July 8, 2008
IN SEARCH OF THE CULTURE OF MEAT
How one author went undercover at one of Canada's largest slaughterhouses and re-emerged as a conscientious carnivore.
Many examples could be cited as to how food is far less of a cultural staple here in North America than it is in most other regions of the world.
If one food could be chosen to exemplify this absence of culture, Toronto author Susan Bourette would most likely choose meat.
In Bourette's recently released book Carnivore Chic, readers are taken on a journey in search of the "perfect meat". By perfect, Bourette is referring to meat that is ethically raised, slaughtered, of optimal nutrition and produced with little to no environmental impact. While some eaters would never fathom that any meat could be "perfect", Bourette was quite certain that the meat she was in search of was a far cry from the industrially processed hogs most North American's consume daily.
To learn more about the state of meat in Canada, Bourette went undercover and applied for a job at the Maple Leaf Foods factory in Brandon, Manitoba. The slaughtering and processing facility is the largest of its kind in the country. Approximately 77,700 hogs enter into the building each week; representing a significant percentage of the pork products ending up in Canada's food supply.
Her title for the one-week at the facility was Byproducts Clerk; a position most often reserved for new recruits. "It was my job to chop the cheeks out of hog's heads," says Bourette. "They were coming down the assembly line, dozens and dozens at a time. It was my job to pick up the hog's head by the esophagus and to pull it over to my work station and cut the cheeks out."
It became quite apparent to Bourette that meat had indeed lost any cultural significance in this modern age of factory meat.
The industrial processing of animals has permitted a glaring disconnect between farm animals and our dinner plates. We are now part of a culture in which most of us are squeamish to even think that the meat was once an animal. It is a culture where it's ok to eat the meat in burger form but not ok to slaughter the animal ourselves let alone see the animals being slaughtered.
Bourette was shocked upon learning of the state of meat production in the country. "I think we should be horrified with what's happened in meat production." insists Bourette.
Bourette did finally come clean with Maple Leaf Foods and told them that her job was part of the research for an article. "Let's just say they weren't very happy with me," says Bourette. "In effect, they did try and get the story killed." Those efforts were not successful.
Following her position at the plant, Bourette went through what she refers to as "Post Slaughterhouse Trauma (PST)". Her coping mechanism was vegetarianism. That lasted for only five weeks until she realized that meat was as an important part of her diet. She instead chose to explore whether meat could be consumed while maintaining a relatively clear conscience. Carnivore Chic documents this journey.
Bourette's travels took her to Texas cattle ranches, five-star restaurants, conscientious butcher shops and on an Inuit whale hunt in Alaska. It was this latter experience that lent the most profound impact of them all. "I think I learned more about the culture of meat eating across North America by going whale hunting," says Bourette. "I think it was there that I really learned that what we're really doing when we sit down for dinner whether it's around a prime rib, a steak, a roast chicken or around muktuk, it's something so fundamental to what it is to be human."
Bourette had discovered that meat culture did still exist in some parts of North America. Even better, she discovered that within many cities, this culture is now becoming more apparent today than it was even a few years ago. Butcher shops and restaurants are now sourcing meats from local farms and small-scale slaughterhouses that handle the animals with care. "Something fundamental has shifted in our culture," suggests Bourette. "People can now take knife skills classes in Vancouver or butchering workshops in Toronto. It appears meat eating is once again cool," she adds.
Bourette believes that the era of 'uncool' meat was in part sparked by the vegetarian movement. "I think the vegetarian movement made carnivore's feel guilty," says Bourette. On the other hand, many people learned quite a lot from the vegetarian movement. "They were the first to really question the whole food industry," she adds.
The gathering of people around a dinner table to enjoy meat is what Bourette stresses is so vital to our well-being. "Really what we were all doing when we sit down around a meat meal, is celebrating around the kill," she says. "It's meat hunger; it's a fundamental part about being human."
Title: Carnivore Chic: From Pasture to Plate – A Search for the Perfect Meat.
Author: Susan Bourette
Publisher: Viking Canada
Released: March 2008
Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. To hear an interview with author Susan Bourette, visit (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/070308.htm).
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