Reveling in Books: Fresh, Bones, Fat, and Meat

Meat BouretteLike Susan Bourette in Meat: A Love Story My Year in Search of the Perfect Meal (did she get this subtitle from Roy Andries de Groot, a food writer popular in the sixties and seventies who wrote In Search of the Perfect Meal (1986)?), many people temporarily eschew meat at some point in their lives. And, as Bourette herself did, they return to eating meat. With gusto.

Those of us who, like Bourette, relish meat (but don’t like the conditions under which animals are raised in corporate factory farms AND the way the humans working in those factories are treated) should be heartened by the Upton Sinclair-like crusading going on today to make life less miserable for the animals we eat and for the people who slaughter them and pack the products taken from the carcasses. Another cause for celebration lies in the growing trend espousing the realization that meat in itself is not an evil force set on infiltrating our bodies like the Invasion of the Slime People. Just take a look at this new research: “Meat and Meat Products as Functional Food.”

Meat Fat McLaganThe recent onslaught of books on meat, or at least related to the enjoyment of meat, might seem surprising in these times of locavorism, eating locally raised vegetables fruits and grain, if one is lucky. Many small farmers now attempt to raise animals under more humane conditions and the proof is in the taste of the meat, according to writers like Bourette.

At times, Bourette’s annoying habit of using clichés in the cutesy way some food writers do (take the title of chapter two, “Off the Eaten Track”) gets to be too much. But overall Meat relays an important message: “I had come to the conclusion that if I were to eat an animal, to take another creature’s life, I had a responsibility to do it in good conscience. And that required a radical overhaul of both my shopping and consumption habits.”

Both Bourette and Susanne Freidberg, in her somewhat academic-toned Fresh: A Perishable History, consider the cultural reasons for meat, particularly beef, being such an ingrained part of American life. Freidberg provides greater detail, because the key theme in her book follows the rise of refrigeration or cold storage. And beef, by its nature, lent itself well to long-distance trade between Europe and the Americas. In the nineteenth century, people believed that beef extract (recall Leibig’s Fleisch Extract) and beef, of course, “made men stronger.” For example, the idea behind French refrigeration entrepreneur Charles Tellier’s efforts to bring beef to Europe was to enable common men to eat like the rich.

Meat McLaganTwo other recent books also expound on meat, if not somewhat indirectly. Bones: Recipes, History, and Lore and the prize-winning Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, both by Jennifer McLagan.

All this ink spilled on the joys of eating meat, frankly, couldn’t come at a better time. If eaters keep in mind how their meat arrives at their tables, and consciously try to patronize purveyors of meat raised humanely, it might be easier to sit across from a vegetarian and eat without feeling too much guilt. Until recently, it’s seemed almost as if meat eaters might be relegated to smoking tables, pariahs in most restaurants except for steakhouses. And knowledge of the reasons behind the history of our American beef-centered cuisine really helps, too. Freidberg’s discussion of the history of the steakhouse phenomenon in the United States proves fascinating, examining as it does the genderization of the phenomena.

Meat Fresh FreidbergBut we’ll leave that for a later conversation.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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