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Someone posts a picture of fried chicken to their Instagram Story and I remember everything about the taste of fried chicken—the salt, the pepper, the crack of skin giving way to moist flesh. I haven’t eaten a piece of fried chicken in a decade, but the sense memory remains. Will I ever forget? Would it mean something to forget?
This happens a lot: Someone posts prosciutto and I remember the wheels of it with mozzarella my mom would get at Costco that I would basically eat all by myself, repeatedly slinking to the kitchen to slice off just one more piece. Someone posts arroz con pollo and my mouth fills with the essence of sazón, a burst of pea. Someone posts a barbecue pork rib and I recall the sweetness and smoke, the slick of fat, my teeth touching bone. I know what all of it tastes like; I remember it vividly. Meat was at the center of my plate growing up. It nourished me; I took so much pleasure in it.
I remember these foods and I do what I was taught in meditation classes: see the thought, honor it, and let it go. There is nothing that could ever make me eat a piece of meat again, save for some hypothetical conditions of being stranded and starving. The mere thought of putting a piece of meat into my mouth makes me gag. I honestly do not know how most people do it, how they “meatpost,” to use Emily Atkin’s parlance, and meat-eat with abandon.
I don’t doubt that many people are quite intentional about their meat consumption, but that’s not the vision one gets online, and it occasionally drives me to climate despair. What would convince people to openly be more vegetarian, more vegan, more (to use a dreaded term) plant-based? Why does being nonchalant about eating meat still have such high status, especially in the food world? What would convince food writers and influencers to sometimes suggest it’s okay not to eat meat at every meal? What would cause there to be good vegetarian and vegan options at hip restaurants? How do we adjust the narrative on what food is worth eating, essentially, taking into consideration ecology, labor, welfare?
I am writing a whole book about what it means not to eat meat in Western, meat-obsessed, settler-colonialist cultures, but to do that I also have to write a chapter about what meat means in these cultures—though I never wanted to write about it. I have always wanted to write about what doesn’t involve animal products. The only thing that changed that was the way tech meat like Impossible Foods burgers and Beyond Meat burst onto the scene. Suddenly, despite my commitment to vegetables, I was tasked with untangling what meat facsimiles mean. But I don’t eat these products, and I don’t actually care about them beyond what they represent. What they represent is a continuation of meat-as-symbol that I find rather troubling, because I personally want to see a radical reimagining of how we eat, how we use land, and how we think about our food.
Other, better writers have been covering the topic of “what meat means” for years. Read Carol J. Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat; read Meat, A Natural Symbol by Nick Fiddes; read Meathooked by Marta Zaraska.
It’s wild to watch the ideas contained in these texts play out time and time again on the internet as well as in real-life conversation, because they’ve been inside my head for so long. I look on in a bit of awe, as well as a bit of annoyance: Of course abundant cheap meat represents masculinity. Of course abundant cheap meat represents the metaphorical virility and strength of the United States. Of course abundant cheap meat represents affluence. Of course a bunch of morons who believe President Biden is going to dictate they only eat four pounds of beef per year will show off their poorly cooked steaks in protest. We know all of this.
To me, last week’s meat kerfuffle was a wave of the obvious and depressing. The U.S. government subsidizes the industrial meat and dairy industries for $38 billion per year; meat and dairy are socialized food industries with horrifying working conditions in a country that won’t give us Medicare for All or wipe away our student loan debt. Biden isn’t gonna do a goddam thing about any of that, though he certainly should (and not in the way Ezra Klein suggests, which is a matter for another essay).
In an interesting bit of timing to coincide with the faux meat war, Epicurious announced that they are officially no longer publishing recipes that involve beef. A lot of people started to yell about how they should actually promote “sustainable” beef, despite the fact that there is no earth-friendly level or type of beef production that would be able to feed people the amount of beef they’re accustomed to eating. Something has to give. Consumption must decrease.
It’s also true that dairy, shrimp, chicken, and other livestock also have awful impacts on the environment in addition to abysmal animal welfare and human labor conditions. There needs to be more nuance in the conversation.
