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Where's the beef?

Meat 'manifesto' unevenly advocates for quality over quantity

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The idea that food might signify something more than necessity -- or, at its best, familial celebration -- appears a newly revived element of popular consciousness. Televised culinary competitions, food and restaurant blogs, and a plethora of social media all evidence the newfound cultural currency of the gustatory.

Patrick Martins (with Mike Edison) brings into focus elements of the political and celebratory, of eater and eaten, in his third book, The Carnivore's Manifesto.

Martins is no fair-weather convert to the food scene. The founder of Slow Foods America, he started and still runs Heritage Foods USA. Its mission is to connect producers of diverse, humanely raised, heritage animals to consumers.

The Carnivore's Manifesto serves as both an advertisement for, and explanation of, Martins' venture. In 50 fast-paced, appetizer-sized pieces, Martins argues for the centrality of responsible, yet indulgent, consumption.

Spanning topics as diverse as developing a familiar, if not intimate, relationship with one's butcher to conservation through consumption, Martins delivers a passionate missive. His underlying theme is that we already eat (more than) enough meat: we need to make better choices about where and how we get our animal proteins.

The moral banner is against large, monoculture farms that breed and raise animals in abhorrent conditions. At the same time, he doesn't simply appeal to conscience: Martins firmly believes that we have sacrificed quality for quantity. To whom his message is addressed is less than clear; while too dismissive for the unconverted, it's too thin for the choir.

At its best, The Carnivore's Manifesto showcases the heartfelt resolve of a would-be food revolutionary. Martins' appreciation of heritage breeds of swine, beef, and poultry is palpable. Moreover, he urges the conscientious carnivore to expand menus to include species not typically found on the North American table, such as goat and lamb. No less genuine is his paean to the small-operation American farmer.

The greatest weakness in The Carnivore's Manifesto is its stubborn disregard of its own message. For a work advocating the pleasures of slowness, texture, and artisanal craft, it is oddly superficial. It reminds one of a click-bait blog, purposely constructed to leave holes in its own arguments so as to foster argument and disagreement.

Vegetarians and locavores are dismissed as if their choices were simply matters of fashion. Even a lover of meat will find the repeated anthropomorphic claims that animals want to be killed and consumed more than a little hollow. Advocacy for natural living conditions and monitored slaughterhouses assuages this blind spot, if not completely.

It's difficult not to be sympathetic to the picture of conscientious but underappreciated producers painted by Martins. There is no doubt that these committed men and women represent a bastion of traditional skill against industrial farming (here an ill-defined term).

He makes the point that mega-farms and restaurants inevitably sacrifice animal well-being and quality to the economic bottom line. Yet his claim that small farms can today support international food needs, given that they were able to do so for thousands of years, is unconvincing, too-conveniently ignoring the reality of our population growth and the evolution of farming.

References or discussions of scientific consensus, if such a thing exists, would do more to convince than hyperbolic descriptions of Franken-animals designed in labs, the consumption of which leads to vague but dire health consequences. In their absence, Martins must make his argument based on trust. Unfortunately, it is precisely this trust that The Carnivore's Manifesto's hyperbole and superficiality preclude.

Martins is on the trail of many important topics and discussions. His energy is commendable and his prose brisk and effusive. Concerns for diversity of plant and animal, praise for the underdog, and appreciation of craft and skill are all worthy banners of ethical consumption.

While The Carnivore's Manifesto isn't itself enough to carry a movement, it at least points the way.


Jarett Myskiw is a Winnipeg teacher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 A1

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