We Americans have always loved our meat — maybe too much. Around the turn of the 20th century, American nutritionist Wilbur Atwater recommended that the average American eat a staggering 3,500 calories per day. (At the time, the nutritional standard was 3,050, but Atwater’s Chemistry and Economy of Food argued that we needed more because of the American worker’s great productivity.) Of those 3,500 calories, he said the vast majority should be meat and animal fat, despite the havoc this would eventually wreak on those productive American kidneys.
Still, that’s the American way. We love to feast on beef. We love it so goddamn much. Steak is an opulent food that the majority of people throughout history have only been able to afford rarely (if ever!), and we responded to that opulence by forcing the stuff through a meat grinder and serving it on sesame seed buns for 99 cents a pop. We’d rather eat sinister, low quality beef than no beef at all. In this country, meat is a lobbying force just like tech or pharmaceuticals, with as much money to play with and as much weight to throw around. With typical American extravagance, we’ve built vast portions of our capitalist system on a food that’s always been a luxury everywhere else.
Our meat-forward approach to eating is most evident in settings where it’s most extreme, like in epic bacon cooking or those Instagram-centric restaurants that serve $8,000 burgers or whatever. But you don’t have to search for long to realize that we put meat in everything, to our eventual detriment as a culture. Climate collapse looms overhead, and yet even recycling evangelists and community garden aficionados are often quiet about the fact that our society is going to have to really cut back on how much fucking cow it puts away in a year if it’s going to survive. Adults who are phlegmatic enough at the prospect of ditching their cars would sooner die than do the same with their Double-Doubles.
When it comes to what we eat, Americans love to take it personally. But why are we even so into meat in the first place?
Hard to nail down a reason, since we’ve always been this way. Some of the earliest attempts to reform the American diet were centered around our unusually high meat consumption — not because all that meat was seen as unhealthy, but because it was expensive. The “family budget study” conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Labor in 1874, believed to be the first such survey of working-class lifestyle habits, indicated that skilled and semi-skilled workers’ families (none of whom were especially high earners) still ate fresh meat at least twice a day.
Unwilling to raise their workers’ wages, bosses pointed out that families could save money by eating less meat, not yet hip to the reality that people doing manual work needed to consume lots of protein. When reformers course-corrected after those disastrous early attempts to keep meat out of working-class families’ mouths, that’s when recommendations like 3,500 calories of beef per day began to surface. Still, until the early 1920s, there really wasn’t one nationwide American food phenomenon — not even a beefy one. Food was perishable and hard to transport, and so, dietary patterns remained regional as a result.
All that changed when the automobile rolled into town, and with it, the fast food chain. Before cars were invented, the relatively rural U.S. had no need for restaurants with “drive-in” capabilities and infrastructure. Big cities had chop suey houses and the like, but outside those cities, fast food wasn’t an American staple until the car was. Even if fast food was an expected development, the idea that the country’s first fast food sensation would be a hamburger restaurant was surprising. Until Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson built the first White Castle restaurant in 1921, Americans were still reeling at the perceived dirtiness of ground beef — Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle had made sure of it.
White Castle restaurants gradually won over hamburger-wary Americans with their sparkling stainless steel interiors and starched white uniforms, all of which its founders cannily used to connote cleanliness. By the time the tyrannical Ray Kroc opened his first spotless McDonald’s franchises in 1955, Americans had become fluent in the twin languages of fast food and hamburgers. We’d forgotten all our pre-war anxieties about the meat on our plates. Imagine if that had never happened, and Americans never got back on board the meat train.
As our post-war culinary development continued, our obsession with the hamburger ultimately slithered its way through all income levels and cuisine types. Look at early fast food successes like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Theoretically, those are expressions of three different cuisines. In reality, the three places all serve the same meal: ground beef, cheese, tomatoes and bread. Whether you’re luxuriating in a 20-course meal at a “New American” restaurant or swinging by Subway for an emergency sandwich between shifts at your two jobs, you’re likely to encounter some version of those same four chords that we Americans have been playing to death since we first heard them.
It’s understandable that we stick to what we know. Guidelines for how to eat are confusing and always seem to be changing based not on what’s truly healthy (which nutritionists have disagreed on for decades), but based on lobbying interests. Take the now-maligned food pyramid that most of us grew up believing was gospel. Its original release in 1992 was delayed not due to the many meaningful corrections it would have needed to serve as a helpful nutritional guide, but due to protestations from the dairy and meat lobbies that their products’ minor positions on the pyramid constituted stigmatization.
