At some point in history, humans began to make distinctions between animals they wanted to eat and animals they wanted to tame or befriend. These preferences have evolved to some degree as a result of geographical and cultural boundaries. On grocery-store shelves in Central Asian countries you can find horse meat in a can; in Kentucky horses are highly valued and part of a long racing tradition. In many Western countries we cannot imagine eating the cats and dogs who share our homes, but these animals are meals in other parts of the world. Why do we draw these lines? In doing so, what are we saying about ourselves?
Wyatt Williams has wrestled with these questions for more than a decade. He spent years in Atlanta writing about food for local weeklies, magazines, and newspapers. At first he was assigned puff pieces on restaurant openings and trendy cuisine. Then an investigation into the locally sourced chicken at many Atlanta restaurants led him to an industrial warehouse that could slaughter 250,000 chickens a day. The meat was placed in different packaging depending on where it was going — the organic market, the budget bin, or the hot new restaurant.
Armed with this awareness, Williams continued to explore what was happening behind the scenes of our food system. He worked in poultry and beef slaughterhouses, spent time with farmers throughout the South, and learned to hunt — all in an effort to understand a deeper question about the human animal. “We each want to think of ourselves as somebody who doesn’t cause pain or death in the world,” he explains. But if something troubled him, he wanted to look at it directly. His recent book, Springer Mountain: Meditations on Killing and Eating, is a document of his journey, juxtaposing personal experiences with the history of meat eating and human-animal relations. The largest section is devoted to Williams’s trip to a tiny community in northern Alaska that has survived for centuries by hunting whales.
Born in Louisiana, Williams grew up outside of Tampa, Florida, in orange-growing country. (He has followed the path of the writer John McPhee’s fascination with oranges, down to the bag of them he put on the table when I arrived at his home in Iowa City, Iowa, for this interview.) After dropping out of college in Boston, he decided to bike across the country to San Francisco, where he lived for several years. He finished college in Atlanta and found work there as a culture writer and a food critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2019 he and his partner moved to Indonesia, where he reported on the global coffee industry, but the pandemic brought them back to the States. He is currently on a fellowship at the University of Iowa’s creative-writing program.
Williams is not a vegetarian. To him there is value in recognizing that humans evolved as omnivores, and even the desire some of us have not to harm animals must be understood within the context of a natural cycle in which animals eat each other. But he also sees the way meat is marketed and produced in the U.S. as inhumane and believes that radical reforms are needed.
I am not a vegetarian either, but I sought this conversation with him in part to answer the question: If I have respect and empathy for other sentient beings, how can I also desire to eat them? We sat for a long time in his house last November discussing this question. At one point, as we shivered on the porch in the evening, a doe and her fawns emerged from a copse of trees across the street. We paused to admire them; they paused as well, staring back at us cautiously before continuing into the night.
Cohen: How do you personally reconcile your enjoyment of meat with your knowledge of how it got to your plate?
Williams: I can’t say that I could justify the pleasure that I take from it, or argue that anyone else should. But I’ve done my best to try to understand it, to be able to describe accurately how I continue to eat meat after all I’ve seen and done. Here’s part of that: We are so afraid of death that we often think or act irrationally when faced with it. When I look at, say, a picture of an animal being slaughtered, I immediately think about self-preservation. I don’t want to die. I think about my own fear of death. I think of the sadness related to death in my own life, with people I’ve lost. I think it’s a reasonable response to look at that picture and say, I don’t want to have anything to do with that. The thing is, though, humans have plenty of illogical wants and desires when it comes to death; we dream of immortality, painless lives, infallible actions, and other irrational or impossible things.
[Author and environmental activist] Wendell Berry has written about this well. He reminds us that death is necessary to the functioning of the natural world; it’s part of a cycle we participate in. There are, of course, predatory species and prey species, but it is not only the predator that needs death. Death is as necessary to a tree as it is to a wolf. I spent much of my life trying to avoid looking at how I am a predator. Whether you want to explain it biologically or philosophically or whatever — for me, when I taste meat, when I experience the pleasure of it, I recognize an animal part of myself that I’ve tried to hide. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good or a bad thing. But it helps us understand ourselves and describes something fundamental and important about me and about the world I live in.