But food media at large does not take climate change seriously, not really. I’m talking about the major magazines and food sections, which take no stands at all on sourcing and don’t do much to educate readers on the food system’s massive greenhouse gas emissions. That would just be too much of a bummer! This move by Epicurious is something, and it is bold, and I hope the conversation they’ve begun broadens and deepens into the rest of the issues with the food system beyond beef. At least they’re saying something, anything. (And I don’t care that there was a Lightlife ad drop in the middle of it when Tyson and other massive meat conglomerates advertise all over the place and thus influence coverage. Ethics only matter when we’re not eating meat? Pssh.)
The food system could hold us back from ever achieving global warming goals if nothing changes about how we use land and what we eat, which is why all the meatposting and angry reactions to cutting back on beef make me feel sad, frustrated, and ineffectual. (And how much do most food writers have in common with the right-wing when it comes to the symbolic function of meat? Why is eating meat with abandon getting a thumbs-up on every point in the political spectrum?) Yet they also remind me to get back to work—cooking my vegetables, baking my vegan cakes, writing my meatless book. To most, my concerns are silly, uncool. Oh well. I’ll keep imagining a different world.
This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature Aja Barber, a writer on sustainable fashion. We discuss the role of individual choice, being an independent creator on social media, and inclusivity.
Annual subscriptions are $30. Monthly subscriptions are $5. They provide access to past and future interviews. Recipes will begin this summer.
I don’t think I linked my appearance on Sophia Bush’s podcast “Work in Progress.”
I had been preparing to write about being a culture worker for today, but instead I decided to do this quick response to the meat conversation. Thus, I’d been getting back into Angela McRobbie’s Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries. Let me know if you have any good reading on this subject I should get to!
The usual! That up there is a coconut cake with chocolate ganache frosting.
Hey Alicia -- Just a note to say that I always appreciate your takes on mainstream food culture, as well as on the ways food is portrayed in some of the more niche "foodie" spaces. I've been out here in sustainable ag land for so long that I really do forget how the rest of the country eats -- and while I'll continue raising chickens, and eating some meat (most of it very local) -- your pieces on how thoughtless most folks are about their food are always a solid wake up call for me. Keep up the valuable work!
I think this conversation deserves more nuance.
Food requires larger picture rather than smaller zoomed in lens. It requires people actually growing food to get a better handle on what it means to grow food and be in community with plants and animals simultaneously. Because there is too wide a separation between the two, there is a lack of understanding.
I am someone who has gone vegetarian from time to time and yet enjoys meat. Do I eat it all the time, no. But I do eat dairy and seafood all the while being aware that the consumption of all of it requires that I look at how and why I'm eating these products regularly. I mean, if we follow the cycle of life, then we do recognize that like the flesh we eat, our flesh gets eaten as well.
I also think that this conversation blows up into a race and colonialism dynamic, which is fair, but the reality is that Indigenous tribes have often eaten animals - they've done so in far better ways than Western culture manages. Western culture lacks of respect and connection to the spirit of humans and the spirit of the animals. And this to me is where the conversation becomes predictable and depressing.
When one chooses an entirely different way of life, it is usually because of a shift in the individual- a decision to find the spirit in oneself. Animals already have that connection, which is why it is painful to know that most meat comes from factory farms where they aren't cared or nurtured. They are literally being raised to feed an animal distanced from it's natural instinct. I would never tell anyone who is vegan that they're wrong or right, because there is no wrong or right, that's judgemental. There is however, the way in which we hold ourselves and our actions with integrity - in a way that is in rhythm with the greater rhythms of the earth and species.
I am very concerned with climate change, but I also believe that greater change in the food world comes not from blanket statements of I am/have giving/en this up, but actual hands in the dirt understanding of what it means to feed yourself while nourishing others. Most people, including the vegans in my life, don't know what that is. They don't understand that they may be eating organic, but we continue to murder the nutrients from the soil elsewhere, or that they may buy kale, but the women farm workers are also being raped, or that those farm workers aren't making a livable wage, etc. Again bigger picture - the food industry changes, when we decide our humanity toward each other matters more than just choosing one way to claim difference. And that can hold a lot of different methods if they work in integrity than in toxic masculinity, abuse, or violence.
I commend your writing and your thoughts. If I didn't, I wouldn't read your articles or support your substack. I just think that we literally have to go deeper than just saying eating meat is wrong - it leaves out all the ways in which the conversation can find solutions rather than refusals.