I’m not sure how it happened, but I now live in the Meat Unpacking District.
At the north end of my Toronto street are two sister restaurants, the Black Hoof and the recently-closed-but-soon-to-reopen Hoof Café. True to their names, the former is renowned for its “off-cut-centric” menu and pig-head tacos; the latter’s claim to fame was its “love letters,” envelopes of beef tongue and pork-belly pastrami. Walk east and there’s a porchetta sandwich shop. Further south is the home of the grass-fed gourmet burger, which isn’t far from the organic butcher shop. All this hacking and cleaving is greeted with long queues, critical accolades and rapturous testimony on Chowhound.
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If I’m unnerved that my neighbourhood, once known for its park, is now known for flesh, it may be because I generally don’t eat things with eyes. This, by the way, does not mean that I am typing on a hemp keyboard with hands used mostly for pious finger pointing. In other words: Sometimes I eat fish.
But it does mean that I’m confused. Somehow, the mania for meat doesn’t seem to go along with the other privileged preoccupations of this gentrified downtown neighborhood. How does the meat fetish fit in with the circling hybrid cars and the yoga studios and the all-around purchase on betterment that makes downtown living so very twee and hated? A couple of years ago, the chatter was about The Omnivore’s Dilemma and conscious eating, but a nearby vegetarian place has been replaced by a restaurant heavy on cured meats. Oprah touts Meatless Mondays and obesity is a hot-button issue, but let’s discuss such matters over a plate of marrow, shall we?
Meat love is ubiquitous and central to such food memoirs as Julie Powell’s Cleaving and Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter, in which butchery is celebrated as a primal urge satisfied in an uptight, controlled culture. Writes Hamilton, with heavy breathing: “I caught a good eyeful of the carcasses hanging upside down … I wanted to be in with the meat and the knives and to wear the long bloody coat.” A Calgary chef described his restaurant as having a “sexy butcher shop feel,” which makes sense, because according to CNN and The New York Times, butchers are sex symbols now.
But the new meat lover is not necessarily the Baconator fan. In the elite world of meat-seeking – wherein a burger costs 15 bucks – animals are edible only when local, organic and lovingly slaughtered.
The IFC show Portlandia, which satirizes all things hipster, recently aired a sketch about a couple in a restaurant interrogating a server over the “heritage breed, woodland-raised” chicken: “Is it local?” they ask. “Is that USA organic or Oregon organic or Portland organic?” The waitress returns with a photograph of “Colin” the chicken – and his papers. It’s not enough. “Friends? Did he have friends?” the customer demands.
The sketch captures how foodies turn eating into a public act, where the consumer serves his ego as he’s served his food, declaring his own superior habits. But the joke also flushes out the ick factor: However soy-fed, however free-range, Colin will be eaten. Gulp.
It’s true that humanely raised meat erases some of the issues that keep vegetarians in line. The quality of life for factory-farmed animals – and slaughterhouse workers – is shameful. Debeaked chickens pumped with growth hormones, stewing in their own feces – this is dinner? The Canadian Medical Association has asked the government to investigate the connection between the antibiotics fed to animals and the emergence of drug-resistant infections in humans.
On the environmental front, 70 per cent of all agricultural land and 30 per cent of the land surface of the planet are used for producing livestock, according to a 2006 United Nations report. In other words, we’re feeding livestock instead of people. And methane and nitrous gases produced by agribusiness are the single-largest contributor to global warming.
But a life of consuming only Colin-type animals is almost impossible to afford and the anomaly of meat consumption, not the norm. So why not call the meat trend what it is: an individual choice about pleasure, not a collective one about humanity?
At least chef and author Anthony Bourdain is honest when he looses his battle cries of dominion, writing that the human evolved “with eyes in the front of its head, long legs, fingernails, eyeteeth so that it could better chase down slower, stupider creatures, kill them and eat them.” Bourdain, who travels the world with forward-looking eyes seeking weird critters to eat, is the master of meat bluster, exuding the machismo at play in nose-to-tail eating.
Whether it’s bravado or bacon-wrapped righteousness, the new meat obsession feels like a desperate grasp at more in a time of less, a last burst of hedonism when food prices are skyrocketing. This kind of eating isn’t virtuous; it’s gluttony in sheep’s clothing, which, where I live, is a dangerous outfit to wear.
Click here to listen to Anthony Bourdain in an interview with Jonathan Saffron Foer on CBC’s The Q.