Cohen: When did you realize that you were trying to hide from yourself the fact that you were a predator?
Williams: I came to ask these questions by accident because I fell into food writing. Honestly I just needed money, so I went to the food editor of the weekly I was working for and asked for an assignment. She sent me to interview a local chef and told me to “ask all the same questions that you would ask a painter.” I guess I did an OK job, so she cooked up this column for me: Once a month I’d take a twenty-dollar bill and invite a chef to the grocery store to shop on that twenty dollars. Then we’d go back to their place, and I’d watch them cook dinner with the groceries, and I’d write a puff piece with the recipe in it. I did that every month for a year and a half, and I came to recognize food as a sort of fine art. But the thing about food writing is that it’s mostly about “What’s the hot place to eat on Friday night? Who makes the best dessert?”
Then I started working for Atlanta magazine. All the new restaurants in Atlanta at the time were trying to follow the trend of local, seasonal food. They were including the origins of the ingredients on the menu, with names that sounded like agrarian Mad Libs: Whispering Winds corn, Emerald Valley okra. Everybody was serving Springer Mountain chicken, which is an evocative set of words. I wanted to see this magical chicken farm that sounded like it was in the Appalachians, surrounded by woods and cold-water creeks. I looked for an address, but there was just one of those e-mail contact forms on the company’s website. I’d ask chefs if they’d ever been to Springer Mountain, and they’d say, “No, but I hear great things. It’s a little family farm.”
I finally found a fax number for Springer Mountain and cross-referenced it. It belonged to this huge company called Fieldale Farms, a top-twenty U.S. poultry producer, with a big corporate headquarters just north of Atlanta. I called Fieldale, and the front-desk person put me right through to the vice-president. To their credit, they had me in for a tour, but there was a moment when one of the owners told me they didn’t want Springer Mountain and Fieldale to be in the same story, because it confused people. As a reporter, whenever I encounter someone who is withholding information or trying to conceal it, I want to know what’s behind it. I ended up writing an investigative piece about how Springer Mountain was actually this big company. They were technically a local, family-owned farm in Atlanta, but I’d toured a slaughterhouse where they could kill 250,000 chickens in twenty-four hours. I was interested not so much in this company’s somewhat deceptive marketing strategy, but rather why it was so appealing to me — because I wanted Springer Mountain to exist as this peaceful little farm. When I found something completely different in its place, I thought, Well, I still want to go to that place. Does it exist? Is there a farm where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts?
Cohen: There’s a scene in the book in which you find that all the chicken is being put into different packages based on where it is going to be sold — from the lower-priced grocery stores to the all-natural ones.
Williams: We often want our food to be a reflection of ourselves. With an expensive delicacy like caviar, part of the appeal is that it represents wealth or success. If you’re a budget-minded person, you want meat that’s as cheap as it can be. If you want to think of yourself as somebody who doesn’t cause suffering, you buy meat that’s presented as “kinder.” It’s a way of comforting ourselves, telling ourselves that we’re nicer than we are.
Cohen: A part of our culture worships excess when it comes to meat. Fast-food restaurants seem to compete to see how many different types of meat can be piled onto a bun. Arby’s commercials have the actor Ving Rhames proclaiming, “We have the meats!”
Williams: Excess is the right word for it. It’s also deeply gendered. That marketing of meat is intertwined with the performance of masculinity or virility.
Cohen: It reminds me of bumper stickers that say, “I Love Animals — They’re Delicious,” or, “Save a Cow — Eat a Vegetarian.” It’s dumb, but there’s also something disturbing underneath, relishing not just death but cruelty.
Williams: It’s an embrace of violence and a rejection of guilt. You don’t want to be made to feel guilty about the pleasure you take in eating meat, so you make a childish, exaggerated performance of cruelty to the person who made you feel bad about it. What we’re also getting at here is the cultural divide in this country. Taking pride in a lack of empathy is a centerpiece of a certain brand of Far Right politics. I find it painful to look into the eye of that, but I also see it as a ridiculous, desperate performance.
