Are We Finally Over Meat?
Writer, butcher and Portland Meat Collective founder Camas Davis ponders North America’s obsession with meat, the issue of sustainability and a world where meat is still on, but no longer the focus of, the menu.
Remember back in 2009 when the New York Times dubbed butchers the new rock stars? Ok. Maybe you don’t remember. But I sure do. I remember it because I read that story about three weeks after I’d arrived in southwest France to study—you guessed it—butchery. Here I’d thought I was being original, leaving my career as a magazine editor to become a butcher. But turns out, I was just another person in a growing crowd of diners and chefs obsessed with meat and cleavers and pig hearts.
The story was titled “Young Idols With Cleavers Rule the Stage,” and the article began by likening chefs to “arena” rockers, the Rolling Stones of the food world. It then went on to describe vegetable farmers as folk singers, the Cat Stevens of agriculture. But butchers, butchers were the Velvet Undergrounds. The Modest Mouses. The Arcade Fires. They were sultry and sexy and mysterious and gritty and REAL.
“Now there is a new kind of star on the food scene: young butchers,” the article went on to say. “With their swinging scabbards, muscled forearms and constant proximity to flesh, butchers have the raw, emotional appeal of an indie band. They turn death into life, in the form of a really good skirt steak.”
When I came back to the States after a short few months in France, names like Ryan Farr and Joshua Applestone were being tossed around like these dudes were gods. Suddenly, every restaurant I ate at had a charcuterie board on their menu. There was this little-known meat fest travelling around the country called Cochon 555. I probably tasted bacon ice cream for the first time in 2009. Headcheese and pork cheeks had sex appeal. Suddenly diners were asking what breed of pig their pork chops came from. Artisan butcher shops were popping up everywhere. And, seemingly overnight, the lowly “butcher’s cut” known as skirt steak had doubled in price at my local meat counter.
Whatever you want to call it – a renaissance a revolution? – 2009 was a banner year for meat. We haven’t been the same since.
Of course, our meat obsession didn’t come out of nowhere. We’ve had a strong love of animal protein since, well, people began jumping the pond from Europe and to this large swath of land called North America. Our abundant grazing lands and the comparatively loose regulations back then meant that everyone—not just the wealthy as was the case in Europe—could afford to eat meat. The industrial revolution made this all the more true. Somewhere between the invention of refrigeration, railroads and the onset of confined animal feeding operations, we became the biggest meat eaters on the planet.
The average American today eats 265 lbs. of meat a year, compared to the “scanty” 193 lbs. of meat, including poultry, the typical Canadian chows down on annually. Both numbers contrast sharply with the average 92 lbs. consumed per person, per year in the rest of the world.
To look at it another way, the whole pigs I typically butcher are just under 265 pounds (hanging weight) of meat and fat and bone. So if one person ate the equivalent of one of those per year, and we’ve got something like 350 million people between the US and Canada…. you get the picture.
We eat an eye-popping, colon-busting amount of meat, any way you cut it. And about 99% of that is factory-farmed. “How else are we going to feed all those hungry mouths?”, the factory-farm proponents keep asking us.
I’m a butcher, and I’m in the business of meat education, so meat is how I make much of my living—but those numbers are so staggering they nearly make me want to run for the hills, subsist on carrots and peas, grow my hair out long and sing Moon Shadow every night to my only chosen friends, the gentle herbivores of the forest.
Nearly. But I’ve never been a real black-and-white kind of woman. And I forsook Cat Stevens when I left Eugene, Oregon for New York City in 1999. I think the real reason we’re so obsessed with meat is that we all have a growing sense that the way we produce and consume it really isn’t sustainable. There’s a kind of end-of-an-era, dancing on the deck of the Titanic tone to our meat obsession. But the whole hot-mess-of-a-debate surrounding modern meat eating really doesn’t feel like it offers the answer.
On one side there are those who believe that because of the environmental impact of factory meat production, simply forsaking meat altogether will save the planet. More and more I am convinced that that is NOT the answer. But I’m not convinced that continuing down our current path of meat production and consumption is the answer, either. Both sides seem to have it wrong; it’s just not cut and dried.
