Author Interview: Historian Maureen Ogle on the American Mystique of Meat
“If, as a reader, you’re expecting the standard rap on meat, then, well, you’re in for an unexpected history.”
By Blake Maddux
Here is how Maureen Ogle describes herself on her website: “Historian. Author. Ranter. Idea Junkie.” She has a Ph.D. from Iowa State University, but she “escaped academia in 1999” because she “wanted a life.” Her two most recent books deal with meat production and beer brewing in the United States. Both of these things surely make Americans grateful for the subject of her first book: household plumbing. (She is also the author of a history of Key West, Florida.)
In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America is her latest book. Ms. Ogle was kind enough to answer some questions for The Arts Fuse via email.
Arts Fuse: What were some of the titles that you considered for this book?
Maureen Ogle: I didn’t come up with the title. Left to my own devices, the title would have been Meat: An American History. But the sales people at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt didn’t like that. Their pick was In Beef We Trust, which was a title I came up with in 2006 when I wrote the proposal for the book (agents shop non-fiction using a proposal, rather than a finished manuscript). I was horrified. I came up with another half dozen or so titles (including Carnivorous Carnival). An obvious title, and one I used for a long-time as my “working title,” was Carnivore Nation, but we all agreed that, for obvious reasons, we’d be smart to avoid that.
In the end, and after much wrangling, I gave up and let them have their way. My editor came up with the subtitle. So, really, I had nothing to do with the title.
AF: Why is In Meat We Trust an “unexpected” history?
Ogle: The “unexpected” part refers to the fact that the history that I uncovered had nothing at all to do with the standard claim about meat in America: Back in the old days, happy family farms raised happy livestock on happy pasture, and then along came the greedy commodities producers who got subsidies for corn and then drove those happy farmers off the land and the happy livestock into confinement.
None of that proved to be accurate. So: if, as a reader, you’re expecting the standard rap on meat, then, well, you’re in for an unexpected history.
AF: In the Introduction, you write, “meat is the culinary equivalent of gasoline.” Do you expect that someday a president will say, as George W. Bush said of oil, “America is addicted to meat,” and unveil a major policy initiative regarding its consumption?
Ogle: I think we’re very close to that point now. A couple of years ago, Mark Bittman, the cook turned pundit, made that very argument in his column for the New York Times. And given the way that, say, French fries and vending machines and fois gras are being regulated — either locally or federally — no, I won’t be surprised if “eat less meat” becomes an official policy.
Indeed, in some sense it is. The last couple of “food pyramids” (which are no longer portrayed as pyramids) created by the USDA have advised significant reductions in meat consumption. Moreover, there’s a relatively solid coalition of lobbyists who could push such a policy through: environmentalists, animal rights groups, “small” farm advocates, and consumer advocates.
Frankly, I don’t quite understand how Americans can or do eat as much meat as we apparently do. Some [eat] 225 pounds per capita a year. I eat 25 pounds. I can’t figure out who’s eating all that meat and why. (Not, I hasten to add, that I favor policies or laws aimed at forcing meat abstention.)
AF: Did your own dietary habits inspire you to write a book on this subject?
Ogle: No. I prefer to write books on topics about which I’m ignorant. I like a blank slate rather than an agenda. So, no, my own diet didn’t inspire me, and it was only after I’d been working on the book for about six months that I thought, “Oh, wait. I’m in Iowa. This is ground zero for meat and meat politics.”
AF: How significant of a factor was the increasing demand for meat in the eliminating of Native Americans from the land on which they had lived?
Ogle: It’s impossible in retrospect to unravel the collection of “forces” that prompted early Americans to move Native Americans off the land: Pressure of population, racism, entitlement, religion. But certainly during the colonial era, it’s clear that the desire to raise livestock inspired white settlers to ignore the natives already on the land.
Similarly, in the 1860s and 1870s, the demand for both beef and land propelled Americans to craft specific policies aimed at getting Natives out of the way of white settlement, especially for cattle grazing.
AF: To what extent were large meat providers the victim of the suspicion on the part of early 20th-century Americans of what one of my former professors called “bigness” in all industries?
Ogle: To a great extent! It’s not easy to understand or imagine this now, but slightly more than a century ago, the kind of large-scale, national-in-scope, corporate-based economy we have now was new. And because it was new, Americans then were still figuring out how to make such an economy work to the advantage of society as a whole.
So yes, suspicion of “bigness” was a constant refrain in discussions of and reactions to the “new” economy. But ironically, bigness also worked in some industries’ favor: By the early twentieth century, food safety advocates argued that big companies provided safer, more sanitary foods than did small companies.
But the packers definitely were tainted by the effort to figure out how to control and corral corporate power, especially during Theodore Roosevelt’s two administrations.
AF: Did the meatpacking industry suffer any financial ill effects as the result of President Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts or Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle?
Ogle: No. Roosevelt’s efforts to corral the packers using the court system failed over and over. That’s not because the packers were corrupt, but because no one at the time really understood how to manage big corporate entities. The Sherman Anti-trust Act sounded good on paper but made little practical sense in reality.
The financial hit to the packers came in 1920 when the US Attorney General threatened to sue them again unless they signed a “consent decree” and gave up many of their holdings, such as produce packing plants, stockyard ownership, and refrigerated rail cars.
AF: Ralph Nader’s 1965 book about the auto industry was called Unsafe At Any Speed. What might he have titled a book about his crusade against the meat industry?
Ogle: Heh. I don’t know. Unsafe at Any Bite? My Beef About Big Beef?
AF: How do you feel about those who claim, as singer/songwriter Morrissey did in a 1985 song with his band The Smiths, that “Meat Is Murder”?
Ogle: About, I don’t know, five or six months into my research, I thought, “If a person thinks about eating meat, she can’t or won’t. To be a meat-eater is to be someone who intentionally doesn’t think about it.” And I stand by that. So I understand and empathize with people like Morrissey who do think about eating meat and have decided to keep thinking about it. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t eat meat from about 1973 until 2000.)
But I also realize as I worked on the book and learned more about the anti-meat movement that most people have an incredibly unrealistic idea about what it takes to put meat on the table. Yes, doing so involves killing live animals and yes, there’s blood and guts. That’s the reality.
Contact or learn more about Maureen Ogle here
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to DigBoston and The Somerville Times. He recently received a master’s degree from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Thesis Prize in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. He will be teaching a class during the winter term on the First Amendment in American History at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Cambridge, MA.