Previously: October, by China Mieville
Red Meat Republic: A Hoof to Table History of How Beef Changed America, by Joshua Specht
Economics as a field of study becomes a lot more interesting when you stop thinking about it as “stocks and graphs” and start thinking about it as a way of deciding who gets to eat and who doesn’t. By the same token “food” becomes a lot more interesting when you stop thinking about it as “a delicious treat for the hungry boy” and start thinking about it as a way of deciding who has any value to society.
The politics of food is an astonishing minefield that is irrevocably tied up with our beliefs around gender, race and class, and it’s one of those things that everyone would much rather not think about – why talk politics when we could simply tuck into a delicious steak, after all? Am I right? Fellas? Red Meat Republic says a big “fuck you” to that line of thinking and delves into the history of beef in America, starting right at the beginning and going all the way up to the present day, and in the process showing how despite coming so far, in many ways nothing has changed at all.
On paper – or perhaps on a plate to keep the food themes going – this might seem to be a quite dry (chewy, overcooked, okay I’ll stop) subject, but Specht’s writing is really accessible and the stellar research which has been done makes the history of beef easy to follow. The book, and the story of beef as we know it today, begins with the deliberate and systematic massacre of the native bison across the US, a move which was not done out of any need to eat the meat, but rather simply to starve out the first peoples who relied on the buffalo to feed their families.
Without this meat, the native Americans (previously enjoying serious military victories against the colonisers!) were crippled and forced into submission and slavery, and in the process the buffalo were removed from the plains to make room for domesticable, processable beef cattle that could be farmed for massive profit. A win-win! Unless you happen to be a native American of course, in which case you were “too stupid” to know how to farm the land you lived on, and thus deserved to be reduced to relying on the “generous” hand-outs of the superior white man.
(Hey, quick side note – mind if we endlessly re-iterate that narrative for the next 100 years or more and just swap out “native Americans” for whatever other non-white race we need to pseudoscientifically disguise our contempt for? No? Great. Back to the article.)
Because of my union work I have spent a fair amount of time in meat processing plants and talking to meat workers, so the section on industrial meat processing in the Chicago slaughterhouses hit hard. Although the obliteration of the bison, the rapid escalation of industrial meat processing and the refrigerated railcar network fundamentally changed our understanding of food forever, the unavoidable fact is that other than an increase in hygiene and animal welfare standards, the meat processing of 2019 is fundamentally identical to that of the 1890s. It’s shit work, shit hours, shit bosses, and you get covered in shit.
In fact it’s completely astonishing how little has changed in that time and it’s the sort of thing that should be an international scandal, except for two very important reasons: it’s a fundamental narrative of our society that blue collar labour is inherently low-value (especially rural blue collar labour so who cares) and the meat industry has poured a lot of time and money into making sure that we don’t think about any of the process required to transform happy, smiling animals into glistening pink shapes that are plastic-wrapped on the supermarket shelves.
The problem, of course, is that once you start to think about food, and who is making it, it becomes very hard to stop. Red Meat Republic makes it very clear that the success of industrialised meat processing was largely due to the way that the Chicago meat houses perfectly aligned their own interests with the consumer to ensure as little thinking happened as possible. Americans wanted cheap meat, and they were willing to not-think-about whatever it took to make that happen – whether that was what was happening to the animals, what was happening to the workers inside the plants, what was happening to the local butcher shops, or really anything at all.
This is not to say that people don’t think about meat, they just choose (consciously or otherwise) not to think too hard about how the meat is made. Once meat is available, it becomes the subject of endless politicisation and discussion – in Specht’s words, “a blank slate on which one could project one’s own tastes”. I was particularly struck by the final chapter of the book, Table, where Specht details the evolution of beef-based racism, sexism and classism through the years. The scientific and technological breakthroughs that went into industrial beef production cemented red meat as a “manly” endeavour, which meant that – just to pick one depressing example – women were expected to know how to cook steak, but were also expected to know that a man would always be better at doing it than them, no matter how hard they tried.
In the same chapter, Specht quotes extensively from an appallingly racist 1860’s study of “the diet of brain workers” by Dr. George Miller Beard, in which Beard waxes lyrical about the dietary needs of intellectuals and “advanced races”. Compared to the so-called “barbarous races” and the “rice-eating Hindoos”, Beard concludes that it is of course impossible for one to be able to contribute to society in any meaningful way unless one eats a heavy diet of red meat. Indeed, Beard wonders aloud what “the natives of South America, the savages of Africa, the stupid Greenlander, the peasantry of Europe, all combined, done for civilization, in comparison with any single beef-eating class of Europe?”
In this day and age you can see a concise adaptation of this line of thinking in the type of bumper sticker available exclusively at the Racist Uncle Supply Depot, the sort which reads “vegetarian is an ancient tribal word for one who cannot hunt or fish”. But one does not even need to have a particularly racist uncle in order to enjoy exposure to the pseudoscientific dietary eugenics of the 1860’s, because people like New York Times best-selling self-help author and absolute fucking dickhead Jordan Peterson is out there promoting exactly the same level of garbage bullshit every single day with his all-meat diet and race-based IQ ideas.
Don’t go into bookstores regularly? That’s okay, because you can’t go more than a minute on any social media platform without reading about the ‘manliness’ of steak, or how vegetarians and vegans are overly emotional and easily upset (you know, like a woman?). The opinion columns and talking heads of our major media are still obsessed with managing the dietary habits of the poor (especially if they are on welfare!) and suggesting that the better things in life, such as choice cuts of meat are wasted on those without the refined palette to appreciate them. “For Americans rich and poor,” writes Specht, “beef was tasty and a marker of success, but elites treated workers’ food as an input to be scientifically optimised.” That sentence could have been written yesterday.
It is impossible not to engage with the politics of food. But as Red Meat Republic shows, if you choose not to engage directly with it, you’ll end up using it as a vehicle for your own politics anyway, whether it’s something deliberate like colonialism and sexism, or something unconscious, like capitalism. Not thinking about food doesn’t make the politics of food go away, it just means that you give yourself a little break from the raw, exploitative terror of the supply chain so you can focus on something else. “Consumers reconciled themselves to industrial meat products,” notes Specht, “by distancing themselves from industrial meat production.”
At the end of the day, in the world we live in, focusing on something else is a wonderful and beautiful luxury. Nobody is at fault for simply wanting to put food in their mouth and get back to work. We all have bills to pay, kids to look after, chores to do, and crucially, we all need to eat. If we had to stop and think about where everything came from, we would be paralysed with indecision and anxiety. We simply can’t do it.
But if we’re still trapped in the same bullshit that we were trapped in more than a hundred years ago – and we very obviously are – then clearly something about the system is broken. Hopefully, on our better and stronger days, we can spare a bit of energy to think about why that is, and who benefits from keeping it that way.