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. 

Why the Planet Can’t Be Saved

Something positive for the planet!

Last week, we pulled over at a rest stop. Sheet lightning was flashing and the wind was so strong it shook the car. We sat in our shuddering car wondering what to do. A woman in a car beside us looked out her window anxiously.

We couldn’t save her, we regret.

No one could save us, either.

This is the way it’s going to be.

Storms come up suddenly. Furious storms, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes.  We’ve never seen so many.

This week, it’s raining. Everybody has water in the basement. Everybody hopes it won’t flood, though there has been terrible flooding this spring in Nebraska and western Iowa.

After 2030, climate change will be irreversible. But it could be reversed now. Remember the hole in the ozone layer?  NASA and other agencies around the world have fixed it by phasing out the industrial production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). They signed an international agreement in 1987.

Now, we need to stop burning  fossil fuels.  We need to go VERY green.  Yet there’s resistance to green energy like wind turbines (which spoil the landscape or kill the birds, according to rich men of different political parties, among them Trump (it spoils the view on his Scottish golf course), Robert Kennedy, Jr. (it spoils the view on Nantucket or wherever), and Jonathan Franzen (who worries about the birds, which will all be dead if we don’t change to green energy).  There is similar resistance to  the huge solar farms:  rich people in a gated community in Virginia oppose them because the solar panels spoil their view.

HERE’S WHAT HUMAN BEINGS CAN DO:  Every time you DON’T drive you help.  Take the bus or bicycle. According to the EPA, motor vehicles  cause 75 percent of carbon monoxide pollution in the U.S.   And yet people cannot make the connection that driving is killing the planet.  They blithely move to the ex-urbs, which means even MORE driving. And the next generation is being trained to do the same. The driving age here, if you can believe it, is 14.

We have all known for decades that walking, bicycling, and mass transit are good alternatives to driving.  After a lifetime of NOT driving a car because of environmental concerns, I begin to wonder why I’ve done it. I despair over the stupidity and greed of human beings.  But what about the plants and animals?  Yes, they are worth saving.

Drivers do not want you to save the planet.  Pedestrians and bicyclists are viewed not as role models but as eccentrics IN THE WAY.  Drivers become more and more hostile:  road rage.  A car hit my husband  last year (the driver veered suddenly left into the bike lane) and broke my spouse’s collarbone and punctured his lung.   A car also hit the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year (I voted for him) on his bicycle and he will not walk without a walker for six months.

In the Netherlands, drivers are trained to watch out for bicyclists.  The New York Times said last October that they’re trained in a maneuver called the Dutch reach.:

When you are about to exit the car, you reach across your body for the door handle with your far or opposite hand. This action forces you to turn toward the side view mirror, out and then back over your shoulder to be sure a bicyclist is not coming from behind. Only then do you slowly open the door.

This is one of many things which should be stressed in the U.S.

So now we’ve almost killed the planet, you might as well read a dystopian novel.  I strongly recommend John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, which I wrote about here at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu.  In this terrifying post-modern SF classic,  pollution has rendered the U.S.  a wasteland.  The poisoned air blows into Canada and sometimes across the ocean to Europe (sound familiar?);  everyone is sick; antibiotics no longer work; fleas and rat infestations in houses and apartment house can no longer be controlled because they are immune to poison; the acid rain in NY is so bad that you need to wear plastic outside; the water is poisoned (there are frequent “no-drink water” days); intelligence levels are dropping (lead in the air and water); a virus causes spontaneous abortion; the oceans are so polluted that people vacation in Colorado rather than California; and big businesses are profiting by selling air filters, water filters, etc.

John Brunner was prescient.

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