Science journalist Marta Zaraska opens Meathooked by reassuring readers of her scientific detachment: “I may be a vegetarian, but I won’t tell you how much meat you should or shouldn’t eat. I’ll just give you the facts.”
Instead, readers are subject to a vegetarian manifesto masquerading as scientific journalism. The use of descriptors more commonly applied to drug addicts is unsettling and offensive, e.g., meat is described as an addictive substance people are either “off” or “on”. Any meat-eater, be they human, animal, or bacterial, is “meathooked”.
As for our carnivorous ancestors, Zaraska writes: “Meat was not a physiological necessity. What they did need was a high-quality diet, and at the time meat was the best option they had. That’s why they got hooked on it.”
Zaraska describes Kate Jacoby, a vegan restauranteur, as “off meat”. Zaraska herself is a vegetarian, albeit one who occasionally backslides: “There is something in it – in its cultural, historic, and social appeal, or maybe in its chemical composition – that keeps luring me back.”
Zaraska offers some questionable figures concerning American meat consumption. We “devour 275 pounds (of meat) a year”. That’s three-quarters of a pound of meat per person every single day. Each of our American hamburgers “contributes as much to global warming as driving an average American car for 320 miles.” What burgers, McDonald’s? And which average drivers in America are driving 320 miles every day?
Zaraska dives into anthropology, archaeology, and history to understand meat’s impossibly delicious hold on humans. There she reviews material covered elsewhere by writers better suited to the task: Bee Wilson’s First Bite comes to mind, as do thoughtful works by Jennifer MacLagan, Temple Grandin, Novella Carpenter, Barbara Kingsolver, and Jessica Prentice. All have given hard thought to the ethical, ecological, and moral complexities of meat eating.
Zaraska’s findings backfire: even as she searches for the evils of carnivorism, she writes: “For better or worse, meat has played an outsized role in the history of our species. It enabled us to grow bigger brains, encouraged sharing and politics, and helped us move out of Africa and into colder climes.” Even as Zaraska grudgingly acknowledges these realities, she eschews meat’s nutritional benefits, suggesting equal sustenance may be found in plants, legumes, bugs, and lab-grown “meats” tasting just like the real thing.
Zaraska isn’t entirely wrong, of course. The problem lies in her approach. Readers are alternately browbeaten with dubious health warnings or warned they are party to ecological destruction. In discussing the Malliard reaction responsible for browning and caramelization of sugars, Zaraska adds: there is “a darker side”. The Malliard reaction “can produce acrylamide, a probable carcinogen”. Notice the words “can” and “probable”.
Weak writing further damages Zaraska’s arguments. National Chicken Council’s Bill Roenig is described as a “jovial man who looks exactly like a “Bill”. Kate Jacoby is described as not looking like “a stereotypical vegan”. What do Bills and stereotypical vegans look like? Readers are informed “wit means “with” in Philadelphese”. Editor?
Ultimately, the largest misfortune lies in the lost message. Zaraska is right about the impact of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations; this kind of farming is indeed environmentally destructive, and horribly inhumane, and the resulting meat is unhealthy. It will only stop if demand for cheap meat decreases, meaning we must willingly change our diets.
However, as Bee Wilson writes in First Bite: “At a social level, the key to improving diet is not pushing people to do something they are resistant to doing but removing the barriers to change.” Indeed, writers like Mark Bittman, Mollie Katzen, and Deborah Madison successfully sell vegetarian food to millions of carnivores, this reader included. How? The food is presented as appetizing, inexpensive, and appealing. Emphasis is placed on taste rather than health or ecology.
While all three writers are likable and charismatic, the food sold itself: people know they need to eat less meat, just not how to go about it. Indeed, when Katzen gives adult readers the opportunity to construct their very own Enchanted Broccoli Forests by planting broccoli stalks in a “rice forest floor”, suddenly vegetarianism isn’t threatening or dour or beige. It’s fun.
That’s how you convert people.