The Magazine

Here's the beef

The great American appetite for flesh.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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While the chicken industry hasn't had to worry about the impact of Mad Cow Disease, it has had its share of headaches due to salmonella and, now, avian flu. Nevertheless, consumption of chicken has continued unabated, and even risen. During the early 1990s, Horowitz points out that "when stories of chicken contamination saturated the news media, per capita consumption increased almost 15 percent to 69 pounds annually" and, as such, "consumers seemed to respond to exposés . . . by being more careful in their handling and cooking of chicken, rather than changing their eating habits." The reaction is similar to the public response to The Jungle.

In the spirit of Sinclair's novel, the 2001 bestselling Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser also aimed to change our diets and affect the industry by describing in graphic detail modern-day meat processing and the dangers posed to both meat workers and consumers. Schlosser's book is truly compelling, and his vivid account from inside a slaughterhouse, as well as his detailing of the effects of E. coli on children, require the reader to take pauses for deep breaths.

This month, the movie version of Fast Food Nation will be in theaters across the country (the film is fictionalized, though the company in question is called "Mickey's"). Manohla Dargis of the New York Times has already called it "the most essential political film from an American director since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11"--though even he acknowledges "it may not turn you into a vegetarian." In other words, we may be appalled at various aspects of the industry, but at the end of the day, we will not be deterred from ordering a medium-rare cajun ribeye.

"Meat remains a sign of the good life, the American life, and a valued item in our diets," says Roger Horowitz, "even as Americans remain skittish about the wholesomeness of our food system." To a certain degree, our continued willingness to eat meat will also be tied to our accepting what it is that has been slaughtered.

"One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest their eating anything but the actual red fibrous meat of a beast," writes M.F.K. Fisher in How To Cook a Wolf. She goes on to describe her first encounter with tête de veau:

The main trouble, perhaps, was that it was not a veal's head at all, but half a veal's head. There was the half-tongue, lolling stiffly from the neat half-mouth. There was the one eye, closed in a savory wink. There was the lone ear, lopped loose and faintly pink over the odd wrinkles of the demi-forehead. And there, by the single pallid nostril, were three stiff white hairs.

At first I thought the world was too much with me, and wondered how gracefully I could leave it. Then what I am sure was my good angel made me stay, and eat, and finally ask for more.

America's passion for meat is enduring--albeit peculiar. Sometimes we are disturbed by what we eat, though the industry is quickly adapting: Whole Foods Market (aka "Whole Paycheck") will soon be selling meat with the label "animal compassionate" to assure us the cow was treated well. Until it was butchered, that is. At other times, our appetite for meat seems insatiable. As I concluded my interview with Klaus Fritsch of Morton's, I couldn't resist asking him about the largest piece of meat his restaurant ever served. It was a whole strip loin weighing 10 pounds. As a gimmick, it was served to former Chicago Bears defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry, who at the time was working for Sears.

Alas, Perry only managed to eat half the loin. But even worse, lamented Fritsch, "the guy ordered it medium-well."

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.