Meat butchering, c.1915. Credit: Library of Congress.
Published: September 4, 2015
Eating meat is a time-honored tradition in America. Whether it’s Thanksgiving Day turkey, a TV dinner of Salisbury steak, or a plate of Hawaiian Spam musubi, meat has been a constant presence on the national platter. But over the years, changing technologies, tastes, and policies have altered not only which meats Americans consume but also how they consume them. As millions of Americans fire up their grills this Labor Day, the Guys will look back on America’s love affair with all things meat. How did we get from smokehouses to supermarkets? Why do we love hot dogs so much? And in the era of modern appliances, why do we still insist on grilling steak, wings and burgers on an open flame?
Historians Maureen Ogle and Roger Horowitz examine the change in Americans’ relationship with meat once the refrigerated box car allowed meat to be shipped butchered and dressed from the slaughterhouse.
Ed Ayers sits down with food historian Fred Opie to talk about about how many types of small game came to be rejected by middle class African-Americans. Plus, the Guys debate the cultural significance of eating game meat.
Historian Sarah Milov has the story of of how the government organizations that promote American meat products — even when livestock farmers aren’t interested.
**Correction: In the original broadcast of our segment about how slogans like ‘pork, the other white meat’ came to be, we mention that pig farmers were obliged to pay a ‘check off’ of 45 cents. But that’s 45 cents per hundred dollars of hog sold — not per pound, as we stated on air. We regret the error.
ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. This Labor Day, millions of Americans are headed out to the grill for one last summer barbecue and will likely indulge in the national pastime of eating lots of meat. But in 1946, the barbecues wouldn’t have been as plentiful. The price of meat was sky-high, and so were Americans’ anxieties.
MEG JACOBS: You have restaurant owners jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge because they have no meat to serve their customers.
ED: Today on BackStory, we’re cooking up “A History of Meat in America,” from colonists who reveled in the land of abundance to the meaning of small game to the nation of Islam.
FRED OPIE: You need to turn away from anything that is associated with the slave diet, the slave mentality, and the slave regime.
ED: Coming up on BackStory, “A History of Meat in America.” Don’t go away.
PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American History Guys.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.
PETER: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.
ED: Hello, gentlemen.
BRIAN: Today’s show is about meat. So we’re going to kick off the hour by asking you, our listeners, to imagine a suburban Labor Day weekend in the 1950s. There’s likely a manicured lawn, casually-dressed neighbors, and, of course, a grill and a dad.
BRIAN: This is Loren Moulds, a librarian at the University of Virginia Law School.
LOREN MOULDS: –smoke wafting over the neighbor’s fence, and his adoring family waiting for the grill to get just right for that giant hunk of meat that’s going to go on there and sizzle and spit and taste like Saturday in America.
BRIAN: It’s an idyllic image. And Moulds says it’s completely choreographed. Grilling was an antidote to problems that psychiatrists and family experts saw in the American middle class two decades before, in the mid-1930s. These experts thought fathers were too absent from the home and worried about the development of American children. So, Moulds says, in journals and magazines across the country, there was–
LOREN MOULDS: –a call for men to have a stronger presence in family life to balance out the effects of over-mothering, to be a great role model for their children, in order to ensure that their daughters know who to look for in a man and their sons know what a good man is.
BRIAN: But if experts wanted Dad to be around as a manly role model he couldn’t just rush to a dustpan and broom. Household chores were women’s work. Dad needed a space for distinctly masculine projects. Moulds says the popular magazines of the 1930s were awash with activities for Dad that wouldn’t turn him into Mom. In a 1935 article for American Magazine, former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey suggested the “manly art of cooking.” And the key to its manliness? Well, that was meat.
LOREN MOULDS: Well, he’s saying, basically, that men have an innate ability to spice up meals, because men are really good at specialization, men are really good at fun techniques and spectacle. And so he associates men’s cooking with various masculine activities like Boy Scouts, camping, hunting trips. He says, when a man sets himself to cooking, he can outdo a woman any day. And men spar with every kind of cooking stove imaginable and put unexpected uppercuts in ordinary dishes and make them really knockout fare.
BRIAN: Quite the wordsmith along with being a chef. Loren, was meat always “what’s for dinner”? I mean, what is it about meat?
LOREN MOULDS: Well, I think meat’s the perfect thing, right? Meat is carnal. There’s something primal about meat, about cooking meat– hearkens back to the caveman. It hearkens back to cooking over fires with a group of dudes. It’s really something that only men can do. There’s a bit of danger to it. There’s a bit of expertise. So that’s why the barbecue just resonates. I think I argue with these fathers because it’s not something that every day. It’s something that requires Man.
BRIAN: I love you, man.
LOREN MOULDS: I love you, too, man.
BRIAN: Sorry– I couldn’t resist.
Moulds says that the grill– as a distinctly masculine domain– really caught fire in the 1950s after the scarcity of the Great Depression and meat rationing in World War II.
LOREN MOULDS: I think it comes out of this distinctive postwar moment based on prosperity and property. Where, I think, the suburbs are a perfect place for something like this to happen, because you have unprecedented amounts of families moving out into the suburbs, and they have all of this space in the backyard and their need to fill that void with rituals.
BRIAN: Magazines like Esquire and a growing industry of cookbooks for men showcase those rituals. Moulds says there was another reason to fire up steaks in the 1950s– the Cold War. Americans were expected to stand up to those lean, mean communists with voracious capitalist appetites. Grilling became part of American exceptionalism.
