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The Best Thing I Ever Tasted

(article, Sallie Tisdale)

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h3. From Chapter 7

People eat meat. As long as people have kept records of what they eat, they've made it clear that they will eat as much meat as they can. Meat is at the top of the planetary food chain; it is necessarily a food for the few and the rich, but it has always been the most desired of meals. Only a few people make it to the top of this pyramid, but for the most part, Westerners have been these few. 

Meat-eating is itself a solution to overpopulation, even as overpopulation largely eliminates the eating of meat. A lot of meat in the diet means a lot of animals on the land eating a lot of subsistence grains, and this equation leads directly to the starvation of agrarian people. 

In all this long history of meat-eating, there is a parallel history of solemn concern. People have been almost as occupied with what it meant to eat meat as with getting the meat in the first place. Eating meat is, traditionally, a matter of ceremony, sacrifice, and ritual gratitude. Eating a lot of meat, as Europeans and Americans like to do, has always been seen as a dangerous act, an act fraught with the possibility of psychic and spiritual ruin.

h1. About the book and author

A California native, Sallie Tisdale began her career as a registered nurse before becoming a journalist, essayist, and memoirist. Her books have explored medicine, sex, and, with The Best Thing I Ever Tasted, her take on the ways we eat. 

Part memoir, part cultural criticism, The Best Thing I Ever Tasted is essentially a book-length essay dolloped with personal anecdote. “How we feel about food,” Tisdale writes, “is how we feel about our own lives.”

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Riverhead Books (2000).

The European Renaissance, that enlightened emergence from the Dark Ages, put an end to such silliness as praying over a dead deer. Today we prefer the casual approach. Many Americans like to think of themselves as religious, but only in ways that don't interfere with the day's plans. We've never had a coherent sense of ritual, and we've never wanted one. The sacrifice and ceremony tribal people felt was required with meat-eating was not so much lost in the technological and industrial revolutions as it was deliberately destroyed.

This is not a fey reference to the distant past; the same concerns and suspicions are with us today, buried under nutritional campaigns and acrimonious arguments over animal rights. Underneath, we're quite superstitious, I think, but conventional wisdom, the attitude we share publicly with one another, has always been that it's best to march into the future and throw the past away. Only in modern times have large numbers of people been able to eat meat with regularity, and we've tried to do so as much as possible without noticing the thousands of years of history that hitched along.

Americans have always eaten a great quantity of meat. An 1851 recipe for "bean soup" calls for six pounds of beef. American carnivorousness was simply another European habit, but Americans found they could take it to an unimagined degree because they had conquered a country unimaginably large. The hills, shores, and plains were sparsely populated and filled with game of all kinds, with fish, fowl, and beast. When these wild creatures were mostly eaten up, the empty expanse beckoned to herds of livestock, flocks of domestic birds, even farms of fish.

By the 1940s, large quantities of meat were part of the daily American diet even for the poorest people. Through the war, rationing limited citizens to only 125 pounds of meat per person a year — a half-pound every day. Food rationing continued in Britain until 1954, and the English were long limited to a pound of meat per person per week. But having access to many times that much meat was seen as hard deprivation by Americans. When the war was over, they couldn't wait to dig in again.

[%image meat float=right width=300 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/YinYang" caption="A pound of flesh."]

When I was a child, we ate meat three times a day. One of my father's best friends was the town butcher, and I saw him almost every day. I went with my mother so she could pick up a few chops and some hamburger and a roast for Sunday, all to be wrapped up in neat white packages by jovial Mr. Bryan. 

When one of the men in long stained aprons opened the freezer door, puffs of frosty air crossed my face and I could see the long room where the carcasses hung, swinging gently as they were brushed aside. That room, that cold breeze fragrant with blood and the steel slice of knives, defined meat for me at a very young age. I know what meat is, even when I don't want to know.

I certainly feel hunger for meat at times, and wonder if there are unknown, even unknowable, nutrients in flesh. Sometimes I crave it, and most especially when I'm sick, as though we can trade life for life. The act of eating meat is marked, for me, by those hours in the back room of the butcher shop. Like all children, when I suddenly made the final, vital connection between animals and meat, it tore through my life like a quake, a cataclysm, ruin — as it should. I felt a childish, terrible loss. I didn't eat meat for a long time, and then I did again, wiser.

Well into adulthood, I tried to make myself believe that eating meat was unnatural — that any appetite I have for meat is conditioned, not innate. The way we Americans go about raising animals and making them into meat is so often inhumane that I wanted to believe our hunger was not entirely human. But all this history I've been reading, my ever-growing awareness that much of what I've wanted to reject in my culture is the deeply desired wish of billions of people — all this has made me change my mind.

I've come to believe that the appetite for flesh is quintessentially human. Eating meat isn't necessary, and it isn't necessarily right, any more than a lot of other human impulses are right — but I think of it as an impulse of the race nevertheless. My refusal to look clearly at meat, at meat eaters, at meat hunger, was a refusal to look at something essential about people themselves.

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