It’s important, too, to view eating meat, or any food, in more than just the cultural context: to look at the particulars of, for example, what has to happen to get an onion out of the ground, because it’s not easy. It’s extraordinarily hard work. We might think all agriculture has been mechanized, but that’s not true. Throughout our food systems there’s an enormous amount of difficult, challenging work, and I feel like it is worth trying to engage with that on a personal level — which is why I wanted to have all of these experiences myself. If I was going to say anything about how a slaughterhouse works, I needed to spend time in one. If I said anything about hunting, I needed to do it myself.
Cohen: How did you get a job in a slaughterhouse?
Williams: I would talk my way into things. I was never deceptive, but I was awfully friendly. Basically anytime I encountered a farmer, I would start making friends until it became possible just to call the farmer up and shoot the shit. It got to be that they started calling me and asking me to come visit. I was very taken with a kind of agrarian romance — what I see as collaborative work between animals and humans — to the point that I sometimes thought, Am I just doing research to start a farm?
The cattle slaughterhouse I write about in the book knew why I was there, and the owners went along with it. I didn’t know going in how I would feel or what my position would be, but it was very clear to me that I wanted to be in those situations.
Cohen: What was the slaughterhouse like?
Williams: It was a small place: no more than fifty cows a day. Being in that environment for the first time was shocking. When the steer comes in the slaughterhouse door, there’s a metal wall that’s taller than the steer’s head, so he can’t see what’s happening in the rest of the room. A person called a “knocker” uses a device that sends a bolt through the steer’s skull and into its brain, which should immediately end consciousness. In my experience it appears instantaneous. After that, the metal wall raises up, and the now-limp animal slides out from underneath it. The knocker wraps a chain around the steer’s hind legs and raises it up with a winch. At that moment you see the animal elongated. There’s an immensity there that I never understood before. It’s hard to explain until you’re in the physical presence of a steer stretched out by the legs simply how large an animal it is. Even standing in a field with a cow doesn’t necessarily give you a good idea of the size of a steer at full weight.
At first I thought the knock meant, Oh, you just killed the steer, but that’s actually not true. Theoretically the animal can no longer think or feel, but the cardiovascular system is still functioning after the knock. This is intentional. Meat that has blood in it doesn’t taste good and spoils quicker. At that point, after the steer’s been hung upside down, the knocker cuts its throat, and the body expels the blood. This takes quite a bit of time. There’s a lot of blood in a 1,600-pound steer. Next the skin of the face is removed, and then the head, all by hand. The next person on the line is a USDA inspector, who is there to check for mad cow disease. Then the body moves on to another set of people who start breaking down the sternum and taking out the organs.
My job was to take the head, clean it off, put it on a rack, and remove the tongue and the cheek meat. I had to hold on to the tongue with a hook and use a knife to remove the tongue through the back of what had been the throat. There are still nerves in the head that, if not alive, could be described as live. So while I’m doing that, the knife could hit a nerve that would cause the tongue to squirm, which I found deeply troubling.
The first few days of working there caused me to reexamine my definition of death. I was able to observe how the stages of death pass through a gray area. For me it required a kind of faith in Western science to participate in the process. As we understand consciousness and the nervous system, the animal shouldn’t experience a single thing after the knock; it probably doesn’t even really feel the knock. But I certainly had some doubt.
After the initial shock of encountering death that way, I started paying attention to the people working around me in the slaughterhouse. This might seem obvious, but they were trying to do the best job they could. There’s no advantage to prolonging an animal’s death or making it worse than it is. I began to recognize how well that system ran.
One troubling thing about industrialized slaughterhouses is that they use a motorized chain. So rather than human beings doing these things at their proper pace, the chain moves at the machine’s pace. This makes it impossible to stop the process if something goes wrong. If I were to point to one deep flaw in our slaughterhouse system, it’s the mechanized chain and how it disrespects the worker, and disrespects the animal, because it doesn’t leave room for error.
If you eat meat and want to know, “Did I cause suffering?” to me the clearest way to answer that question is to look at the lives of the people working in the slaughterhouse, because the way the animals are treated will follow how the people are treated. Where I worked, there was a feeling of being on a team or part of a crew. There was the camaraderie of doing difficult work and a desire to do your job well and not hold up the next person in line or cause a problem. I think, in the small-to-midsize slaughterhouse, that process can operate well, and the people who work there can do their job to the best of their ability.
