On Steak

and the banalities of omnivorism.

While driving to and from the west of Puerto Rico this weekend, I saw so many cows. Black and white ones, like a cartoon; ink-black ones, nuzzling each other and their calves while white herons hung out nearby; brown ones, always my personal favorite; and white ones, dirty from rolling around in grass. The one color they had in common was the yellow of the tags on their ears, numbering them for slaughter.

The sight of the cows freely grazing first fills me with joy, but then I become predictably sad and start doing my anti-speciesist speech: What omnivores might characterize as “one bad day” in their life, I see as a miserable system of oppression in the series of miserable systems of oppression that mark our lives as humans and nonhuman animals. I love cows, like I love dogs, chickens, goats, iguanas and all other animals except cats (kidding! a little). It is with this anti-speciesist, vegetarian, eco-anarchist heart that I did my duty as a food writer and watched the steak episode of David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious.

Cows aren’t considered until 21 minutes into this show about the consumption of their flesh. It starts with many of their parts, already butchered and dry-aged in various accoutrements presented on a silver platter at the Beatrice Inn in New York City, owned by chef Angie Mar. She is present at the table along with Chang and the writers Lolis Elie and Helen Rosner, who begin the episode talking about judgment: judging people for which steak cuts they order, for how they want them cooked. “Steak means we’ve made it.” This, to me, is a bit dizzying: Are they really saying all of the most banal things about the classed and masculine nature of beef consumption in the United States out loud, without critique? This continues throughout the 51-minute episode.

For anyone’s who’s thought about the concept of steak before, its cultural implications and environmental impact, this episode presents nothing new, no nuance. Ideas around it as an indicator of class status, a marker of masculinity, and a planet killer are all given equally shallow attention. The cow is predictably absent until that 21-minute mark, and one small farm supporting biodiversity—as in, a teeny-tiny percentage of the steak that might be served in the United States—is presented as the future. In Spain, a butcher can’t kill one prized cow, but otherwise the slaughter and consumption of these animals is treated as absolutely necessary, because what’s most important is not their lives but the pleasure of the humans who can afford it. 

The only idea that gets extensive play is the gendered nature of steak—with Emily Contois, a media studies professor (she is excellent in the face of Chang’s ignorance)—which is such old news that it’s just… really? But Chang has never thought about patriarchy before, so here we are watching him get a Women’s Studies 101 lecture. There’s nothing for me to say about this that hasn’t been said in Carol J. Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat

Meat alternatives are given a comedic interlude in which Walter Green, a food writer, “jokes” with a faux-butler, in a continuation of the show enjoying being obnoxious to service, whether they’re actors or young women trying to make a living at Outback Steakhouse. Seitan, an Impossible Burger, and other supermarket products are presented and judged on a “meat” scale; while watching, I can’t tell what year it is. The jokes about vegan food have not changed.

One of the most troubling aspects of the episode is the inclusion of David Choe, an artist who in 2014 went on a radio show to explain in detail how he raped a masseuse, then said it was a joke. Sexual violence or pleasure as a joke is also part of his segment here at a sauna and steakhouse for men, showing yet more evidence for the connection between patriarchal violence and slaughter. (Another episode of this season of Ugly Delicious also features Aziz Ansari, who has his own history of “sexual misconduct.”)

While the environmental impact of beef consumption is such a big topic of conversation, this episode had the resources to really dig deep on the agriculture and the brutality of factory-farming while still giving some attention to the cultural and gastronomic issues at play. Instead, it was a cocksure lament. Too bad that in our beef-less future, women and men with money won’t be able to enjoy cow flesh on the same even playing field. Bring out the guillotine, indeed.

Published:
I wrote an essay/review on Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project for HausRed Vol. 3. This zine looks at every aspect of publication for small presses, and this issue features Fox by Dubravka Ugrešić from Open Letter Books.

Reading:
I recommend my friend Leah Kirts on Yeah Dawg, the only good vegan hot dogs, as the first installment of her Tenderly column on queerness and anti-speciesism!

I’ve been listening to Rebecca Solnit on podcasts in preparation for her new book. Here’s her with Ezra Klein, and here’s with Ana Marie Cox.

I started A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk and am laughing out loud! I’m excited to have more time to read soon??? Because…

Cooking:
We got a new stove and it’s GAS, meaning I’ll be cooking with fire (literally and hopefully figuratively) as of later today and no longer schlepping about either looking for food or looking for a stove. Now we get to move on to the actual aspects of moving, like putting the rest of our shit away and figuring out how to build a table and bookshelves.