By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
It wasn't surprising that Susan Bourette swore off meat. For four days, the Canadian journalist had worked carving the cheeks out of 20-pound hog heads on an undercover assignment at a pork processing plant in Manitoba. Everything about the experience revolted Bourette: the way the animals were treated, the way the workers were treated, the unavoidable fact that animals died to provide carnivores like her with sustenance.
On her flight home, she opted for the vegetarian meal. At Thanksgiving, she passed on her mother's turkey in favor of a vegan feast. Then, in December, "pale as sticky rice, as weak as Scotch broth," she caved in. Bourette stumbled into her favorite diner and ordered a lumberjack breakfast: steak and eggs and a side of bacon.
She had lasted five weeks, one day and 13 hours.
Pained by her failure, Bourette decided to come to terms with her carnivorous ways. If she could understand why she craved meat, she reasoned, perhaps she would get over the guilt of enjoying it. Her new book, "Meat: A Love Story" (Putnam, May 15), chronicles Bourette's travels, from a New York butcher shop to an Inuit whale hunt, to discover the roots of humans' love affair with meat -- the average American eats 220 pounds of it annually -- and to decide how to conduct that affair responsibly.
The path to becoming a more conscious carnivore has become a publishing industry trendlet. This spring also saw the release of "The Compassionate Carnivore: Or How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald's Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat," by Catherine Friend (Da Capo, May 1), and "The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers," by Scott Gold (Broadway Books, March 18). All three follow on the heels of last year's critically acclaimed launch of a quarterly magazine, Meatpaper, which aims to assess the American "fleischgeist."
The books address a topic that has long been taboo among carnivores. Many of them prefer not to think too much about the moral, ethical and environmental implications of eating meat. But recent exposés about inhumane treatment of food animals have made it harder for thinking meat-eaters to put such thoughts aside. At the same time, artisanal charcuterie, grass-fed beef and, most of all, bacon have become "it" foods for chefs and chowhounds.
"People are worried, but they still want to eat meat," says Roger Horowitz, author of "Putting Meat on the American Table" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), which charts historical patterns of meat consumption. "So there's a great market opportunity for people to talk about what really happens when you eat meat and tell people that it's okay."
Each book has its own tack and tone, but the essential message is the same: Carnivores should not feel guilty. Nor should they cede the moral high ground to vegetarians and vegans, whose answer to the complex questions raised by eating animals is to abstain entirely. Instead, the authors argue, carnivores should celebrate their decision to eat meat by being conscientious about what they choose.
That message comes through loud and clear in "The Shameless Carnivore," a call to arms for the "legion of meat-loving individuals who are made to feel morally lacking." "Hi. My name is Scott and I'm a carnivore," Brooklyn-based blogger-turned-author Gold writes in the preface. "For years, I've harbored this passion like some sort of dirty secret. . . . Repeat after me: I am a carnivore and I'm damned proud of it."
In the next 355 pages, Gold invites the reader on a take-no-prisoners adventure as he samples 31 animals -- including guinea pig, goat, rattlesnake and bull -- in 31 days, plus every cut and organ of a cow. Some meats, such as goat, he learns to love. "There's some stigma with goats that they're some swarthy immigrant food. But a kid is just as flavorful and tender as lamb," Gold says in an interview. Others, like the bull's testicles, were "unconscionably gross."
Gold's tale is likeably swashbuckling. (Chef and gustatory adventurer Anthony Bourdain clearly is one of his heroes.) But he doesn't shy away from the meat of the matter. For Gold, being "shameless" means eating meat without shame, not eating it in a way that's unprincipled or corrupt, the word's secondary definition. "To be a real carnivore, a true carnivore, you have to be conscientious and discerning," Gold says. "Eat good meat and source it well. Acknowledge where it comes from. And respect the fact that the animal died for your dinner."
"The Compassionate Carnivore" takes a more nuanced approach. Author Friend paints a picture of her life on a sheep farm in Zumbrota, Minn., and provides a guide on how to be both an animal lover and an animal eater. In a chapter titled "Letter to the Lambs," she writes: "Tomorrow morning, when we load you onto the trailer for your trip to the abattoir, we will be thinking about the life you've lived on this farm -- running around the pasture at dusk, sleeping in the sun, and grazing enthusiastically for the tenderest bits of grass. We will say out loud, 'Thank you.' "
It's a genre she jokingly calls "nonfiction/self-help."
Friend got the idea for the book after the publication of her 2006 memoir, "Hit by a Farm," which contained an essay called "Meeting My Meat." "People really responded to it," she says. "The farmers I knew were grateful someone was trying to explain what it was like. And people who had never been on a farm were fascinated."
Friend is careful not to offer a strict definition of compassion: "I'm leery of the word 'should.' To make a change that will last, people need to take steps they are comfortable with," she says. But she does offer guidelines. Like Gold, she advocates eating less meat and making sure it's humanely raised. And if you can't avoid factory-farmed meat, she says, go meatless.
"People who become complete vegetarians for the sake of animals are basically getting up from the table and leaving the room. Although they might work to help better animals' lives through their words, those words won't keep a sustainable farmer in business," she writes in a chapter called "Making a Difference." "Flexitarians, vegetarians who eat meat occasionally, are remaining at the table. Carnivores who choose to go meatless now and then are remaining at the table."
That may sound sensible to meat-lovers. But it sounds like another excuse to Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the author of a similarly named but vegan cookbook, "The Compassionate Cook" (Grand Central Publishing, 1993). "Yes, you can be a less horrid meat eater and reduce the sum total of your environmental impact and cruelty to animals and clog your arteries less," she says. "But why are these people so desperate to cling to a really bad habit? This is just guilt deflection. It's like saying, 'I'm still going to abuse children, but I'm going to be conscious about it and get them from a small family.' "
Others say the attention to carnivory is long overdue. Amy Standen, the vegetarian co-editor and co-founder of Meatpaper, says such books help develop a conversation among the factions. "Every steak has a long story behind it, because it was an animal that was raised in a certain way, fed certain things and ultimately killed," she says. "That's important to a lot of people, whether they're vegetarians or meat eaters."