Despite the massive amounts of meat we continue to eat today, the truth is consumption has actually gone down in the last 20 years. This fact, combined with the growing popularity of consumer campaigns like Meatless Mondays, along with Mark Bittman’s “Vegan before 6 p.m.” diet, and Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” mantra, are signs pointing to a sea change in our relation to meat.
Thankfully, a growing number of chefs, butchers and farmers (not to mention politicians, nutritionists and policy wonks) are starting to think creatively and sustainably about all of this. Last spring, I had the opportunity to attend Slow Food USA’s inaugural “Slow Meat Conference” The conference’s motto? “Meat: Better, Less.”
In other words, Slow Food USA is starting to strategize about how they can get consumers to eat better meat and less of it. How do they plan on doing this? By persuading more and more chefs to rethink how they use meat on the plate, and who they source that meat from.
“More than magicians who create meals based on whim, chefs need to become curators of the soil,” says Richard McCarthy, executive director of Slow Food USA. “At the center of this shift must be our realigned relationship with animals. We must abandon the idea of meat as the focus of every meal. Some meals may be without meat. In others, meat serves as flavour. At the core of this shift is a recognition that the tyranny of cheap meat is confining our menus, our imagination, rural economies, animals, and our tastes. We need the leadership and courage of chefs to show us how to cook the funky cuts, how to be more resourceful with less meat, and how to cook with different and unfamiliar breeds.”
Toronto chef Scott Vivian, of Beast Restaurant, couldn’t agree more. “I think of the dining experience as a symphony or concert. The composer or director is creating a story that flows and makes sense. If you were to crush someone with meat [for] the entire meal, there would be no balance, no flow, no story," he says.
In more and more restaurant kitchens, the vegetable is taking on leading roles. “Vegetables have always taken the backdrop in the kitchen, as an aromatic element, in the case of mirepoix or a base for proteins, in the case of the classic ‘mash’,” says Jason French, owner and chef of Ned Ludd and Elder Hall. “But these days vegetables are taking center stage on menus all around the globe. The range of flavours, the subtleties and nuances one can achieve with vegetables, far outweighs their meat, fish, or fowl counterparts.”
Chef Dan Barber, co-owner and chef of New York’s Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barn, takes the notion of meat as an accent a step further in his fantastic book, The Third Plate. (If you haven’t read it yet, run, don’t walk, to your nearest locally-owned book store and buy it immediately because it will change your life.) Mere farm-to-table cuisine isn’t enough anymore, Barber says.
“The larger problem, as I came to see it,” writes Barber, “was that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.” Instead, Barber is in search of a new, radical cuisine that takes as its inspiration an entirely sustainable and holistic system of agriculture that focuses on quality versus quantity.
Since 2009, nose-to-tail eating has become de rigeur in restaurants everywhere. Dan Barber wants us to think more along the lines of bone-to-blood. He wants every part of the animal to be utilized, and he envisions a kind of meat that is raised to have such high quality, such outstanding, rich, complex flavour, that we don’t need to eat more than a few bites. He’s talking parsnip steaks—not ribeye steaks—drizzled with a sauce of “second-cuts” like shanks.
Barber’s book is a veritable tome of ideas and knowledge that can take a while to read through, but I appreciate that Barber is willing to think so deeply about, and dwell for so long over something as simple as a beef bone or a kernel of corn. I like to think that our current obsession with meat really just means that we’re all doing something similar: drilling down to the very core of what meat is, thinking about it, savoring it, so that we can reinvent the meat wheel altogether. The more we think about it, perhaps, the more we can actually start changing the way we see it on our dinner tables.
We’ve got a long way to go, but if Barber and others are onto something, then pretty soon, chefs, farmers and butchers (not to mention meat and vegetables) will all become a part of something more akin to a full orchestra than a trendy indie band.
Camas Davis was raised outside of Eugene, Oregon before moving to New York City where she was an editor and writer at National Geographic Adventure, The Drama Review, and Saveur. In 2006, she moved back to Oregon and became the food editor of Portland Monthly magazine. In 2009, Davis traveled to Gascony in southwest France to study the art of butchery and charcuterie. Upon her return she founded the Portland Meat Collective, a one-of-a-kind meat school and culinary resource that has changed the way citizens of Portland think about their food, their community, and their local economy.
Photos: David Reamer