Cohen: How did it make you feel to work in the slaughterhouse?
Williams: I certainly spent more than a few evenings wondering what had made me choose to participate in something like that, even for just a few weeks. It still troubles me. Maybe it’s not for me to say whether it’s right or wrong, but I did feel a need to look directly at what troubled me and to describe it like I’m doing for you now. I think there’s some benefit in that.
Cohen: How did it immediately affect your relationship to beef?
Williams: The weird thing is that, at the end of the first couple of workdays, I was hungry for beef. I had this enormous appetite. And that’s uncomfortable to admit. From the perspective of instinctual or biological impulses, you could say that because I had looked at meat all day, there was this animal part of me that wanted it. A friend of mine who went through med school told me that, at the end of their first cadaver day — when they dissect a human body — everyone was craving meat. I don’t think that’s a response any of us would choose to have, but for some reason it can provoke that response.
I think you were maybe asking: Did it make me think twice about what I would choose to purchase or eat? It’s given me an appreciation for the challenge of running a small slaughterhouse. When I see a farmer who’s been able to pull that off, I have an enormous amount of respect for it. I’m convinced that 99.9 percent of the time in a well-run slaughterhouse like that, the steers do not know they’re going to die. I’m almost convinced that the system of ending consciousness followed by draining blood from the body works as humanely as it can. But the same isn’t true with chickens. For whatever reason, chickens absolutely know they’re going to die and are very afraid and demonstrate that fear when they go into the slaughterhouse. The initial intake of birds into a large slaughterhouse is horrific. That alone is reason enough not to purchase industrial poultry, which I think is a horror show on several levels. From an animal-welfare perspective, the raising and slaughtering of cows, even in an industrial context, has some advantages over chicken. But there are a couple of problems with the beef system — feedlots being one of them.
Cohen: What are those?
Williams: When you see a picture of a cow in a pen, and it’s ankle-deep in shit, and there’s a big trough of corn in front of it, that’s a feedlot. But that represents maybe the last thirty to sixty days of the animal’s life in an industrial-farming situation. It’s a fraction of the equation. The cow-calf operations in this country still haven’t really been industrialized. One way to understand industrialized agriculture would be to see it as a technological defeat of family, making the mother irrelevant to the child, which is how incubators changed the poultry business. The key thing is that you can’t feed a calf corn. Calves are born on grass and grow up in the company of their mothers. It isn’t until the calf is weaned that the animal can even begin to digest grain. The big meat packers purchase the animal only after it’s lived most of its life. Then they bring it to a feedlot and rapidly feed it corn until it reaches a goal weight, at which point they slaughter it.
It’s the last part that’s troubling from the animal-welfare perspective: the transportation of the cow to the feedlot, the time spent on the feedlot, and the slaughter. There are a good number of farmers out there who have tried to reject this practice. A steer can be finished on grass instead of corn, which takes the feedlot and industrial grain out of the equation, though it takes longer to reach weight. Using a small, local slaughterhouse can mitigate the sale-barn and long-haul-transportation parts of the equation. There are a lot of labels I’ve seen thrown around to communicate this kind of labor-intensive, thoughtful agriculture: “local,” “organic,” “grass-fed,” “grass-finished,” “pasture-raised,” and so on. Part of the trouble of depending on labels like these is that they’re so easily manipulated. Anything that catches on as good agricultural practice is likely to be co-opted by a clever marketing department just as quickly. “Product of U.S.A.” doesn’t even mean the animal was raised in the United States. There is also the added complication that the longer life span of a grass-finished cow may have a much higher carbon footprint. I’m not certain that is true. If you look at the burgeoning research on carbon sequestration in perennial grasses, a well-run grass-finished operation could be carbon neutral, but the science is far from definitive on that.
The weird thing is that, at the end of the first couple of workdays [at the slaughterhouse], I was hungry for beef. I had this enormous appetite. And that’s uncomfortable to admit.
Cohen: The grass-finished part also makes it more expensive for the consumer.
