Epicurious's Beef with Beef
By Paul Schwennesen
Last week, the cooking website Epicurious announced via Twitter that they are “cutting out beef…this isn’t a vendetta against cows or people who eat them. It’s a shift about sustainability; not anti-beef but pro-planet.”
The standout response from someone (and I’m guessing here) who likes beef is, “I’m cutting out Epicurious…with a steak knife.”
And so it goes. I don’t know which is stranger: that meat has become so intensely partisan, or that, without fail, a stampede of dubious puns accompanies every discussion around it.
First, let’s be honest: Epicurious is on a vendetta, having taken upon itself to decide what constitutes “pro-planet” foodstuffs. Beef, safely enshrouded in the prevailing zeitgeist, was an easy target. Regardless of complexities or facts to the contrary, cows have been skewered often and widely enough as “bad” that it makes the marginal marketing risks pretty low. Any schoolkid can gigglingly lecture you about cow-farts and the atmosphere, making the “cutting out beef” stance a painless posture within the eco-woke establishment–virtue signaling without the tedious homework.
Second, let’s be honest the other way ‘round, too: the kinds of people who grill up a 36-ounce Tomahawk Ribeye in righteous indignation are not the kinds of people who were likely to have downloaded a recipe for it in the first place.
So what do we have here? A side-skirmish in the culture wars? It certainly helps folks decide which team they’re on, but it’s more than that. It’s an example of the kind of inflammatory, reflex-inducing clickbait that dissuades any meaningful introspection.
I suspect, for instance, that very few of the Epicurious in-crowd have spent a great deal of time either in a feed pen or on a kill floor. Their finger-wagging therefore feels tendentious and arrogant. In the same breath, however, I sincerely doubt if very many of the devoted carnivore set have either.
And do you want to know why? Because it’s a mess.
Anyone who’s driven through Dalhart, Texas knows you can see the brown haze and smell the acrid stench from miles away—courtesy of the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of feeder cattle penned in bare-dirt bunker yards. It’s not exactly a “touristy” place and absolutely doesn’t resemble the bucolic pastures splashed on your average package of grocery store beef. The meat we eat (and we eat more of it, though less of beef, than we have in a while*) doesn’t magically appear on our plates, and it’s darn tricky to sort out what the implications are.
For example, anyone who knows cattle will have a hard time agreeing with the PETA-folks that the animals in these feedlots are “miserable” or mistreated—I stand by a bet that if you threw open the gates to green pasture next door, the majority of Dalhart’s bovine denizens would be back by dusk, bellying up to their ration.
And yet: visit the kill-line of the JBS Tolleson slaughter facility, and watch as the stunner-man, with his ceiling-mounted bolt gun does his once-a-second dirty work. It’s not pretty—we have collectively outsourced the “honorable kill” our grandfathers used to do, to a minimum wage line worker and something moral is lost in the transaction. Yet neither is a modern slaughter facility generally the hell-scape implied by the grainy, carefully edited, smuggled footage that is trotted out for propaganda purposes by the anti-meat (sorry—“pro-planet”) folks.
This pro-planet thing, though: to adequately begin to address the “sustainability” concerns expressed by Epicurious would take approximately a million more words, but suffice it to say it’s also—yep—complicated. Nothing is hinted at in the “cutting out beef” tweet that mentions the potential global implications of regenerative grazing, the massive gains to wildlife habitat from intensive agriculture, or the debatable science around bovine climate impacts. To be fair, the website has a more cogent defense of its rationale here, but even in long-form it trivializes many of the major complexities surrounding beef production and consumption. For instance, it repeats the oft-mistaken, nearly always misinterpreted “percent of greenhouse gas emissions” attributed to livestock–you can read anywhere from 14-25% depending on how radical the source. Yet according to cooler heads, it’s closer to 3.3%, which pales in comparison, frankly, to the transportation and electricity generation sectors (56% in the U.S.). If we are going to have a full and honest conversation about anthropogenic emissions, perhaps we should add automobile drivers and Epicurious’s web servers to the grab-bag of bugaboos. Of the 2,358 “Beef” results on the Epicurious website, I’d say the one for caramelized onion steak-burgers might be the most enlightening.
Nothing is free in this world, and no choices are without repercussions. And in that sense, I honor Epicurious’s spirited, if perhaps vacuous position. It matches the spirited and vacuous stance of the rest of us who imply that our meat-eating habits are somehow more “American” than the liberal elite are. Yet there is nothing very “traditional” about eating your body-weight in meat (twice as much as our World War I great-grandfathers) and Epicurious, annoying as it might be, forces a reasonable question: how much is enough?
Epicurious, obviously, is basically saying “zero,” which is both unrealistic and likely to be rife with unintended consequences. How many people, in the flurry of media attention have cooked up a Solidarity Steak? I know I have.
The Greek Epicurus, who is not getting any royalties for Epicurious’s heist of his name (non sum, non curo), was a founding philosopher of the school of being content with what you have—of “enoughism,” if you will. So I’ll grant, it’s worth thinking about. Deeply. I wish I could write a morally conclusive piece here, showing persuasively that one side or the other is on the right side of the arc of history or whatever. But I can’t, because there isn’t one. My daughter is a vegetarian and going strong, and my only response when I’m teased about being the rancher whose kid won’t eat meat is: “I am large—I can contain contradictions.” Perhaps the rest of us can too.
Paul is Director of the Agrarian Freedom Project and is a PhD candidate in 16th Century New Spain at the University of Kansas. Paul holds a Master’s degree in Government from Harvard University and studied History and Science at the United States Air Force Academy.