Everyone seems to have meat issues. On a daily basis, I encounter people whose attitudes toward meat are more complicated than their relationships with people. There’s the close friend who has a drug addict’s craving for steak and the vegetarian relations whose distaste is so profound they’ll cross the street to avoid the fumes of a chophouse. There’s the ex-girlfriend who upon learning I was serving lamb, insisted on calling the local farmer I bought it from to quiz him on feed and winter pasturing.
Indifference is one thing meat does not engender. In her introduction to “In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America,” Maureen Ogle posits a number of interesting questions she hopes the book will answer about meat culture in America: “When and why did manure lagoons, feedlots, and antibiotics become tools for raising livestock? . . . Why is ours a ‘carnivore nation’?”
This prodigiously researched work begins with an examination of animal husbandry in Colonial America and the insatiable appetite for meat that grew out of the superabundance made possible by seemingly limitless farmland.
In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America
Over the next few chapters, Ogle describes how the 19th century movement of Americans from rural to urban settings necessitated a massive change in the way that food — meat — was delivered to the consumer. Ogle argues that Americans’ sense of entitlement (“We’re Americans, after all, and we’re entitled to meat”) created an industry that had to satisfy demand for abundance at a low price. This insatiable demand gave rise to meat barons such as Gustavus Swift, Philip Armour, and Don Tyson, as well as food corporations such as Cargill and ConAgra.
Ogle details the struggles of feedlot visionaries such as Ken Monfort of Colorado or LFTB (a.k.a., pink slime) entrepreneur Eldon Roth to get their products to market. The author devotes far fewer pages to industry reformers such as Ralph Nader and others who helped curtail practices such as confinement stalls and to consumer movements behind the resurgence of small farms and organic foods. In the end, Ogle concludes the American consumer is responsible for creating the nation’s meat-industry monster.
Since the publication of “In Meat We Trust’’ last month, Ogle has taken heat for what is perceived to be an overly sympathetic — even outright biased — view of the Big Meat companies. As an historian, Ogle maintains she is a neutral observer.
In “Meat We Trust” does not seem to support that claim. In early chapters, she praises meatpacker Armour, painting him as a patient industrialist struggling to make a slim profit while meeting the demands of ignorant consumers. At the same time, she describes Sinclair Lewis, whose book “The Jungle” led to the signing by President Theodore Roosevelt of “a pure food bill and a meat inspection act,” as a man “burdened by a chip on his shoulder; he believed the world owed him not just a living but fame and fortune.”
Added to these lopsided portrayals are a couple omissions that might have gone some ways to giving the book more balance. Ogle fails to discuss the US Army beef scandal of 1898 when tainted beef produced by Swift and Armour likely sickened, and possibly killed, many American soldiers during the Spanish-American War, or the career of Harvey Wiley, the father of the Food and Drug Administration.
The beef scandal led to Lewis’s work and publication of “The Jungle’’ led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Inexplicably, Ogle does not connect these dots. In ensuing chapters, her defense of beef producers becomes almost strident, as when she defends pink slime creator Roth’s product as “a high tech version of what frugal cooks have done since humans stood upright” or in her conclusion when she thanks “Big Ag . . . for giving us the cheap food that has nourished an extraordinary abundance of creative energy.”
To be sure, Ogle answers the questions she poses in her introduction. But her lavish endorsement of Big Ag and dismissal of its distractors makes “In Meat We Trust” feel as if it’s come out of the oven a bit overdone.
Kent Black is an editor and writer who lives in New Mexico.