What complicates matters is that, at times throughout history, Americans have been right to demand access to meat — or at least not all the way wrong. Our bosses thought we were wasting our money on meat, and it was fair to address that accusation by demanding higher wages rather than adjust our consumption habits. But then we believed it was so fair that we proceeded to devote almost half our country’s viable land to raising cattle. In fact, perhaps we’re defensive about meat because we’ve been forced to use it as a shorthand for comfort — if not every American deserves access to meat, it’s like saying not every American deserves the “American Dream.”
In 2020, we’re a far cry from the 1950s domestic utopia that dictated middle-class meal prep. Back then, a square meal was a piece of meat with potatoes and a vegetable, and maybe Jell-O or boxed cake for dessert. Now, food is so advanced and so widely available that a square meal can be almost anything — a frozen heat-and-eat dinner, a beef roast, a Domino’s pizza. But unless your family is explicitly vegetarian or vegan, that square meal will probably still feature meat, despite the now commonplace nature of vegetarian cooking and meat substitutes. Eating meat is the default. Vegetarianism is still a statement, one that says more about one’s politics than one’s personal food tastes.
And yet, in the times before the pandemic when such frivolous concerns occupied a real place in our minds, vegetables were beginning to enjoy a post-millennium moment in haute cooking. Much of the moment’s power can be ascribed to French chef Alain Passard, who announced in 2001 that his celebrated Parisian restaurant L’Arpege would no longer serve any meat. L’Arpege remained wildly popular and even kept its Michelin stars, though Passard added a little shellfish and poultry back to his menu before long. Still, the fact remains that the place is a celebration of vegetables above all else — one that looks at a vegetable-forward menu as an art in its own right, rather than a set of culinary limitations a chef might grudgingly impose on himself for ideologically driven diners.
L’Arpege is still beloved to this day, though Eater’s Ryan Sutton described a meal there as “one of my worst meals of the year” in a 2016 reckoning with the place’s august reputation. But the same piece still offers us a fresh way to look at vegetarian cooking. Veggie-forward food needn’t rely on elaborate meat substitutes designed to taste almost like bacon. It needn’t leave us unsatisfied, daydreaming of the Big Mac that would have really filled us up. A plate of beets can be just as rewarding and savory as a gorgeously marbled steak, provided that those beets have been grown with respect and handled by a cook who understands them.
As a high-end French restaurant, L’Arpege is an experience that’s accessible only to a tiny percentage of diners who can afford to drop $500 on a fine meal. But haute French chefs aren’t the undisputed masters of veggies by any stretch. Look at Ethiopian cooking, for example. Because of the fasting requirements of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a large swath of the country’s population eats no meat for most of the year. As a result, Ethiopia has developed a complex, gorgeously flavored vegan cuisine all its own. Or consider the long history of vegetarianism in India — lots of exciting lentil- and potato-based dishes to be found there.
In their way, vegetables are just as unpredictable and exciting as meat. Vegetables, too, were living things once. Still, chefs and butchers who lyrically describe the sensual experience of handling a particularly fine cut of meat rarely have much to say about, say, an heirloom potato grown in perfectly acidic soil, or a crust of bread spread with Great Northern beans tossed in lemon juice. Even professionals whose job is to handle food often struggle to depart that space where meat is the main attraction and vegetables can only hope to be supporting players.
In truth, the way vegetables follow the calendar grants them a relationship with the seasons for which meat has no analogue — an understanding that this sliced tomato could only have been picked and sliced for you on this day, and would have tasted totally different had it been picked and sliced yesterday or tomorrow. We’ve figured out how to raise livestock in climates that bear little resemblance to their natural ones, but can’t force olive trees to grow in the tundra. Animals can wander from one place to the next, but vegetables, despite developments in greenhouses and hydroponics, are naturally of a specific place and time.
Big changes are coming, and it would behoove Americans as a group to get closer to vegetables. It looks like we’re dipping our toes in the water, considering the meteoric rise of products like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger, but we’ve got a long way to go. I’m not a vegetarian myself, as we learned recently, yet even I hope to train myself to love vegetables. I want to better understand the playful subtleties in flora. And I want a love of vegetables to be accessible to all of us, not just people who can afford to spend half a grand on bespoke veggies at Passard’s restaurant. Americans deserve better than the limp taste of canned vegetables buried in casseroles, just like we deserved better than the mishandled beef of 19th century slaughterhouses.