What Does the End of Beef Mean for Our Sense of Self?

The difference in diet was a difference in worldview. “The discourse on the Japanese self vis-à-vis Westerners as ‘the other’ took the form of rice versus meat,” Ohnuki-Tierney writes in “Rice as Self” (1994). Meanwhile, in the West, similar battle lines were being drawn. “Some peoples, because of their differing conditions, are forced to live almost solely on fish,” the French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin observes, with seeming mystification, in “The Physiology of Taste” (1825), then pronounces, “These peoples are less brave than others who live on meat.” (I grant that they might have better longevity.)

But other Westerners feared what they perceived as the eerie stamina and relentlessness of peoples inured to the supposed austerity of a meatless diet. The Indian-born British writer Rudyard Kipling, in his 1899 chronicle of travels through Asia and elsewhere, “From Sea to Sea,” quotes a fictionalized companion who marvels of the locals, “They can live on nothing … they will overwhelm the world. ” In the United States in 1879, concerns over growing numbers of Chinese immigrant laborers led Senator James G. Blaine, Republican of Maine, to declare, “You cannot work a man who must have beef and bread, and would prefer beer, alongside of a man who can live on rice.” A 1902 pamphlet in favor of Chinese exclusion put it bluntly: “Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood Against Asian Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?”

At the same time, some Japanese intellectuals were disavowing ancient superstitions against eating meat and lobbying for a change in diet, pointing to Westerners’ physical strength and Japan’s need to compete. Less than two decades after the country opened to the West, Emperor Meiji ordered the imperial kitchen to begin serving beef.

COWS ARE NOT indigenous to the Americas. Yet the Amazon is burning, set on fire by ranchers seeking more land for their cattle, and the United States is the world’s biggest producer of beef, with a projected output of 12.7 million metric tons last year, about a third more than its closest competitor , Brazil, and $71.4 billion in sales. The beef we eat — and Americans ate, per capita, roughly 59 pounds of it, nearly 300 Big Macs’ worth, last year — is the beef of empire.

The Spanish brought the first cows to the New World in the late 15th century. They were used to power the sugar mills in what was then the West Indies, on plantations that relied on enslaved people for labor. Later, in both North and South America, the sprawl of cattle herds became a means of wrestling land from its original inhabitants. “By occupying the vast spaces between population centers, cattle helped secure colonial control of more and more territory,” writes Rosa E. Ficek, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Puerto Rico, in her 2019 essay “Cattle, Capital, Colonization.”

For some, that whiff of conquest is a maddening perfume and, arguably, what makes beef so difficult to give up. The so-called tomahawk steak — named after the ax wielded by some North American Indigenous peoples (the word “tomahawk” was adapted from “tamahaac” in Powhatan, an Eastern Algonquian language) — is big enough to feed two and may be splendor or gore, depending on your perspective, redolent of the Old West and a country in the often violent process of becoming. In the decades after the Civil War, a romanticized vision of the cowboy was touted as American values ​​incarnate: a vaguely lawless figure, quick with a gun, and a rugged individualist (even if in reality he was just a hired hand, beholden to his boss for $30 to $40 a month), driving cattle across the plains while hide hunters and settlers massacred the native bison that once grazed there, and displacing Indigenous peoples along the way. Beef is the myth of the American frontier; beef is Manifest Destiny.

It was also the foundation of enormous wealth, and it wasn’t the cowboys who got rich. “It is difficult to turn a living thing into a meal,” the American business historian Roger Horowitz writes in “Putting Meat on the American Table” (2006). “Animals’ bodies resist becoming an expression of our will.” The profit lay in running the meatpacking plants, which were among the first pioneers of the industrial assembly line (and filthy, dangerous places to work, as documented in the American journalist Upton Sinclair’s 1906 social realist novel, “The Jungle”), and the railroads, which carried live animals (in appalling conditions) and then, with the development of refrigerated cars, freshly butchered meat that would eventually wind up in every corner of the country.

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