Williams: True. What’s also true is that, given three options in the grocery store — cheap industrial beef on one end; grass-finished, small-farm beef on the other end; and a middle option that maybe doesn’t cost quite as much as grass-finished — the consumer who’s trying to be thoughtful will almost always choose the middle option. And you can create the middle option with just a label and a nice story. That’s what something like Springer Mountain is — just a nice story.
I don’t, at this point, see the possibility of industry-wide reform. The truth is that humans aren’t going to stop eating meat. It’s something that we’ve done as long as we’ve been a species. We have a poultry shortage that’s based on demand. Consumption of meat is not going down; it’s tracking with population growth.
If you really care about eating a humanely raised animal, a simple thing you can do is build a relationship with a farmer near you and buy directly from them. That’s what I do. When I moved to Iowa City, I started to buy chickens from Twisted Oak farms at the farmer’s market here. We chatted a bit over the table. They send me e-mails with little updates: the goose who works as a guard dog to protect their chickens; the building they’re renovating for a butcher shop. I know enough about their process now that I can say I like their approach. So I’m going to buy from them. But the idea that I’m reforming a massive industrial system by making that choice is laughable. It does a little for me — mostly because a well-raised bird tastes better — and it puts a little money in a hardworking farmer’s pocket. To believe it could do more than that would be vanity, I think.
I do think our industrialized system could be much better. To me the biggest pinch point is the labor question, and that’s not something that’s limited to the meatpacking industry. What needs to happen in slaughterhouses is the same thing that needs to happen in Amazon warehouses: we need better unions. Any improvement to the working conditions in slaughterhouses would be an improvement to the welfare of the animals that enter them. These issues can’t be divided.
Take the water usage of raising cows in California. It’s a real problem. There is an enormous amount of water used both in slaughterhouses and in pastures. But the same is true of almond production. Growing almonds in California requires a vast overuse of water and resources. Or take, say, onions. It was recently revealed that sweet-onion production in Georgia has been enabled by labor practices that verge on human enslavement. I don’t know too many people deeply bothered by the almond question or the onion question at the grocery store, even if they recognize the trouble with them. Meat has become a repository for our problems with agriculture in general, in part because we associate it with our religions, our morals. The other part is that almost any agricultural practice, seemingly decent at a small scale, begins to repulse when adapted to feed millions of people. Аt global scale, little things will accumulate into big problems.
Cohen: What about hunting? You hunted for the first time as part of confronting all these questions.
Williams: I did. And here’s the thing about hunting: all of these systems that we just talked about — all of the problems with industrialized production and moving animals around and the carbon impact of meat — are largely resolved in hunting. From the animal-welfare perspective, the deer lives free in the woods. From the carbon perspective, the animals are grazing and participating in a natural system. We have regulations on hunting to make sure the deer population continues to thrive, and people don’t take too much.
The main problem is that hunting is wildly inconvenient and difficult. I thought I was going to bag a deer or two every year, maybe some wild turkeys. That’s certainly the meat that I’m most comfortable with eating. The problem is that I’m terrible with guns. I don’t like them. And I have bad eyesight. I can’t reliably hit the target. Hunting is an art, a craft, a skill. I think many people would learn quite a bit about themselves — both good and bad — if they took a week to do it. I actually prefer to walk in the woods without any ammunition, but I take the gun because it’s an excuse to walk in the woods. I find that an extraordinary experience: listening carefully, watching carefully, trying to see and not disturb and to become a part of nature so that the animals act as if you weren’t there. There’s a great lesson in that. But what I just described is also learning to become a successful predator. What predators do best is blend into their surroundings. It sounds quite peaceful, but those are skills that you must learn to facilitate violence.
What are your experiences with hunting? Did you grow up with it?
Cohen: No. I would never be able to do it.
Williams: Why do you say that?
Cohen: I’ll take that back. I don’t think I’d never be able to do it. But I have so much empathy for animals that I would have a very difficult time killing one. I lived on the coast of North Carolina for most of my elementary-school years, and I went fishing on the beach with my stepdad often. It was sort of abstract to me. When I was ten, we moved to the middle of the state, and I went freshwater fishing for the first time. I came home after catching these fish and started crying because I realized that I had killed them. I felt an enormous amount of guilt. This was around the same time I really understood I would die someday.
