, explaining that I’d been thinking a lot lately about Descartes and Oprah. The farmer laughed at me, and so did I. 

“It’s no small feat,” I exclaimed, “trying to comprehend everything that’s unfolded in the meat business from the 17th century to now.”

In 1637, René Descartes, the French mathematician and philosopher, published his Discourse on Method, in which he compared animals to “beast machines” and “soulless automata.” In retrospect, Descartes’ doctrine represented a major turning point in the history of carnivorism, foretelling the mechanization of food that — given the widespread existence today of such industrial-food practices as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — is now commonplace. 

In 2011, on an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” exploring where our food comes from, reporter Lisa Ling took a tour of a feedlot and meat-processing plant owned by Cargill, one of the four largest meatpacking companies in America. (Together, these four companies — the others are Tyson, JBS Swift, and National Beef — slaughter and market over 80 percent of the beef cattle born in this country.) Oprah’s producers had been turned down by 20 plants before Cargill agreed to let their reporter inside.

In the clip, Cargill looks like a clean, organized, and — as the Cargill plant’s general manager states — “humane” operation, although the only image shown of death is indirect, when Ling winces and covers her face as she hears the sound of a bolt gun being shot into the head of a steer. (Cargill requested that the actual moment of slaughter not be filmed.) This particular plant processes 4,500 cattle each day, with 12,000 animals living on the adjacent feedlot. Whether the sheer number of animals moved through the plant each day is “humane” or not is left to the audience to decide.

If Descartes’ theory of animals as automatons opened the farm gates to mammoth feedlots and packing plants, Oprah Winfrey’s February show indicates how our collective consciousness is changing. We’re interested in where our meat (and by extension, all our food) really comes from, and whether we’re comfortable with those sources or not. 

We're also getting more hands-on with all that meat. A year and a half ago, the New York Times proclaimed that our country’s young “indie” butchers were the new rock stars. Just the other day, I came across a post on my local Craigslist announcing a national search for the next butcher at the 90-year-old Pat LaFrieda Wholesale Meat Purveyors in New Jersey. All applicants are required to send photos of their pretty faces (or their hulking forearms). After all, whoever LaFrieda chooses will become a star on a new reality TV show about LaFrieda’s meat empire. 

Given this mass national interest in meat — in both its sources and its glamour — it’s not surprising that publishers have served up a veritable platter of meat books in recent months. Some focus on the celebrity of our country’s butchers, both traditional and new. Others detail how to source meat from more transparent and sustainable food systems, or explain what to do with said meat once it’s in the kitchen. One book even offers a dense exposé of the current state of meat consumption and production in America, complete with a hefty coffee-table companion book filled with 450 photographs providing a “behind-the-scenes journey into the grim world of animal factory food production.”

All of these books directly address the new desire among American eaters to take back their plates, to figure out how to source meat from sustainable sources and turn it into something delicious. Here’s a look at four books charting the new meat movement in America. 

h3. Good Meat

Perhaps the most thorough of the group in terms of do-it-yourself meat purchasing, butchery, and cookery, Deborah Krasner’s Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat demystifies everything from the difference between natural and grass-fed labels to how animals are typically slaughtered, how to butcher an entire side of pork at home, and how to make the best ribs just about any side of the Mississippi. 

The brilliance of this book lies in its structure. Each chapter is dedicated to a different protein: beef, pork, lamb, rabbit, and poultry, with two additional sections on eggs and side dishes. At the beginning of each chapter, Krasner offers a thorough definition of what sustainable versions of each of these meats can look like: how they’re raised, how they’re processed, what all the consumer labels do and don’t mean, what they taste like, and what cooking with this kind of meat might entail. These details are interspersed with raw, rustic pictures of animals frolicking in sunny pastures, stacks of custom-packaged meat, diagrams of animal anatomy, and incredible photo charts of each cut of meat that can be garnered from one animal. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Pork chops from an organic, pastured, humanely raised heritage pig."]

Based on its beautiful photography, thorough reporting, detailed diagrams and definitions, and diverse recipes, this book should become a Joy of (Meat) Cooking for anyone wishing to circumvent factory farms and CAFOS altogether. It’s for eaters who wish to take responsibility for the entire process of meat production and consumption — the sort of people who render their own lard and stretch every last bit of their pig into glorious ramekins of rillettes and steaming pots of stew. 

h3. Meat

Until recently, the best photographic renderings of the cuts available to American consumers only existed within the pages of the North American Meat Processors Association’s Meat Buyer's Guide. This book sells for at least $70 — a hefty price for consumers to pay, though a drop in the offal bucket for most meat processors. 

