Q & A with Maureen Ogle, Author of “In Meat We Trust”

I have the perfect gift for the foodie in your life: “In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America,” written by Maureen Ogle, it traces the origins of our food system and its meat-centric bias. “The moment European settlers arrived in North America,” Ogle says, “they began transforming the land into a meat-eater’s paradise.” Today, we Americans consume about the same amount as the colonists, an astounding 250 pounds a year per man, woman, and child in this country.

This book traces our food system from its colonial origins to today. It is a fascinating journey through crowded and noisy streets filled with pigs, sheep, and cattle, and slick and redolent with animal urine, feces and blood to today’s highly efficient system that is hidden from most of us.

You may want to dismiss her book as merely history, but if you ignore the real story she tells, the history, you allow storytellers to fabricate a mythical past that never was and preach “solutions” that will never be. As Ms. Ogle told me in an e-mail interview:

“Much of the discussion about our ‘broken’ food system is simplistic. Too simplistic, in that simplifying causes can (and in this case does) lead to simplistic and impractical solutions. I believe (and hope!) that if all of us take time to understand how and why we got to where we are—the actual complex history of that how/why—we can have a more informed, substantive conversation about agriculture’s future.

“An example of ‘simple’ is that mythology about agriculture in American history. Our myth revolves around the sturdy yeoman farmer, living off the land in perfect harmony with nature, etc. Many well-meaning critics of today’s food and ag systems want to return to that imagined past. But that past is just that: imagined and mythological. It can’t and won’t address the complex problems of feeding not just an urban nation, but large parts of the world, too.”

What was the impetus to write a book on meat in America?

“What links my four seemingly disparate books (plumbing, Key West, beer, meat) is my [historian’s] desire to understand what it means to be an American. In that respect, meat was a perfect vehicle to further my quest for understanding: as the cliché says, food and diet tell us much about a people. I believed that if I dug into our meat culture, I would learn more about the American character. And, hooray, I did!”

Many, such as food writer Michael Pollan and chef and organic advocate Alice Waters, believe that organically grown food would be much lower impact. What leads you to disagree?

“Pollan and company tend to regard ‘organic’ as a kind of silver bullet that will repair our (allegedly) broken food system. That’s both a misleading and overly simplistic way to view the situation. I’ve got nothing against organic, in the field or on the table. What I object to is the notion that switching to organic farming is a practical alternative to meeting demands. Organic farmers will tell you that it’s a hard field to till: the bugs and pests and blights are all out there and they’re gonna attack whether you want them to or not.

“If we can figure out how to create an intensive organic agricultural system using the same amount of land and labor that we use now, well, go for it. But the reality is: we can’t. It seems to me that organic is more a smokescreen than a practical alternative; by offering up organic as the solution, critics can avoid dealing with hard questions.”

What was your biggest “aha!” discovery about our food system?

“Frankly, just how complex it is. I suspect that I’m like most Americans: I take food for granted. It’s everywhere I want to be and then some. But I’d never thought about the logistics of feeding a big nation, or the complexities involved when the majority of a society is urban and farmers are few in number. And that despite having lived in an agricultural state (Iowa) my entire life. So my ‘aha!’ moment was: Wow. This. Is. Complicated.”

* * *

Maureen Ogle, author of In Meat We Trust

To sum up, this book, “In Meat We Trust” tells the true story of our food system. Our system evolved for rational reasons that still apply today. “We may not agree with the decisions that led to that state of affairs,” Ms. Ogle says, “and there’s good reason to abhor the consequences, but on one point we can surely agree: real people made real choices based on what was best for themselves and their families.” That is a real American story.

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What is Comparative Advantage?

Had a good exchange in the comments section (and on Twitter) yesterday about David Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage. My point in writing “Eat. Pray. Lovin’ It.” was to illustrate that people have always liked to pick up quickly prepared food. Workers willingly trade their money to save the expense (time and money and hassle) of food preparation. We trade what we are best at, and the act of trading in turn saves both time.

Matt Ridley‘s simple explanation is what I understand Comparative Advantage to be:

WTO Poised for Biggest Success in Years


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Eat, Pray, Lovin’ It

McDonalds Bali

Cars line up in McDonald’s drive-thru. Denpassar, Bali.

On our way to the airport on the island of Bali (in Indonesia) we passed a McDonald’s restaurant. To some, McDonald’s represents the evil of corporations and their homogenization of the world, and its cultures, into one giant strip mall—McDonaldization. To me, McDonald’s represents what one writer calls “Ricardo’s Magic Trick.”

We were returning home from attending my son’s wedding. He and his now wife live in Bali at the moment. They are both Americans who met in Uganda, moved to Ubud, Bali so she could get a yoga teacher certification, and then got married there. (I know, it’s so typical it’s a cliché.) An artsy town, Ubud is Carmel or Mendocino without the sea, and pretends not to be upscale by keeping its village atmosphere façade. This is often done by not allowing in fast food franchises.

My wife and I stayed in a Bed & Breakfast (“home stay”) in Ubud not far from where Elizabeth Gilbert’s character in the movie Eat, Pray, Love had stayed. In the book—and the movie—after Eating (indulging herself in Italy) and Praying (asceticism in India), Gilbert tries to find balance in her life by staying in Bali. Instead of Balance, she finds Love. I also don’t know if she found Ubud’s one franchise, a tastefully decorated Starbucks (because even Dr. Evil’s island hideout had a Starbucks).

McDonald’s is a company that is good at one thing: delivering consistent, cooked food quickly at a reasonable price. They had tried to put one of their franchises in Ubud, but the outcry by white expatriates wanting an authentic Balinese experience kept the franchise out. Doing one thing well was what 18th century British economist, David Ricardo,  called “comparative advantage.” Ricardo said that a person (or region or state) does not need to be able to do everything, but needs to do one thing only and then trade for the rest. The result saved labor and thus saved time to do other more profitable things.

Since ancient times, people have been on the go with little time available to make their own meals. Before the era of Christ, the people of Pompeii, like many in the Roman Empire, stopped at cauponae, sort of an early version of a McDonald’s restaurant that was loved by the ancient Romans. Caupone were frequented by the lower and middle classes for grabbing a bite before hurrying off to work elsewhere. They paid others to make their meals so that they didn’t have to worry about shopping, storing, cooking, and cleaning. The upper classes had their meals prepared at their homes. (Does this sound familiar?)

Of course, by doing only one thing, we must rely on others to provide those other things we need. Matt Ridley, in his book, The Rational Optimist, argues that such a requirement is a good thing: “Interdependence of the world through trade is the very thing that makes modern life as sustainable as it is.” He writes, “[S]uppose your local wheat farmer tells you that last year’s rains means he will have to cut his flour delivery in half. You will have to go hungry.” Today, you benefit from a global marketplace “in which somebody somewhere has something to sell you so there are rarely shortages, only modest price fluctuations.”

When we trade, we no longer have to do lots of tasks to keep going; we can trade our labor in one thing for others’ labors in other things.

The authentic experience: harvesting rice by hand under a broiling sun.

The authentic experience: harvesting rice by hand under a broiling sun.

Trading means that we weigh the costs (not just the price but also the social implications) against the benefits (the need for the thing and its cost to our bank account and its result to our reputation) and do the one that outweighs the other.

In the case of McDonald’s, the expats felt that it would diminish their authentic Ubud experience. Many of the locals felt they were authentic enough and were willing to make the trade, thus freeing up time to do something else besides preparing food: “Cheap fast food? Sign me up; I’ve got to get to work!”

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