Williams: That’s a very relatable feeling — crying at the feeling of taking a life; not wanting to be someone who takes life from the world, especially beautiful life. For me, one of the amazing things about animals is how physically different from us they are. Animals are a visible boon to the world that we live in. Of course, the fish you’re talking about had likely killed several aquatic creatures in the twenty-four hours before you killed them. But I think a fish’s attitude toward death is not the same as ours. So what is the moral relationship there? If a fish exists in a world without guilt, how do we relate to that? How should we think about it?
Chickens, in my experience, are quite sadistic. They will torture another animal, prolong its suffering, play with it. They don’t have a taboo against cannibalism either. A chicken will eat a dead chicken. It’s a meal.
I do wonder whether the guilt that I instinctually feel about participating in a death isn’t partially a confusion about what’s going on. Maybe it’s something we just can’t understand. I think of the biblical story of Job, where the poor guy gets every wrong done to him that can be done to a person in life. And he finally asks God, “Why did you cause all of this suffering?” I would paraphrase God’s response as: “You want to know? Too bad. You don’t get to understand the existence of suffering.” It is a fundamental part of life. Why does one tree have to fall down and turn into dirt for another tree to grow in its place? That’s a mystery. But I do think it is a very clear, factual description of this world we live in.
I don’t question people who don’t want to hunt. I think it’s a valid response not to want to create suffering or cause death. But the idea that you can avoid participating in death altogether is foolish. Organic romaine lettuce needs animal excrement for fertilizer. Blood meal is needed to fertilize tomatoes. And so on. These sound like justifications, but what I mean to say is that a close examination shows we’re all interconnected. To divorce ourselves from participating in the pain of the world would require monastic isolation; even then we might question what enables the monastery. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that because we went to Whole Foods and bought the organic product, we’re not participating in suffering and death.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that because we went to Whole Foods and bought the organic product, we’re not participating in suffering and death.
Cohen: In a certain light, the cuisine we’ve developed around meat is like barbarism. We smoke an animal’s ribs; we braise its thighs; we fry its skin until it’s crispy. In your research did you find anything to support that idea?
Williams: I don’t know about the word barbarism, but one of the most fascinating things I’ve read about meat is a textbook-sized USDA document called the Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications. It clinically and clearly describes the shape and attributes of every cut of meat we’ve created. So the tip of a pork shoulder “must not extend past the dorsal edge of the base of the medial ridge of the blade bone,” and so on. It names the muscles that are contained within it and says how it should be shaped. In a way it’s just describing anatomy, but it shows how these cuts of meat are human inventions. A pork chop is not an anatomical body part. A human had to draw a line that says, “If I cut up a pig this way, I will have a ‘pork chop.’ ” To me it resembles the way we describe the boundaries of a plot of land on a legal document. We’ve imposed a kind of order on the natural world. We’re saying, “These shapes exist within it,” when, in fact, we’re the ones who made those shapes and came up with names for them. We’ve decided to bundle this set of muscles together and call it a “pork shoulder.” It is a way of distancing ourselves from our predatory instinct to kill and eat the flesh for survival, and adapting it into culture, art. By giving the appearance of clear rules for doing this, maybe we are obscuring our animal nature.
Cohen: Animals don’t cook other animals.
Williams: Right, but as far as I can tell, animals do enjoy eating other animals. Improving that experience seems to be a uniquely human thing: “That was good, but it could be better.” For all the sophisticated rules and bylaws we’ve devised about how we make and prepare meat, it does resemble torture or punishment: being disemboweled or torn into pieces. Of course, none of this happens while the animal is conscious. But it does resemble torture, which is one reason some of us don’t want to have anything to do with it.
We do eat some things while they are still alive — oysters, for example. In some cultures people eat small live squid. That strikes me as deeply taboo, which is a concept we haven’t talked about yet.
Cohen: Cannibalism is a form of meat eating that deeply disturbs us, but it does happen in the animal world.