Now there are cheaper books for consumers, including James Peterson’s Meat: A Kitchen Education. Not only is such a book much more inspiring to read than NAMP’s industry-oriented guide, but it’s a cookbook as well. When you turn to that recipe for grilled pork chops with fresh sage, you’ll learn that a center-cut chop looks way less marbled than a sirloin chop, thanks to a trio of photographs portraying what you might see at the supermarket. If it’s steaks for dinner, not only can you consult a photo diagram depicting the spectrum of steak doneness, you’ll be able to prepare for the trip to the butcher by learning the visual difference between a chuck round steak and a bone-in rib-eye. 

Peterson offers the same photo depictions for trimming tenderloin, stuffing rabbit saddle, preparing a breast of veal, cutting up a whole chicken, or breaking down an entire lamb. Cooking instructions for recipes like beef Wellington, meat loaf, or sautéing lamb chops are incredibly detailed as well.

When it comes to meat, this kind of visual education, accompanied by thorough instructions and recipes, has been an anomaly for much of the latter half of the last century. A trip through this book may not turn readers into the most conscious meat buyers — discussion on sourcing meat is fairly limited — but it will transform any cook wary of their cooking skills into a graceful carnivore. 

h3. Primal Cuts

Further proof that butchers are the new rock stars is Marissa Guggiana’s Primal Cuts: Cooking With America’s Best Butchers, a paean to the people who make the meat world go round. Guggiana, the president of Sonoma Direct, a purveyor of sustainably raised meats, is one of the cultural ambassadors of the new meat revolution, largely as one of the editors of Meatpaper magazine. 

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Primal Cuts, her debut book, puts forth a notion of meat celebrity that features as-told-to interviews from America’s “best butchers.” While the majority of the book’s boffo butchers are the young, tattooed, mostly male darlings of the new meat revolution — guys like Tom Mylan of The Meat Hook in Brooklyn and Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats in California — Primal Cuts also includes members of the old guard that made it possible for people like Mylan and Farr to succeed in rethinking the art of meat. That means people like Mike Debach, the owner of the Leona Meat Plant in Pennsylvania, who’s been boning whole carcasses since he was eight or nine years old. Or Cole Ward, who has worked behind grocery meat counters for 45 years.

Ultimately, Primal Cuts grants access to the philosophies and techniques of more than 50 diverse American butchers. And their enthusiasm is undeniably contagious. After a romp through this book, it’s hard to see why you’d patronize anything but the meat counters, supper clubs, and restaurants described here.

But this book isn’t as exclusively about the insider world of American butchery as it sounds. By including 100 recipes, as well as diagrams and instructions for buying steak, finding a farmer, or deboning a chicken, Guggiana champions a culture of meat that a larger audience can find appealing. It’s a culture that’s best summed up by the Italian butcher Dario Cecchini, who notes, in the book’s foreword, that “there are four things an animal must have: A good life. A good death. A good butcher. A good cook.” Primal Cuts offers all four. 

h3. The CAFO Reader

One problem with the nascent meat revolution is that, while we celebrate the glory of learning to make our own salami or attempt to buy our pork chops from more responsible butcher shops, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are still king. Which is what Daniel Imhoff’s The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories attempts to tackle in 462 dense pages, accompanied by a gargantuan 324-page coffee-table companion book packed with more than 400 photos. 

The CAFO Reader features 30 essays by today’s leading agricultural and culinary philosophers, scientists, journalists, farmers, and chefs, from Wendell Berry to Dan Barber, Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, and Anna Lappé. Despite the all-star lineup, this is not a celebration of meat. It is a down-and-dirty, tell-all collection of writings that expose the CAFO system and the myriad agricultural and economic policies and practices that keep it thriving. But it also helps us understand what a picture of agricultural diversity, ethical responsibility, and true animal husbandry could look like.

The difficult details — the grim facts, the gruesome photos — of how meat gets to the table can be overwhelming. Imhoff's goal is obvious: to shred the powerful veil of ignorance. “Without such knowledge or firsthand interaction with the farming process, we have given over our moral compass to the owners of animal factory food production and find ourselves complicit in an ethical collapse,” Imhoff writes.

The CAFO Reader is an impressive attempt to take back that moral compass. Presented in a just-the-facts style, the book shuns the overwrought rhetorical posturing typical of many anti-meat or animal-rights organizations. This is a book for carnivores and vegans alike. 

As Imhoff states, if we want to move beyond the current state of industrialized factory farming, we have to adopt “a universal worldview that puts the health and care of all involved in the food production system above short-term profits and cheap calories at any costs.” 

And that’s a pretty easy worldview for all of us to adopt.

p(bio). Over the past decade, Camas Davis has been an editor at such magazines as National Geographic, Saveur, and Portland Monthly._ She is the founder of the Portland Meat Collective, a traveling butchery school and meat CSA in Portland, Oregon, where she is now also a freelance writer and editor.


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