May 2008

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

Meat: A Love Story

I write books. They’re young adult novels, which means they’re meant for teenagers to read. And the stories are about teenagers. The stories aren’t about stockbrokers or brain surgeons or the annual paperwork at the IRS. They’re about teenagers. I only mention this because I suspect that if I wrote a book about the IRS and handed it in to my editor, and I told her it was for young adults, I’m fairly certain that somewhere down the line, she’d figure it out that what I was saying and what I was writing were two different things.

Perhaps, I’m not saying for sure, because I don’t want anyone stealing any ideas from me, I might want to write a book about the paperwork at the IRS and I’ll say it involves a code and some priests and a woman who goes to three countries that start with the letter I and she’ll find inner peace, and a helicopter and the Illuminati will want to kill her for even thinking about pasta, except it will be about paperwork at the IRS. And if I write this wholly original, guaranteed best-selling novel, which will actually be about paperwork, I have a good idea who my agent ought to pitch it to: the editor of Meat: A Love Story, by Susan Bourette.

I don’t know why it takes me 200 words to get to the book I’m reviewing, but it does. Thank God for the internet.

The deal is, Bourette goes to a slaughterhouse and finds it icky. (Say it ain’t so!) The workers are condescended to by the guys in charge and by Bourette: “Talk now turns to a language every low-wage worker can understand. How working at Maple Leaf can make us richer in ways we’d never expect.” Before talk of getting rich, which is the only thing low-wage workers understand, Bourette had quoted the guy in charge as saying, “This is a big investment for us. To train you. To give you the kind of skills that you can take with you wherever you go.” Did you follow all that? You did? Well, I guess you’re rich and reading this from your straw shack in Tahiti where you have a kitchen with a Viking range and a robot who does your cleaning.

Bourette actually works at the slaughterhouse for a short while. Blood seeps into her bra and she has to purse her lips to keep the guts out, and her hand hurts and it’s generally an uncomfortable experience for this prize-winning journalist. I read the chapter and thought, well, poor thing. And then I thought, if I ever review this book, I’m going to need to tell people that Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is a far more engaging and harrowing view of the kill floor. But I think the slaughterhouse stuff in Meat is merely there to explain to the reader why Bourette would write a book about meat, and not a call to arms like Fast Food Nation.

After the icky slaughterhouse, Bourette decides to become a vegetarian. Like her boyfriend Gare, who is a lifelong vegetarian. We hear about Gare’s vegetarianism in every chapter and on the cover of the book, and in the introduction, and I’m pretty sure it was tattooed on my head at some point in the reading. But Bourette can’t do the veggie thing, so (and here’s the pitch to the editor) she goes in search of meat she can eat without being haunted by her naughty time at the slaughterhouse.

And search she does. She hangs out with Martha Stewart’s butcher, she goes to Alaska for whale blubber, on a hunting trip for deer, to a raw meat meeting and to a steakhouse. And with the exception of chowing down at the steakhouse, she never actually does the things she sets out to do. She never shoots a deer, she can’t even get herself to swallow any raw meat, and as for the Alaska trip her publisher undoubtedly paid for, well, we get a lot about how holy the whale hunt is, and what an important communal event eating whale blubber is. And when she’s actually at the community event where the community is eating the whale blubber, Bourette sits down, puts some in her mouth, gags and then spits it out. In front of her hosts.

I can’t understand this. I can’t understand going all the way to Alaska and paying lip service to tradition and the ancient ways and whatever and then acting like a complete and total asshole. And then writing about it with not a qualm. Not even a shred of embarrassment. Post-gagging, she writes:

At that potluck in Barrow, I realized that in order to enjoy mutkuk [whale blubber], I had to belong rather than just play along. Taking in the quiet joy around me, I found myself hungering for something in the room. It certainly wasn’t muktuk. No, it wasn’t anything on the menu. I found myself longing for the generosity and community spirit with which this food was given and received. Deep in my belly, I longed for something I could not name.

Uh, might that be a cheeseburger?

I realize that Bourette is not a food writer, but rather a journalist. However, if you’re going to ask a major publisher to foot a bill for something, you might actually do what you’ve promised in your book proposal, which is find and try guilt-free meat. As for the guilt-free part, we never actually get any reasons for any of these things to be guilt free. And if harpooning a whale is but one of a handful of ways to enjoy humanely killed meat, well, should they start selling it at the grocery store? No, because then whales would be extinct.

The bottom line is the guilt-free meat thing has been done about a million times better than this. Fast Food Nation will start the guilt about meat festering and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma is an excellent roadmap for lancing that guilt and eating healthier and saner. Check out Marion Nestle’s books for a drier, but even finer researched analysis of what we eat and how to change it.

As for Meat: A Love Story, I think love is too strong a word. Maybe it should have been called, Meat: Sort of Not Really a Story at All But Thanks for the Cash and Trip to Alaska, Putnam.