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.
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.
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.
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.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
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