LOREN MOULDS: Buying the meat that is part of that grilling experience proves that the American way of life– and consuming meat– is such a distinctive and important way of living. It goes to show that we live in a country of marvels, where every place in the suburb can have a giant steak or hot dogs or hamburgers every night of the week. And we can do it in a very gratuitous way. I don’t know how to explain it, but I think it’s a wonderful celebration of American-ness amid a very uncertain geopolitical circumstances.
PETER: In a way, the American appetite for meat is exceptional. Today more meat is eaten per capita in the US than nearly any country in the world, and the tendency goes back long before the Cold War. In letters home, immigrants and foreign travelers as far back as the 19th century noted meat’s centrality in the American diet. One cited the odd American practice of eating meat every day, while another listed the three or four different types of meat eaten at breakfast alone.
ED: So today on the show, as Americans across the country ignite the grill for Labor Day, we’re going to cook up stories about meat throughout US history. We’ll learn why the 1946 election was called the “Beefsteak Election” and explain why slaughterhouses went from bustling cities to the outskirts of town. We’ll even take a tour around the Windy City, mapping the history of the Chicago hot dog.
BRIAN: But first, let’s take time to explore just why Americans eat so much meat. It’s not an easy question to answer. Part of it, of course, is economic. Americans have more money to spend.
But the US still outpaces the majority of wealthy countries in meat consumption. There’s a cultural side to the story. And BackStory Producer Nina Earnest is in the studio to help us explore.
NINA EARNEST: Hi, guys. So yes, I’ve been looking in some cookbooks and doing some research. And I prepared three dishes from all three centuries that speak to America’s love affair with meat.
ED: Now, we should say that Peter is here only by the magic of technology. You’re on the line from Maine, right, Peter?
PETER: Yeah, me and my taste buds.
ED: So let’s get to the grub. What do you got for us?
NINA EARNEST: So the first one– I’m going to dish it out and you’re going to eat it. And then I’ll tell you what it is.
BRIAN: I don’t like that.
PETER: Could we have a running description of what this looks like?
BRIAN: It looks like a pie–
ED: Yeah, it looks like a pie.
PETER: Oh, a pie.
BRIAN: It looks actually very good.
ED: If I see 20 blackbirds coming out of this, I’m outta here.
ED: Peter, it looks like–
BRIAN: Oh, wait, I’m eating at the same time?
NINA EARNEST: Oh, yeah.
BRIAN: Can’t I wait for the 20th century?
NINA EARNEST: Oh, no.
ED: Yeah, it has carrot in it and maybe onion. I’m just guessing.
BRIAN: I’ll show Ed– Ed, this has scales in it.
ED: Oh, gosh!
BRIAN: I’m not kidding! Oh, come on, I don’t get paid enough to eat this.
PETER: Guys, tell me what it tastes like.
BRIAN: Well, Peter, it’s mushy, yet–
PETER: Oh, nice.
BRIAN: –kind of crunchy at the same–
BRIAN: –time, which I–
PETER: Mushy, crunchy?
BRIAN: –attribute to the scales.
ED: Yeah, I would say fibrous.
BRIAN: So what is it that we’re eating?
NINA EARNEST: So this is eel.
[OOHS AND GROANS]
BRIAN: I knew those scales were fishy. I knew those scales were fishy. I cannot believe I ate eel only for BackStory.
NINA EARNEST: So when the first colonists arrived in New England, they realized that there was a lot of eel, that it was really bountiful. One early colonist was so excited about this. And he wrote this letter back to England.
And he’s like, “we think we can take 150 gallons of eels in the night. It takes no work at all. We love it. It’s great.” And this matters, because eel was already popular in England.
NINA EARNEST: People had been eating there, including, as you guys did luckily, an eel pie.
NINA EARNEST: And so, when they came to the quote unquote “New World” and they found this bountiful supply of eel, they realized that this was a land of plenty.
BRIAN: Land of plenty, Peter?
PETER: Yeah, the important thing to keep in mind is the prevalence of famine throughout the early modern world. And English people weren’t immune. It wasn’t until the 18th century that there was something approaching food security in this period.
NINA EARNEST: And if we’re looking at the question of, why did Americans eat so much meat, from the very beginning, for the European Americans, the idea could maybe be that they expected that there would always be more to eat.
PETER: They ate a lot of meat and they were bigger as a result.
NINA EARNEST: Uh, funny that you mentioned bigger because we’re going to move on to our next meat from the 19th century.
NINA EARNEST: So here it is.
BRIAN: Tell me that’s not a body part.
ED: Oh, God!
PETER: Tell me what you’re seeing, guys.
ED: This kind of looks a little bit like a vertebrae of a mastodon. It looks like–
BRIAN: I’m going to touch it.
BRIAN: It’s like–
PETER: What does it feel like?
BRIAN: It’s like tongue.
PETER: So is a body part or an organ?
ED: Oh, God!
BRIAN: This is a lot worse than the eel. It’s kind of gelatinous–
ED: Gelatinous and chewy at the same time. Oh, God.
NINA EARNEST: So what we’re eating here is buffalo, which went from prevalent across the plains to nearly extinct over the course of the 19th century.
ED: Yeah, but a century’s a long time, Nina. In the meantime, the buffalo stood for really the limitless abundance of the west, right? So we go from the eel to the Buffalo but they’re carrying the same story. There’s more here than we could possibly eat. So have another serving.
NINA EARNEST: And it’s not– it’s tough, because there were multiple reasons why the buffalo were nearly exterminated. For its meat wasn’t really one of them. But there is a– one part of the buffalo that may be emblematic of our destructive relationship. And that is its tongue.
BRIAN: Yes! I’m two for two. I got the tongue and I got the scales.
ED: Only you could interpret that as a victory, Brian– that you ate those two things.
