Michael Pollan explains the lost cultural and spiritual importance of cooking and eating meat. Pollan is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
Michael Pollan: Carolina barbecue is a really kind of ancient primal way of preparing food where you essentially are taking a whole animal and you are cooking it very slowly over a wood fire. The recipe couldn’t not be more simple. It is pig plus wood fire plus time and a little salt. It’s as close as we get to that primal scene of our proto-human ancestors two million years ago roasting the big animal over a fire which is a wonderfully communal event because it requires a lot of cooperation, somebody’s got to stay up with the fire and not let it go out. Someone has to prepare the animal to be cooked. Someone has to carve it and divide up the portions. And pitmasters today stand in for the, you know, this lineage that goes back probably a couple million years and passes along the way through the priests and Greek culture who oversaw the rights, the ritual sacrifice or the Rabis in the old testament who also did ritual sacrifice.Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton
There was for a very long time the priests, the butchers and the cooks were the same person. That was a very prestigious job. There were a lot of rules that went with it because it was so momentous. I mean meat was very special, it was sacred. And you had to deal with the Gods and we started by actually burning meat to a crisp as an offering to the Gods. And then somebody figured out, you know, they don’t really eat meat probably. They really just want the smoke. And so we gave them the smoke and that was the way, you know, how else do you get it up to heaven. And then we got to eat the meat. And – but we continued to have that religious overlay. And the word in Greek for priest and butcher and cook is the same, mageiros. And the word magic is buried in that word, the origins for the word magic because it was magic. It was transformation of this carcass, dead animal into this food fit for the Gods.
You know, one of the most striking things about modern life is that we eat meat without giving it a thought. We eat meat without realizing what is at stake. The fact that an animal has died, that an awful amount of effort is taken, there’s the sacrifice of the animal, there’s the effort of raising it or killing it if you’re hunting it. And we eat it without ceremony. We have meat two, three times a day in this country without giving it a thought. It’s just shrink wrapped protoplasm from the supermarket or the restaurant. But for most of history you realize eating meat was a profound almost sacramental occasion. People understood the sacrifice involved. They understood that an animal had died because they had probably participated in that process. And they also understood how precious this stuff was. It was delicious. It was nutritious. You didn’t have it every day. You had to work really hard to get it. And so we surrounded meat eating with a great deal of ceremony and somberness and rules.
You know the proper accompaniment for meat in world history if you look at it appears to be rules whether they’re the kosher rules that you eat this meat and not that or you eat this part of this animal and not that part or you don’t have meat with this or that. Halal rules also govern meat – what can and cannot be eaten. But then you have the rules of barbecue. In some parts of the South barbecue is whole hog with just vinegar and salt and, you know, a little pepper. But you move to the other side of the same state and they have a ketchup based sauce and they cook pork shoulders. And then you move to South Carolina and they’re barbecuing pork shoulders and they’re using a mustard based sauce. And then you go to Tennessee and they’re eating ribs. And you go to Texas and they’re eating brisket. They’re eating beef. Every one of those traditions has deep roots and every one of those traditions looks down on every other tradition. That’s fine but it’s not barbecue.
So rulemaking seems to surround meat eating. And I think that that’s a reflection of how much was at stake for people and how wonderful it was for people. And we have lost that. We eat meat in this incredibly thoughtless, cavalier way. We waste it. We don’t give a thought to the animal. We don’t give a thought to the person who raised it or hunted it. And I think in the process we’ve lost something. And that carelessness, it now infects the way we raise the meat. That we treat the animals really badly and we don’t honor it the way we need to honor it.