CAN YOU EAT MEAT with a clear conscience? It’s one of those gasoline-on-the-fire questions bound to ignite hot emotions, not only among old-school omnivores but also with the yoga-calm vegans. Both camps have unequivocal answers. But what of the recent ecogastronomes, who, like me, might be wondering if the local, slow, and artisanal movements are merely justifying the unnecessary consumption of animals, albeit ones that are pastured, free-ranging, and sung to sleep each night. For conscious eaters with meat angst, Meat: A Love Story is the right read at the right time. And it is a love story, because what else but hot, blind, irrational love could explain our species’ continued consumption of flesh, which imperils the Earth, our health, and perhaps our souls?
If anyone should have turned away from meat-eating, it should have been the author. As a reporter she worked undercover at a pork processing plant where she spent a traumatic week slicing the cheeks out of hogs’ heads. Even so, she was unable to stick to a diet of plant protein. Although amusing at times, the book’s subtitle, “My Year in Search of the Perfect Meal,” is somewhat misleading. This is no delightful culinary romp. Although funny (Bourette’s culinary failings are met with requisite self-deprecation), the backstory of meat — the blood and viscera of the dead and furry reality of the living — isn’t pretty. Adding to the overall unease is Bourette’s discomfort with maneuvering in a largely male meat world: testy butchers, defensive cowboys, egotistical steakhouse cooks, burly hunters, raw-meat-diet gurus. I hadn’t encountered that much machismo since Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness, and the testosterone alone made me want to reach for a veggie burger and cup of herbal tea.
Without spoiling it all, I’ll let on that Bourette finds her most satisfying meals and conclusions where machismo is abandoned and where food, culture, and community intersect. Her experience making boudin, a pork sausage traditional to the Acadians of the Deep South, exemplifies profound appreciation for the animal that provided good simple food and whose flavor is as intensified by tradition and warm fellow-feeling as it is by spices.
As much as it is the right book at the right time, the biggest trouble with Meat is the timing. If you are already inclined toward investigative eating-books, you might feel Michael Pollan-ed to tears by now. (You might want to eat a cupcake — preferably one baked by Nigella Lawson — while emptying your head in front of Dancing with the Stars.) But the subject of meat eating deserves singular devotion, and because most of us can’t, or won’t, go to the lengths Bourette did to explore the complexities of the carnivorous urge, we should at least get bloody vicariously before we so easily reach for our next grass-fed burger.