NINA EARNEST: So the thing about bison tongue– there’s stories of buffalo hunters going out and killing the buffalo, taking the tongue, and leaving everything else.
NINA EARNEST: So frontiersman and huntsman did eat buffalo tongue out west. But I came across a lot of references that said buffalo tongue was a delicacy out east in fancy-schmancy restaurants. But it turns out there’s actually little historical evidence to back this up.
So one historian I talked to to explain this discrepancy said that it maybe had to do with frontier nostalgia, that once the frontier was quote unquote “closing,” people wanted to believe, for some reason, that buffalo tongue had been a big fad. So it’s more than just abundance. It also has to do with what’s fashionable in meat, whether it’s imagined or not.
ED: I would say two things. One, my understanding is that buffalo have come back. And so we did not cause any deprivation of the buffalo.
BRIAN: That’s too bad, isn’t it?
ED: Exactly. And the next thing is that I can’t really relax because there’s some other piece of meat over there under a covering. And I need to know what it is.
NINA EARNEST: Yes, we do have one last piece of meat from the 20th century. Let me grab it.
BRIAN: Well, it looks like a seaweed-wrapped biscuit with something mealy inside of it, which–
ED: I think its rice, isn’t it?
BRIAN: I’m touching it.
ED: You’re handling– yeah–
BRIAN: It definitely feels seaweed-like.
ED: You know what it looks like– and I’m hoping that it is? I’m hoping that it’s SPAM. It does have an Asian appearance to it.
BRIAN: Yes, I think this is SPAM sushi. Here– I’m digging in on this one.
NINA EARNEST: So, yes, you are right. Our final selection is everyone’s favorite canned wartime commodity.
NINA EARNEST: So this is called “SPAM Musubi,” and it is from Hawaii. But it is a variation of a Japanese dish. You know, Hawaii– I think it’s pretty famously famous for its consumption of SPAM.
They still love SPAM. In one article I read that Hawaiians eat five million pounds of spam every year, which is a lot of spam.
BRIAN: That’s a lot of SPAM.
NINA EARNEST: The military shipped a lot of SPAM to Hawaii because there was a large military presence there in the lead-up to World War II. So it seems like the mainlanders have moved away from SPAM, but people in Hawaii still love it. But there might be a darker side to this story.
One historian has argued that, because a lot of Hawaiians, in the lead-up to the war, were of Japanese descent, that the territorial government in Hawaii placed a lot of restrictions on their fishing rights, basically so they wouldn’t pose a threat to national security. And that really killed the Japanese fishing industry. And therefore, these people were looking for a source of protein. And they happened to find it in SPAM.
BRIAN: Nina, a fascinating story. And if I wasn’t so busy stuffing my face with SPAM right now, I would tell you why it’s a very 20th-century story. It’s a 20th-century story for a couple of reasons.
The first is, while Peter and Ed deal with centuries where folks roamed across the continent, simply harvesting what was there– or at least in Ed’s case, harvesting parts of that abundance– the 20th century, well, meat is different. It’s about the intensive production and packaging of meat. It’s about stuffing meat into cans. It’s about things like SPAM that are kind of unidentifiable.
And the second part of the 20th century was about war. And that put American soldiers en masse in Hawaii. Hawaiians started eating SPAM but they lent their own twist to it. And that’s the story of America’s global expansion– especially military expansion– a very second half of the 20th-century story.
NINA EARNEST: So, guys, you’ve had three delicious meals from across the centuries. What story do they tell?
PETER: Well, Nina, for one thing, I didn’t take part in this brilliant meal you guys just had– sounds wonderful. But what strikes me about the early period is that tales of abundance are really told with a sense of wonder from people who were used to scarcity– are aware that they can’t take this for granted.
BRIAN: Yeah, it means something to them.
PETER: Yeah. And now, if anything, we’re– Americans are in a different world. And abundance has different meanings. Maybe there’s too much of it.
ED: Yeah, and today the problem is that we seem to worry so much about eating too much meat in too many forms. And a constant obsession is that– how do we deal with the problem of abundance, how do we work it off, how do we avoid the disease that comes from it. Really, how do you deal with the aftereffects of eating so much meat? I think our predecessors here in American history would be scratching their heads.
[MUSIC – “WEIRD AL” YANKOVIC, “SPAM”]
BRIAN: It’s time for us to take a short break. But stay with us. When we get back, the 1946 election pivots on the meaty issue of beef.
ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back for seconds.
[MUSIC – “WEIRD AL” YANKOVIC, “SPAM”]
ED: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, as Americans fire up their grills for Labor Day barbecues, we’re serving you some choice cuts on the history of meat in America.
ED: We’re going to take a moment now to lay out the history behind that shrink-wrapped beef and pork in your grocery store. Consider it the origin story of packaged meat.
It starts in the 19th century, in the decades after the Civil War. Back then, meat didn’t just appear in a store.
MAUREEN OGLE: If you lived in a town or a city, you were keenly aware of how meat got to your stomach.
ED: This is Historian Maureen Ogle. She says the process of turning a cow into a steak was hardly invisible.
MAUREEN OGLE: A butcher would herd his purchases through the street until he got to his butcher shop, which might be a block from your house– or behind your kids’ schools or right next to your church– where he would proceed to slaughter the animal and then hang the carcass and carve pieces off to sell to his customers. Or, if you were a wholesaler, and had a larger slaughtering operation, you would guide your animals through the street– people running to avoid them, hoping that the animals don’t suddenly decide to stampede, which happened often.
ED: Yeah, it just doesn’t sound much like Pepperidge Farm, does it?
MAUREEN OGLE: No, not at all.
ED: This was the case even in bigger cities, such as New York.
