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.”

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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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