Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Fourth and Red Meat: as American Birthright (or American Health Challenge?)

Another piece about the American national holiday, this one more self-reflective.  As many of us fire up the grills for a cook-out today,* I can’t get out of my mind Kiera Butler’s recent article at Mother Jones (republished at Alternet) about death by hamburger.  I can’t get this article out of my mind today because hamburgers have become the quintessential American food, our national culinary signature, our birthright.  We’ll celebrate the birth of our nation today, many of us, by grilling hamburgers.

And I’ll be doing the same, so I have absolutely no room to talk about anyone else.  Well, I think that the meat Steve is planning to grill is actually a mix of steak and bratwurst, while I do the potato salad, mixed green salad, and corn, and my aunt makes dips and pies.  Our meal will be just as centered on red meat as other “typical” American meals today.

And as we eat all of that meat, we may well be eating our own deaths, if Butler is correct (I’m counting on few readers to be online today, so I hope I won’t be spoiling your meals by saying any of this before you eat).
We simply eat too much meat, far more meat than any of us need in order to sustain life.  And while we examine every other cause of our lifestyle-based illnesses like morbid obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type-2 diabetes, meat often gets a free pass.  While it may be the most significant culprit of all in our diets, when it comes to causing such infirmities.

I’m intrigued, in particular, by Butler’s citation of nutritionists who now recommend that we consider meat a condiment rather than the centerpiece of our meals.  This intrigues me because this is hardly a new insight: it’s as American as apple pie.

It’s as American as Thomas Jefferson, in fact.  Jefferson himself observed over 200 years ago, in the infancy of our nation, that a healthy diet is vegetable-, grain- and fruit-based, not meat-based.  And that meat ought to be a condiment eaten along with those other items, rather than the point of our meals.

As I’ve noted in previous postings here, my own family’s eating pattern as I grew up (and the pattern of my grandparents’ families) was Jeffersonian, though I have no idea at all whether my family had read Thomas Jefferson and whether our choice to eat a diet based primarily on vegetables was consciously Jeffersonian.  I have the impression that we ate vegetables and beans seasoned with a bit of meat, along with cornbread, because that’s how it had been done for generations in our culture, where vegetables grow abundantly and in many varieties.

And then things began to change in the latter half of the twentieth century, and I now realize they did so because we were constantly bombarded by advertising (especially via the new medium of television) telling us of the joys of ‘burgers and red meat, and of how rich people ate meat while poor people languished with meatless diets.  The government-produced food charts that plastered the walls of our classrooms as children—which were replicated in our textbooks—told us that a healthy diet could be charted as a pyramid.

With meat at the top.  And, I don’t doubt at all, with the beef industry helping to fund the government studies that put meat at the top of those charts.  Without meat, you’ll die!  You can’t get sufficient protein without meat! (And yet, as Thoreau pointed out long ago, the hefty cattle we raise for our consumption because we consider meat essential to sustaining life eat grass . . . .)

Meat, red meat, has even succeeded in becoming gender-tagged in the market-driven economy of the U.S.: as Riddhi Shah noted recently at Salon, Americans now assume that men eat meat and women eat chocolate.  We assume that there’s a natural, evolutionary basis for that gender breakdown of our diets, since (we tell ourselves) men have long been the hunters who bring home the bloody carcasses for the wife to throw over the coals or into the stewpot.

Yet, as Shah notes, these assumptions about “natural” gender-based patterns of food consumption break down the moment we look at these matters cross-culturally, since both women and men in Spain crave chocolate to an equal degree, while their Egyptian counterparts want salty things and not chocolate at all.  In much of the world, it’s males who have the sweet tooth and women who turn, instead, to vegetables and fruit.

Our national fixation on meat as the centerpiece of a “real” meal may well have much to do with the gender-based advertising with which we’ve long been bombarded, which seeks to convince us that real men need and eat meat, and good women cook meat in abundance for their man and family, as they pop chocolates into their mouths to give them energy to stir the cookpots full of red meat.

The bottom line, I think, is that we may well need to reconsider our American fixation on meat as the quintessential source of protein and of life itself.  We may well be killing ourselves as we eat the meat-based diet we now consider our national birthright—ironically, most of all, in Jefferson’s homeland, the American South, where the constant bombardment of marketing messages about hamburgers is producing this, and is rapidly eroding a traditional diet in which grains, vegetables, and fruits formerly played a much more significant role.

I’m preaching here, I know.  And I’m preaching as much to myself as to anyone else, as I make these comments.  Still, these are points worth considering, I tell myself as I read these articles, even right before I sit down to a family meal of grilled meat with vegetables this afternoon.

*The use of the term “barbeque” to refer to a grill on which meat is cooked is foreign to me, as is the use of the term “barbeque” to describe grilled meat.  I never met these usages until I traveled outside the Southern U.S. and found that what I would call a cook-out, people in other parts of the U.S. (and in Canada) often call a “barbeque,” though there’s no barbeque anywhere in sight.  Just grilled meat grilled on a grill that, for reasons I can’t fathom, is called a barbeque.  

In the culture in which I grew up, barbeque is is a term for a special way of cooking meat slowly over savory meat smoke, while the meat is basted with a savory sauce.  The process takes place in a tightly closed space.  And barbeque is term for a special way of cooking meat, and for the meat cooked in this way, and not for the device on which meat is grilled.