MAUREEN OGLE: Where the Plaza Hotel now stands in Manhattan, there was a huge stockyard.
ED: Up until the 1870s, this was the American meat system. Most Americans had no access to refrigeration. And if you wanted meat, it had to be freshly slaughtered. So every city and town had multiple stockyards. And the streets teamed with cattle, pigs, and sheep. As America’s urban population swelled throughout the 19th century, the animal population grew, too, and became ever more of a nuisance. Listen to this angry resident writing the Milwaukee Sentinel in the 1860s, summed up in Ogle’s book.
ANGRY RESIDENT: There’s perhaps nothing more aggravating than to trudge home from work, wading through all manner of filth from the sidewalks, only to find your garden rooted up, your evergreens bitten off and broken, and hanging laundry yanked to the ground and stained with the marks of muddy, cloven feet.
PETER: Enter a man named Gustavus Swift. Historians consider him a Thomas Edison of meat.
MAUREEN OGLE: In less than a space of about four years, the guy completely upended decades and decades and decades of the meat production system in the US. It was astonishing to me.
ROGER HOROWITZ: Gustavus Swift begins as a butcher, literally taking chopped meat up in a cart around households in the greater Boston area.
PETER: This is Food Historian Roger Horowitz.
ROGER HOROWITZ: And what happens is he starts trying to follow the animal chain back– how animals arrive at Boston– because he’s looking for better animals and better prices. And eventually he follows it back to Chicago.
PETER: Swift wanted a more efficient way to sell meat than packing millions of live animals into rail cars in Chicago and sending them eastward to be slaughtered.
ROGER HOROWITZ: And he started wandering, well, is there a way to slaughter them in Chicago and then ship the refrigerated meat east, rather than ship the animal east. Because if he could do so, it would be an awful lot cheaper and he’d have more control over the kinds of animals that he was then selling.
PETER: Swift built a fleet of refrigerated railcars, cooled by ice from the Great Lakes, and packed them with sides of beef and pork. He then sent the meat out east to be sold through a vast network of warehouses up and down the east coast. Accustomed to freshly slaughtered meat, local butchers and shoppers initially turned up their noses.
ROGER HOROWITZ: But his meat is so much cheaper that consumers try it. They find out that it’s actually not that different than meat slaughtered in the cities. And there isn’t really any measurable impact of consumer resistance to his meat.
ED: Over the next few decades, Swift and a handful of other big industrial meat packers would produce most of America’s meat. Though the nuisance of urban stockyards and roaming animals disappeared, Swift’s meat empire created a new kind of unease. Americans had always known where their beef came from. They saw the cattle walking to the butcher. But now the entire process was hidden and mysterious.
MAUREEN OGLE: In the 1880s and 1890s, Americans were trying to figure out how to live in this new world they had created. And it should surprise no one that many people pondered food, because the whole food system– not just meat, the entire food system– was undergoing an enormous transition because the urban population was growing so quickly. Suddenly people were getting fruit in the winter in cans, and that fruit had come from California. I mean, that seemed like a miracle.
But, as with any period of intense change, there’s confusion. There’s anger. There’s fear. And it’s not a surprise that there were many complaints about the food system.
ED: At the turn of the 20th century, the federal government’s chief chemist, Harvey Wiley, began studying industrial meat. And results were alarming. He found that meatpacking companies routinely sprinkled their beef with boracic acid– or borax– to keep it from getting slimy during shipment. Now, borax is an industrial disinfectant– good for cleaning floors, not so great for your stomach. The firms also injected sausage and other processed meats with dyes to give them that fresh, red color.
ROGER HOROWITZ: These dies are largely taken from the clothing industry. They’re based upon coal tar residues from production. So essentially, you’re introducing coal tar dyes into the food. Not everybody got sick from them, but when you have that kind of a practice, you could say you have a problem.
ED: Wiley pushed hard for federal meat inspections and for mandatory food labels. And he got a big boost from Upton Sinclair, an idealistic young journalist who covered the Chicago meatpackers’ strike in 1904. Sinclair’s reporting eventually turned into the bestselling novel The Jungle.
ROGER HOROWITZ: He talked about the kind of work that they did and what happened inside the plants– and the often horrific conditions that would happen. He described rats falling in the mixture for sausage, meat being knocked on the floor, and all sorts of pretty appalling conditions. And, later on, he said that he aimed for the nation’s heart, but instead, he hit it in the stomach.
ED: The Jungle caused a national uproar. Soon after, at the instigation of progressive reformers, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, establishing federal regulation the meat industry.
PETER: That regulation improved the system, but didn’t change it. The basic features of the system that Swift built– packaged meat shipped long distances– remain. And so does the unease over what happens in those remote, unseen slaughterhouses. Only now, people are concerned about hormones and antibiotics instead of borax. But both Horowitz and Ogle stress that returning to an earlier, simpler time just isn’t so easy. By the late 19th century, American cities had outgrown their local food systems.
MAUREEN OGLE: I do think that, in general, the food system became better– if only because there were a whole lot of people who didn’t live on farms. They needed food and they needed affordable food because they weren’t making a lot of money. One thing that this food system did was provide a lot of food for an huge and growing population of people, many of whom had very low incomes.
PETER: In other words, if Americans continue to top the world in meat consumption, maybe the US has the meat system its appetite demands.
PETER: Maureen Ogle helped us tell that story. She’s the author of In Meat We Trust. You also heard from Roger Horowitz, historian at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware and author of Putting Meat On the Table.
ED: The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 wouldn’t be the last time the federal government got involved in the meat business. When the US entered World War II, the Roosevelt administration asked Americans to limit their robust consumption of beef so there would be enough to send overseas for the troops. If not, beef would become scarce and prices would skyrocket.
