Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

American Carnivore

Americans love meat. But it isn’t a love affair without some issues.

For one, Americans aren’t wild about all the companies that process our meat. Christopher Leonard has  written a new book, The Meat Racket, that chronicles the rise of Tyson Foods into a meat behemoth, prompting the author to conclude, “Before there is a chicken or an egg, there is Tyson.”

1-carlsjrWhile almost everyone – at least everyone who is a meat eater – enjoys bacon, almost everyone is squeamish about how meat is “made.” My grandfather and father worked short stints at an Omaha meat packing plant. They both attested it was better to enjoy your sausage and not ponder how it is made – or what it is made of.

As more people flock to cities and their suburbs, people lose track of the connection between what’s on the hoof and what’s on their plate. As a child spending time on my uncle’s farm, I remember my aunt ordering up a chicken for dinner. The chicken of choice was walking around the barnyard.

Maureen Ogle has written In Meat We Trust, which provides a glimpse into the meat lover’s paradox. “We want packages of pre-cooked chicken and microwaveable sausages – and small farms, too,” she writes.

Of course, none of this explains why Americans eat so much meat, especially red meat.

One theory traces man’s transcendence from primate to hominid and gives meat credit for the development of our brains. According to this theory, early man was able to get a quick protein fix from meat and avoid the time-consuming, stomach-bloating and gas-producing exertion of eating vegetation. While gorillas were munching on tree leaves, man was lunging forward, developing crude tools and achieving the first six-pack.

Meat also may be responsible for such innovations as fire, knives and rawhide dinner napkins. Admittedly, the first dinner napkins may have been ripped off the carcasses of animals we ate, but it created the convenience industry, which prospers yet today.

There are still rabid advocates of the so-called Paleo Diet, which draws its inspiration from cavemen. The notion goes that if cavemen evolved smartly by eating meat, why stop now?

One reason, some suggest, is that too much meat can lead to clogged arteries and lethal heart attacks. The low-carb, heavy-on-the-meat Atkins Diet attracted a legion of followers who drank the Kool-Aid and believed it would shed pounds before it unplugged your cardiovascular system. Enthusiasm for a steak-wrapped-in-bacon weight-loss plan diminished somewhat after its originator, Dr. Atkins, succumbed to a heart attack.

Ogle and Leonard warn about the dangers of Big Food. However, most average people worry more about their big bellies, which often are the manifestation of too many juicy hamburgers, thick steaks and roast beef sandwiches. We add meat to salads and pile it on pizzas.

v62n09_p39The American carnivore was weaned on images of movie cattle drives. Cattlemen overcame resistance by farmers, Indians, small-town sheriffs and dust storms to bring their herds to market. Of course, the movies never went the extra step and showed the slaughterhouses. You had to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or, more recently, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, to get that picture.

So why do Americans eat so much meat? Because we can.


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