Meat Is Politics: A Memoir of Steak

It was actually p0litical science!

In our tiny kitchen, with bright yellow walls, a yellow formica table, and a hopscotch of a green-and-white-tiled floor, my parents debated the merits of hamburger and steak – a transparent ploy to persuade me to eat steak. There was plenty of beef in the freezer: it came from a meat locker on the edge of town, where Mom drove to select packages of beef, wrapped in white paper, marked with our grandfather’s last name.  He owned a farm, where he raised crops, cows, pigs, and chickens, and kept a pony for us (named Frisky), whom we sometimes rode, despite Mom’s conviction that we would be thrown and killed.  

“We love Frisky! We have to ride Frisky!” 

Let me admit that the farm was not entirely hospitable.  The savage children of the people who rented the farmhouse, who were rather like the Snopes in Faulkner’s novels and deemed improper companions for us, jeered at our beloved equine and called him “Pony Meat.” 

“Your grampa’s going to kill him and make him meat.” 

My retort was, “Nincompoops!” I wasn’t too bothered: they were just so mean!

Bu back to the kitchen: meat was politics. 

Mom asked, “Why don’t you try steak?”

“I like hamburger.” I was wearing a bib, eating a burger with my tiny hands.

“If you eat steak, you’re for Kennedy.”

“I don’t vote.”

Sighs from Mom. I placidly knew I would not be forced to eat steak, but I wonder in retrospect, Was it too difficult for me to eat?  Was it too chewy?

Ten or fifteen years later, chain steakhouses popped up and flourished across the nation.  They had names like Bonanza and Western Sizzlin’: there was a buffet where you could pile your plates with potato salad, cole slaw, green bean salad, and other side dishes, and then go back for soft-serve ice cream, chocolate pudding, or cake.  Our parents dragged us to such restaurants. Even as adults, we had to accompany them.

Independent steakhouses had a more celebratory appeal, I learned later. One Christmas, when my husband and I were staying at a hotel, the only restaurant open in town was the Greek steakhouse.  All the rebellious urchins, some ponytailed, some punk, others with impossibly big hair, still others long-haired and bearded, as I pictured hobbits before the Peter Jackson films, poured in for a convivial breakfast.  We devoured eggs, bacon, sausages, pancakes and hash-browns, our sole meal of the day. We toasted one another with orange juice.  It was so much fun! 

When was the last time we ate steak?  I don’t remember.  The politics of meat have overtaken the glamour of steak. What we didn’t know when we were growing up:  cows, pigs, and chickens are a major source of air pollution, because their farts and manure emit methane gas.  Some studies calculate that this accounts for 18 percent of emissions of greenhouse gases.  According to study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization,  a half pound of ground beef is the equivalent of driving an SUV ten miles. 

These statistics are daunting, and put my husband and me off fast food, at least.  One less half-pounder at McDonald’s… cheers! Of course we realize that many independent farmers struggle to make a living, while the factory farms that have replaced small farms are based on so ugly a premise – raising animals in a tiny enclosure, then on to the slaughterhouse – that we struggle not to think about it.  

Do we eat meat?  We do.  Not often, but we do.

 M grandparents, who were raised on farms and farmed, tired of living in the country and moved to town, but continued to enjoy the fresh food from their farm.  They survived two World Wars, the Depression,  the Korean War, and vehemently opposed  the Vietnam War, but then things became even bleaker: their golden wedding anniversary party coincided with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Despite so many tragedies, the lives of women improved in the twentieth century, I think.  My grandparents and Mom moved happily from the farm to a house in town, where they enjoyed modern conveniences, grocery-store delivery, restaurants, stores, and the proximity of friends and Bridge clubs.  My grandmother continued to cook delicious country food, but neither she nor my mother were sentimental about the country. 

I romanticized living in the country, but that was the result of reading Thomas Hardy and seeing the movie Far from the Madding Crowd.  The farms I knew did not look like Bathsheba  Everdene’s farm. When I visited friends in the country, the fields were scrubby, their houses were freezing, and huddling around a wood-burning stove (another source of pollution) was overrated.  I could not have survived one winter night in the attic where Willa Cather slept in Red Cloud, Nebraska, which I saw on a tour of her house. As for that dugout in My Antonia – I will never reread that book!

Perhaps I was lucky not to grow up on a farm, but to enjoy fresh food and good meat from a farm.  This was the time of the organic food movement, and the revival of Adele Davis’s cookbooks. But in 2022, we do not belong to a food co-op, nor do we buy organic food unless it is on sale. (Whole Foods is in the suburbs, and my husband thinks it’s a rip-off!)  We do eat lots of fresh vegetables, though.

 I fondly remember my mother’s politics of meat:  only a former political science major would have tried to coax her child to eat steak by mentioning the Democrats!  There were so many comic moments back then.  It was a good time to grow up, and Mom loved it, too – though she mysteriously blamed The Graduate, a movie banned by the Catholic church, for changing mores and morals.