BRIAN: The administration tasked the Office of Price Administration– or OPA– to oversee a rationing effort. This now-forgotten federal agency instituted price controls and distributed ration coupons to families. Historian Meg Jacobs says that the OPA even had mascots to help motivate Americans to buy less.
MEG JACOBS: A fictional character– General Max. The idea was to make–
BRIAN: Hold on, General Max?
MEG JACOBS: Max.
BRIAN: General Max, M-A-X?
MAUREEN OGLE: Max. M-A-X, as in the “General Maximum Price” control. So the idea was you had to institute prices across the board. You were just as much of a traitor to the patriotic cause if you went into the butcher shop and– you know the local butcher, you’ve had this relationship with him for decades– you say, “OK, I’m not going to surrender my coupons. I’ll pay you a little bit higher price.”
BRIAN: You make a deal.
MEG JACOBS: Exactly.
BRIAN: Most Americans did follow price controls. And during the war, Jacob says, household incomes grew as more citizens pitched into the war effort and as they received higher wages. So even though families rationed, even more Americans could afford to buy beef.
MEG JACOBS: And, in fact, the program worked so effectively for something like meat that annual per capita meat consumption increased for Americans across the board but especially for those at the lower end of the income distribution. But the meat industry didn’t like the government meddling in consumer markets. During the war, packers lobbied to weaken price controls, without much success. So when peacetime arrived, the government and the meat industry were primed for battle.
MEG JACOBS: It’s a real showdown that you have at the end of World War II. In fact, price controls in 1946 still exist. And you have Harry Truman saying, we need to continue price controls because there’s a great fear if we take them off, prices are going to soar through the ceiling. Meanwhile, the meatpacking industry now takes its campaign to the next level.
BRIAN: So what do they do?
MEG JACOBS: They withdraw their product from market. They basically go on their own strike. And what you have is the disappearance of meat from markets across the country. So they make a decision to let their cattle grow fatter, in essence, and they stop slaughtering. So slaughtering is down 80% from where it had been a year earlier.
And so, within a month, you have a doubling of the price of meat. And there’s this real showdown and a sense of fear and panic of what’s going to happen next. And Americans start to worry that there’s going to be a “famine.” They use that word, even though it’s exaggerated. And then there’s a real question– what’s going to happen in this contest of wills.
BRIAN: So who caves first, Meg?
MEG JACOBS: Truman caves first and gets rid of controls, because what happens is Americans– who are accustomed to eating their 150 pounds of meat a year and have now had this period in the war where they have all this access to meat– our livid and frantic. And so you have headlines that read “Horsemeat Consumption Soaring.” You have restaurant owners jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge because they have no meat to serve their customers.
You have business really mobilized at this moment, running advertisements in newspapers that say, “would you like a roast of beef?” And if the answer is yes, then the idea is you have to support the getting rid of OPA once and for all. Probably one of my favorite documents that I ever found in the archives is a letter from a housewife to Harry Truman. And all it says is, “How about some meat?”
BRIAN: How about some meat.
MEG JACOBS: And that really captured and reflected the country’s mentality at that moment. And indeed, October 15, Harry Truman decides, OK, we’ve lost. And he gets rid of controls.
BRIAN: Jacobs outlined the consequences of this battle. The following month, voters would rush to the polls in the 1946 midterm elections. Democrats had controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for more than a decade. But meat was about to change that equation.
MEG JACOBS: Americans do like their meat and they do respond to immediately what’s before them. And this was a central dinner table and pocketbook issue. And some have called the 1946 election the “Beefsteak Election.”
And what ends up happening in the elections is that Republicans regain control of Congress that they had not had since before the New Deal. And it’s a very consequential election in which Republicans– over Truman’s veto– are able to pass significant legislation not only to get rid of controls, but to roll back legislation that had given organized labor the right to organize. And so it’s a very consequential election, the 1946 election.
BRIAN: Meg, you’re a keen observer of American culture. Why did meat play such an important, symbolic role in this battle over government controls versus the private sector?
MEG JACOBS: That’s a good question, and I think you do you have to look to the larger cultural context here. The greatest sign that America was indeed the greatest country in the world was that we eat more meat than anybody else. So when you had the waves of immigration in the late 19th- and early 20th-century, meat was really the signifier that the Americ– what was called at the time the “American standard of living.”
That was a phrase that meant something. Not just “standard of living,” but the “American standard of living.” Meat was a signifier that, indeed, you could be a worker, you could be a laborer in this country, but you were living better than any of your counterpart in the world. So people, when they go to the supermarket, the price of a pound of ground meat is a signifier of how things are doing.
[MUSIC – OTIS TAYLOR, “RED MEAT”]
BRIAN: Meg Jacobs teaches history and public affairs at Princeton University. You can read more about the 1946 Beefsteak Election in her book, Pocketbook Politics– Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America.
[MUSIC – OTIS TAYLOR, “RED MEAT”]
PETER: It’s time for us to take another break. When we return, why you should never, ever put ketchup on a Chicago hot dog.
ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re filling our plates today with stories about meat in American history.
ED: Hey, Brian, Peter, I recently had an interesting conversation with a food historian, Fred Opie. He teaches at Babson College. And he’s writing a book about cooking and eating small game– possum, raccoon, rabbit.
ED: And he told me, in the 1970s, he discovered that his aunt ate small game as a part of her Southern, African-American heritage. This is game you can easily hunt or trap or even find by the side of the road, like rabbit. And that was a part of the Soul Food movement that had cropped up back in the 1960s. But Opie said that eating small game was actually quite contentious. I want to play you a small clip of our conversation.
