The history of a meat-eating America

Author Maureen Ogle has found a way to make often dry American history lessons more enticing.

Her follow-up to the book “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer” is a book about how meat is woven tightly into our society. Ogle says putting together “In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America” was a no-brainer.

“My only agenda as an historian is to explore, in-depth, what it means to be an American,” Ogle said. “That has been my ongoing project for the last 25 to 30 years and, in each book I write, I do it using a different topic and the subject of meat in our society seemed very interesting to me.”

When it came to putting together a book about America’s history of enjoying meat, one of the most difficult things for Ogle to determine when to start her research with regard to the nation’s timeline.

“It took me about a year and a half to figure that part out,” Ogle said. “Ultimately I realized that the story I wanted to tell began in the Colonial Era. That is where I realized that Americans developed a truly entrenched sense of entitlement toward meat.”

Ogle explained that if readers understood that part of the U.S. history of meat consumption, then the rest of the book would make more sense. Colonial times are often thought to have been simpler with the idea that everyone raised their own crops, vegetables and meat on a quaint few acres with a barn or two. Ogle says her research shows that these so-called “Mom and Pop farms” never actually dominated the landscape at any point in American history.

“Without a doubt some farmers during that era were producing only what their families needed to survive,” Ogle said. “But the vast majority of farmers were producing as much surplus as they possibly could so that they could trade in what was already a global market.

“That is perhaps my biggest frustration with critics of agriculture today is that they are longing to go back to something that never really existed in the first place.”

Ogle was genuinely surprised to learn while researching for her latest book that livestock slaughter and processing and even the sale and trade were all located in the heart of cities. That was until the 1870s when Americans did not want to share their city streets with constant parades of cattle and hogs and the slaughtering process. They began to demand that city leaders create ways to move all of those practices out of the cities or alternatively to centralize them into large livestock slaughtering factories. That inadvertently led to a tremendous amount of controversy.

“That meant that instead of having dozens of small slaughtering operations, Americans ended up with a small handful of very large meat processors,” Ogle said. “Companies like Armour and Swift and others were really pioneers in developing the managerial and physical infrastructure necessary to move all kinds of food on a national scale and even prompted the development of big stocks of refrigerated rail cars to move fresh meat and other items at a much quicker pace.”

It was at that moment in American history, when the corporate industrial economy that is currently in place was just taking shape, that consumers liked the efficiencies but feared the consequences. Meat packers then became targets of a great deal of animosity.

Maureen Ogle

Maureen Ogle

When Theodore Roosevelt took the office of President, he was determined to corral big corporate entities like meat packers and made them out to be public enemy number one, even as they were busy giving American’s what they wanted the most — abundant, cheap, really good, high-quality foods. As Ogle chronologically made her way to modern times in the book, she realized that things, although on a much larger scale, aren’t much different today than they were over a century ago.

“When I started this project, I was completely unaware of the ongoing food debate that is going on in our country,” Ogle said. “When I started following along with both sides of the conversation, I realized that there are tremendous disagreements about antibiotics, CAFOs and centralization and concentration in livestock slaughter and that helped me shape the second half of this book.”

Ogle looked into those topics as an average consumer in her investigating and was able to take a very middle-of-the-road approach about issues that she didn’t intend to write about in the book, but simply couldn’t get away from.

“Writing books really helps me find the middle of any controversy,” Ogle said. “I purposefully choose to write about a topic I know nothing about and that keeps my work completely agenda free. Frankly, it is not possible for me to be in one side or the other because I am so aware now of how unbelievably complicated our food system is. With that said, getting all of this food on people’s plates, in a timely manner and at an insanely low cost is just astounding to me.”

Ogle also knows, from her studies, why certain groups take issue with how food is being produced and what the objective of these groups are. She thinks that meat will always be a major part of the American diet, but there may be changes to the way the food is grown.

“When I think about an issue like that I like to project myself 100 to 150 years into the future and think about what people will think about the way we are now,” Ogle said. “I know that when that time comes, people will be rolling their eyes and asking what was the matter with us? It was so obvious how to solve problem ‘x,’ but when it comes to meat that is kind of tricky.”

Ogle knows that well-meaning vegetarians and vegans believe honestly that eating meat is an issue of morality. She also knows that eating meat is something that is bred into human DNA, from our jaw design to the way our brains and bodies are formed.

“When it comes to meat, I can’t imagine people not eating it,” Ogle said. “What I can imagine is that 100 years from now humans will get the satisfaction of eating meat-like products that have been developed in a lab.”

Ogle says that there may be a future where real meat will be a luxury for wealthy people and the rest of humanity will be eating meat-like products, but she doesn’t think that human beings in general will give up eating meat for ethical reasons.

“I think that is the turning point,” Ogle said. “On one hand you have biological evolution and on the other hand you have moral values and I think it is really hard to reconcile those two things.”

Ogle ultimately hopes that people who read her new book that are unaware or confused about the issues and controversies of food production in the U.S. will not just jump to easy conclusions on a very complicated topic. ‘In Meat We Trust ” is in bookstores nationwide.

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