Less Beef Is Better, No Beef Is Best

A beef rib lifter stacked with strip steak and a sagebrush tree. Photograph by Kyoko Hamada. Styled by Martin Bourne

The photo to the left might have appealed to me last year or earlier. But having tried giving up beef for so long, and finally prevailing, now it has no appeal. It does not disgust me, but I expect to get there.

Ligaya Mishan’s article What Does the End of Beef Mean for Our Sense of Self? has excellent photography by Kyoko Hamada.

My highest compliment is reserved for the stylist Martin Bourne, for making the photos just slightly creepy, matching my current emotional response to looking at beef.

Strip steaks alongside a piece of sirloin tip. Photograph by Kyoko Hamada. Styled by Martin Bourne

When it comes to America’s legacy of Manifest Destiny, there’s perhaps no meal more symbolic than a bleeding steak. So who are we now that we’re consuming less red meat?

MEAT IS PRIMAL, or so some of us think: that humans have always eaten it; that it is the anchor of a meal, the central dish around which other foods revolve, like courtiers around a king; that only outliers have ever refused it. But today, those imagined outliers are multiplying. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the consumption of beef per capita worldwide has declined for 15 years. Nearly a fourth of Americans claimed to have eaten less meat in 2019, according to a Gallup poll. The recipe site Epicurious, which reaches an audience of 10 million, phased out beef as an ingredient in new recipes in 2020. Diners at some McDonald’s can now sate their lust for a Quarter Pounder with a vegan McPlant instead. Faux meat products are projected to reach $85 billion in sales by 2030, according to a recent study by UBS, and Tyson Foods, one of the biggest beef packers in the United States, has hedged its bets by introducing its own plant-based line.

Even in the stratosphere of the world’s most expensive restaurants, where multiple-course tasting menus often rely on the opulence of a marbled steak as their denouement, a few notable exceptions have abandoned meat within the past year, including the $440-per-person Geranium in Copenhagen (still serving seafood) and the $335-per-person Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan (save for the puzzling persistence of a tenderloin on its private dining room menu through this past December). Could this be the beginning of the end of meat — or at least red meat, with its aura of dominion and glory?

Those who believe humans are born carnivores might scoff. Indeed, archaeological evidence shows that we have been carnivores for longer than we have been fully human. As the French Polish Canadian science journalist Marta Zaraska recounts in “Meathooked” (2016), two million years ago, early hominids in the African savanna were regularly butchering whatever animals they could scavenge, from hedgehogs and warthogs to giraffes, rhinos and now-extinct elephant-anteater beasts.

Yet it wasn’t necessarily human nature to do so. Meat eating was an adaptation, since, as Zaraska points out, we lack the great yawning jaws and bladelike teeth that enable true predators to kill with a bite and then tear raw flesh straight off the bone. To get at that flesh, we had to learn to make weapons and tools, which required using our brains. These in turn grew, a development that some scientists attribute to the influx of calories from animal protein, suggesting that we are who we are — the cunning, cognitively complex humans of today, with our bounty of tens of billions of cortical neurons — because we eat meat. But others credit the discovery of fire and the introduction of cooking, which made it easier and quicker for us to digest meat and plants alike and thus allowed the gastrointestinal tract to shrink, freeing up energy to fuel a bigger brain…

Read the whole article here.

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