FRED OPIE: Certainly there are groups of people– who I would call “food rebels” among the African-American community– who saw small game as a negative. And I’ll give you two for example. Dick Gregory, the comedian, saw the whole Soul Food movement, the consumption and preparation of that type of food as unhealthy, as genocide to the black community.
Then you have the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, who started an organization in the 1930s. His mantra throughout was you need to turn away from anything that is associated with the slave diet, the slave mentality, and the slave regime. For many enslaved Africans, they did receive rations from their masters. But they were forced to continue to hunt small game to supplement their diet or starve.
So, for many people, the consumption of small game became associated with slavery. And therefore, to eat like that is to eat like a slave in many people’s minds. So I think that’s an important dimension of how we look at small game like possum, raccoons, rabbit, et cetera.
ED: So, Fred, as you kind of discovered this part of your heritage, did you think of it as this is ethnic, this is regional, this is class?
FRED OPIE: Well, I think when you’re within your own family or ethnic community, you do seem to think this is us, and this is symbolic or representative of who we are. And you’re proud of it. But as you travel, as you learn, as you read, as you talk to people outside your community– certainly it’s been my case in the process of doing a book tour– that people would ask me questions or come up to me afterwards and say, “You know, I’m from Pennsylvania. We did that, too.”
And that’s the thing that was most interesting to me. What I thought was African American was not. It was rural people, rural societies, people who come from societies where they regularly hunted as a way of life.
ED: So, guys, if I’ve been at Fred Opie’s book talks, I might have asked him a question about this. So let me share a story with you all. And you help me figure out what it means, all right?
PETER: Go for it.
ED: So when I was growing up, my grandparents lived way up in the mountains of North Carolina. House built back in the 1860s– and they didn’t have a telephone until I was 15 years old and so forth. And sometimes, young cousins would bring girlfriends or boyfriends to visit.
But we had this uncle who was an insurance agent over in Johnson City, Tennessee. And he found it deeply amusing to torment both his nephews and nieces and our guests by pretending– with a very straight face– that we were getting ready to eat possum.
ED: Or squirrel. Yeah, but we never did.
BRIAN: You knew you were going to eat raccoon all along.
ED: So it was kind of eye-rolling, “OK, come on, Uncle Ray, we do not need to do this.” But, looking back on it, I realized that he was recognizing that somebody coming into that house with a rusted roof and all this stuff on the outside might very well be suspecting that they would be eating raccoon or possum or something.
So I don’t really know how this fits in on the grid that Fred Opie just sketched for us. Could you help me figure it out?
BRIAN: I can’t help you at all, Ed. I just don’t do small game.
BRIAN: But Peter–
PETER: He’s a big game eater–
BRIAN: Exactly. And I don’t mean Cecil the Lion, either. But Peter represents a century where I know there was a lot of small game, and I’m assuming they ate it. I’m just curious to know whether there were social distinctions between the people who did and people who didn’t.
PETER: Well, Brian, throughout most of American history, it’s very important what you eat. But most of the time, it’s determined by where you are and what’s available. And you’re part of a food system. That sense of identifying with the land, that in an agrarian republic everybody’s a farmer just about, what you can produce and what’s easily available in neighboring forests, well, that’s what you will eat.
The real question is, who departs from that standard? And a few, very rich people will do that because they can afford to import breeding cattle from England and have the very best roast beef so they can’t overcook it, of course. So that it can be real English food.
But I think things have reversed. Now we live in a world of choice rather than a world is determined by what’s at hand. And, as for opportunistic small game in frontier areas where there’s a lot there for the taking, well, I think any group of people would do that. There’s no ethnic, racial, class distinction.
ED: So let’s try think about why my uncle thought that was such a funny thing to do. I think we’re all kind of anxious that people would think we’d not really moved beyond all that.
PETER: Yeah, exactly.
ED: But by the 1960s and ’70s, when this was, of course we could just go to the store and buy whatever we wanted. We wouldn’t have to do that, even if we weren’t rich. And so, by this time, we were eating chicken that they’d gotten at the supermarket, just like they would have back home, fixed “country style.”
So there’s that. I think the way you put that, Peter, is great, is that we tend to forget that what we eat is laden with meaning– as well, today, with fat. But that– and it’s not always obvious what it means.
PETER: If you watched television in the early 1990s, it’s a safe bet that, at some point, you saw these two commercials.
FEMALE COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER: Pork– the other white meat.
MALE COMMERCIAL ANNOUNCER: Beef– it’s what’s for dinner.
PETER: Sitting there on the couch, you probably did not realize that government had a hand in these slogans. They were the result of something called a “checkoff.”
BRIAN: A checkoff is when the government mandates agricultural producers to pay a fee on everything they produce. The money goes to a board of industry leaders and government appointees that put the cash towards research and marketing. It all goes towards the goal of boosting sales. Remember those singing California raisins? The “Got Milk?” campaign? Or the “incredible edible egg”? All paid for with checkoff.
Now checkoffs are very much worth the cost for industrial farmers who produce generic goods on a bulk scale. But for the small farmers, who are just scraping by, or those who are specializing in a product that doesn’t apply to a slogan, it’s a raw deal.
SARAH MILOV: Pork is not actually the “other white meat” for hog raisers who, say, raise hogs that produce bacon.
BRIAN: This is Sarah Milov, a Historian at the University of Virginia. She told me that bacon producers still pay the fee, $0.45 on hundred dollars of hog sold, to the board that brought us the “other white meat” campaign. So, in the late 1990s, a group of smaller pork producers fought back against their industry board, the pork council.
SARAH MILOV: All checkoffs contain, basically, a self-destruct provision, whereby, if enough producers get together and present a petition to the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Agriculture can call a referendum to take a nationwide vote on whether or not producers want to continue the program. So, in the late 1990s, dissident hog producers do this. The pork council hired a DC-based firm– whose other clients included Philip Morris– to basically see what these producers were up to.
And one of the worst epithets you could call a farmer in rural America is an “activist.” And so there was a million-dollar campaign against this coalition of farmers– smaller scale farmers– calling them “animal welfare activists” in the press.
BRIAN: Where’d the million dollars come from? I hope it wasn’t checkoff money.
SARAH MILOV: It was absolutely grower checkoff money. So, in some instances, hog producers had provided the funds that were being used to defeat them. Now, in spite of a million-dollar campaign to defeat the dissident farmers, the results of that referendum are astounding, in that 53% of producers vote against the checkoff system.
Now, as these results come to light, we have a new administration– admits that turnover. The results of the referendum are essentially thrown out in a deal that the new Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Veneman, cuts with the Pork Producers Council.
BRIAN: Small meat producers ended up suing the federal government in cases that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005.
SARAH MILOV: Supporters of the checkoff– by which we primarily mean the federal government and lawyers for the USDA who are defending the Pork Act and the Beef Act– invent a new type of argument justifying the checkoff. Their argument is that anything that the checkoff produces– “Beef– it’s what’s for dinner” or “Pork– the other white meat”– is, in fact, government speech.
BRIAN: So what does that mean for the decision? So what if it’s government speech?
SARAH MILOV: Well, the argument proffered by opponents of the checkoff was that they shouldn’t have to pay into the system because the speech that was being promoted– “Pork– the other white meat”– was in violation of their First Amendment rights.
BRIAN: I see. So that– it was their free speech that was being interfered with. And so, the decision says, it’s not your speech. This is government speech, not your speech.
SARAH MILOV: Right. So if we viewed this speech as private speech that is collectively funded, we might think that growers would have a claim to argue, hey, I don’t want to pay this because it’s an opportunity cost for me to engage in this type of speech instead of what I’d really like to say, which is, “buy Triple H Ranch Angus Beef.” But if this speech is not that of a private individual, if it’s not that of an individual grower, it’s a speech of the government, there is no First Amendment claim that can be made against the checkoff.
BRIAN: And I gather you think the government shouldn’t be in the business of telling us to eat beef.
SARAH MILOV: I think that what checkoffs point up is the ambiguity of an agency like the USDA. The USDA exists and effectively promotes the interests of certain agricultural producers. The USDA is also the agency responsible for codifying and promoting federal nutrition guidelines. In the case of checkoffs, these two are very much at odds.
BRIAN: And just out of curiosity, how effective was “Beef– it’s what’s for dinner” or “Pork– the other white meat”?
SARAH MILOV: Well, agricultural economists study this question very intensively. And the results are basically that, for each checkoff dollar spent, the industry does see a pretty good return on its investment.
However, that doesn’t mean that all producers are receiving equal benefits from these programs. Hundreds of thousands of hog farmers were unable to survive in the industry. Many of them blamed the onerous taxation of the checkoff, which itself represented the industrialization of hog farming.
BRIAN: So you’re saying that actually helped the consolidation of the industry.
SARAH MILOV: Yes. And what you see is the proliferation of checkoffs in an era in which agriculture is consolidating, and more and more producers are going bust and exiting farming.
BRIAN: Sarah Milov is a historian at the University of Virginia.
ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And today we’re exploring America’s love affair with meat throughout our history.
PETER: We wanted to end the show today by savoring one man’s passion for meat. Chicago-based author and food historian Bruce Craig has written several books on the most iconically American of meat morsels– the hot dog. The hot dog arrived on American shores in the middle of the 19th century, brought over by a German and Eastern European immigrants as the sausage. They slowly morphed into hot dogs over the following decades, with different US cities crafting their own regional versions.
ED: Radio Producer Colin McNulty recently accompanied Craig to a few famous Chicago spots. Craig now specializes in the Chicago Vienna-style hot dog, locally manufactured and loaded with toppings. But, he says, it was Frankfurter-style dogs– at a legendary New York stand– that first sparked his passion.
BRUCE CRAIG: And I remember, I can feel it on my body now, the warm sun, standing at that counter as a little kid, asking for a hot dog, and the guy reaching down and giving me a Nathan’s hot dog, which is nothing like a Chicago hot dog, but it was– I can– and I can taste that still. That’s the power of hot dogs in American culture.
COLIN MCNULTY: So we’re going around the corner, off Roosevelt Road.
BRUCE CRAIG: Jim’s Original dates to 1939, but it’s actually an older stand dating from the ’20s. The thing about Jim’s is they have griddled onions, which are completely fabulous.
LINE COOK: Everything?
BRUCE CRAIG: No– no relish.
Now you see– they’ve given you packets of ketchup. But you do not put it on your–
COLIN MCNULTY: So what do you do with it?
BRUCE CRAIG: For your fries.
COLIN MCNULTY: Oh, right.
BRUCE CRAIG: The reason we’re here is because it was on Maxwell Street, which is the home of all-beef sausages. German immigration began really heavily after 1848, 1850s, people who worked with sausage culture. And they arose sausage as a street food after the Civil War, after 1865.
We’re going over the North branch of the Chicago River and we’re coming up to the Vienna Beef factory. It’s this– where they make all of the Vienna beef sausages. This dates to the 1950s, when they moved from the original Maxwell Street location. So we’re looking at an historic artifact.
So sausages– think about it. They’re pre-cooked. All these hot dogs are precooked in the factory. They’re pre-portioned. They’re already in their casing, already cut.
So if you’re a vendor, a street vendor, you know what it costs– what your food costs are– and what you can charge for it. And here it is!
So here we are in the store and a nice salami is hanging up. And here’s a piece.
TOM PIERCE: Bruce, hi. How are you?
BRUCE CRAIG: Nice to see you.
TOM PIERCE: Yeah, nice to see you. My name’s Tom Pierce. I’m the Director of Marketing at Vienna Beef. I’ve here for– since 1968.
BRUCE CRAIG: From time immemorial, nobody knew what went into the butcher’s grinder. So there’s a standard joke in America that, if the German butcher set up shop, all the dogs and cats disappear.
TOM PIERCE: Well, I think that, if the general concept of sausage is chopped meat mixed into a batter and stuffed into a casing, that’s a broad, broad description of the raw materials. You could use all kinds of things to make that batter. So, in some cases, maybe you don’t want to know what’s in there.
At Vienna, we use two ingredients– fresh domestic bull meat, which is very, very high in protein. Bruce, you know that. We use brisket trimmings which are very sweet. And they carry the flavor. We protect our recipe incredibly.
COLIN MCNULTY: What is it?
TOM PIERCE: It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
COLIN MCNULTY: Sure.
BILL MURPHY: Well, we’re going to Murphy’s. And it’s a classic hot dog stand. The guy who owns it, Bill Murphy, is a fanatic about a classic Chicago hot dog.
BILL MURPHY: Hey, Bruce.
BRUCE CRAIG: Hey, Bill.
BILL MURPHY: Gimme a second.
My name is Bill Murphy. I’m the owner of Murphy’s Red Hots at 1211 Belmont, Chicago, Illinois.
Bruce is like one of those generals that sits up on a chair, watches all the guys down below doing the dirty work, so–
COLIN MCNULTY: And you’re in the trenches?
BILL MURPHY: I’m in the trenches, just turning them out, man. I– you know, that’s what we do.
BRUCE CRAIG: The thing about hot dog stands is it’s America’s democratic food. If you go to a hot dog stand, you’ll see people from every walk of life– crosses every age group, every economic level that we have. And this is the beauty of a Chicago hot dog stand.
These are ours. OK, so she’s putting mustard on the side; bright green relish on top; chopped, fresh onions; tomato slices on the side. Pickle spears? You have to have peppers.
COLIN MCNULTY: Yeah, OK.
BRUCE CRAIG: One. Thank you, dear.
COLIN MCNULTY: Thank you very much.
BRUCE CRAIG: Think about a hot dog stand owner or a hot dog in some part of the country which has its own version of a hot dog, like a Coney in Detroit. These industrial products are individualized. And they’re naturalized into a local food culture. And it’s an art.
Aren’t these good?
COLIN MCNULTY: Yeah, they’re great.
BRUCE CRAIG: So this gets to the subject of why you don’t put ketchup on a hot dog. So the culinary theory is this. If you think about the flavors in a hot dog, it is sweet, sour, spicy. It’s soft, but snappy. The pickle and the little hot sport pepper are crunchy. If you think about it, it makes a whole– it makes a culinary whole.
Suppose you put ketchup on that. It destroys everything, because all it is is sweet, vinegary goop.
COLIN MCNULTY: It makes you angry.
BRUCE CRAIG: It enrages me. We tell people that, if they put ketchup on a hot dog, they lose their passport. They can’t come to Chicago.
[MUSIC – BUCK OWENS, “HOT DOG”]
ED: That’s Author Bruce Craig with Chicago-based Producer Colin McNulty.
[MUSIC – BUCK OWENS, “HOT DOG”]
BRIAN: That’s going to do it for us today. But you can also find us online. Visit us at backstoryradio.org. While you’re there, help us shape our upcoming episodes. We’re working on shows about Catholics in America, censorship, and US-China relations. Leave a comment or question on the site or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter @BackStoryRadio.
Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
[MUSIC – BUCK OWENS, “HOT DOG”]
ED: BackStory is produced by Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, Bruce Wallace, and Bridget McCarthy. Jamal Millner is our engineer. Our research intern, who is moving on to continue working his doctorate in history, is Henry [? Wiencek. ?] Thanks for all your help and insight, Henry.
Special thanks this week to Andrew Smith, Chara Miller, Sandra Oliver, Andrew Isenberg, Matthew Gibson, and to Fritz Wildt at Wild T Bison Farm in Haynesville, Virginia, who supplied the buffalo tongue. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, “Cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment”; and by History Channel, “History made every day.”
NINA EARNEST: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
[MUSIC – BUCK OWENS, “HOT DOG”]
BRIAN: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
Music from this Episode
Song – Artist – Album
Afternoon Tea – Ken Warner, Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, Kurt Rehfield – The Golden Age of Light Music: New Town: Production Music of the 1950s Carefree – Van Phillips, Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, Kurt Rehfield –The Golden Age of Light Music: New Town: Production Music of the 1950s Cutting It Up – Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Musical Mystery Chambers Spam – “Weird Al” Yankovic – UHF (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) Kevin Beak’n– Michael Giacchino – Up (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) Tumbleweed -Instrumental– Blockhead – Dour Candy – The Instrumentals No Moon, Fallen Stars – 7and5 – Themes for a Grey Day Bravery – D.P. Kaufman – Lullabies for the Apocalypse Red Meat – Otis Taylor – Hey Joe Opus Red Meat Raw Meat – Black Lips – Arabia Mountain (Deluxe Edition) No No No – Beirut – No No No Hot Dog – Buck Owens – Bound for Bakersfield