Williams: Something really clear in the way we define meat is that it is not us. That may be its most defining factor. Obviously people have eaten other people, and cannibalism exists in certain cultures. There’s a book called Eat Not This Flesh that looks at how people living in different places developed their own cultural beliefs about what is permissible to eat. No matter where you go, there is always some meat that’s prohibited. In certain cultures you can’t eat horses, because horses are useful. And then there are cultures where horses are of little use except as meat. Cats and dogs — the same thing. But the one thing we all agree on across cultures is that there is permissible meat and nonpermissible meat. The boundary seems historically based on geographic happenstance or religious power. In our current moment it is shaped by our economic system: globalized capitalism.
So some flesh is taboo to eat. Contained within that is the fear of death, but also the fear of being meat ourselves — being preyed upon. We have gotten awfully good at being predators, if you look at agriculture as a form of improved predation. It’s an incredible innovation to go from having to chase a deer through the woods to having a thousand steers grazing on your land.
Many of the oldest religious stories seem to recognize some inherent problem in our shift to agriculture. Take the Eden story: once you eat the fruit from the tree, you’re the steward of the land, rather than simply a part of nature. Once we get into the business of controlling nature, it puts a distance between us and God. It’s worth looking at the relationship between the Eden story and our instinct to regard farms as a problem.
Cohen: You mean the industrial farming system?
Williams: Yes, but also farms in general. I wrote an article about a well-meaning farmer who raised chickens in a pasture about a hundred miles west of a captive-breeding program for bald eagles. This once-endangered bird was being reintroduced to the wild. The first year, a couple of bald eagles showed up in the farmer’s pasture. The next year, there were more. Then seventy bald eagles would be there for the winter, eating his chickens. Obviously you can’t touch a bald eagle. It’s illegal even to scare one. It was an interesting story to report, but a lot of readers felt that the farmer was at fault. If we had to choose between nature and farms, these readers thought, we should always choose nature.
It’s easy to assume that agriculture is bad and nature is good. I have sympathy for that position. Agriculture has caused a great many problems in our world, ecologically and otherwise. We’ve been talking about these problems today: What do you do about people who work in a slaughterhouse? What do you do about the transportation of food? But there’s also the fact that civilization as we know it exists because of agriculture. It’s why we can be sitting here having this conversation, rather than worrying about where our next meal will come from.
Cohen: What are your thoughts about the Impossible Burger? I find it interesting that we’ve created a meatless burger, but we still want it to appear to be red and juicy.
Williams: That’s a strange project to me, too. But almost all culinary effort is about transformation. One of the illusions a really nice restaurant can produce for a diner is the feeling of effortlessness. You sit down and say, “Can I have the rack of lamb and the chicken soup?” And a restaurant will conceal the heat of the kitchen; the twelve hours of labor that went into making the chicken stock; the guy taking out the trash; the dishwasher; the farm labor that went into raising the lamb — all of this effort, right? The restaurant is creating the illusion that it was actually easy.
So the companies that make fake beef decided to create this illusion. One uses beet powder to create the appearance of a medium-rare burger. That’s not terribly dissimilar to how we transform a pile of ugly, lumpy russet potatoes into the precise, geometric, and beautiful arrangement that the French call “pommes Anna,” is it? We humans like to change food’s appearance to give it a new context, to improve it in some way. But the idea of imitation meat to me is misguided. There are an enormous number of delicious things you can do with vegetables. You don’t need to make them look like meat. We seem to be doing this because there are people who want to access the predatory pleasure that meat gives us without eating a butchered animal. There’s a market for it. And I have to hand it to a lot of those companies: it is a real improvement over the old days of fake meat. But those companies often make the utopian promise that if only we would end all meat production and replace it with imitation meat, we could solve a climate problem. That’s never going to happen.
Look, we can play these hypothetical land-use and carbon spreadsheet games all we want. Try to do the math on replacing all of the calories created by meat production. Ask a rancher what it would take to convert a thousand acres of rolling or rocky grazing pasture into intensive industrial grain production. Imagine the energy required to regrade land like that into something merely tillable, not to mention the chemical fertilizers necessary to make it productive, and in my eyes you’re essentially just replacing one environmental problem with another. Now, I don’t doubt that the bean counters of the world can make the math work so that such a project can seem like an improvement on paper. It still doesn’t matter, because people aren’t going to stop eating meat. I think it’s well-intentioned. It’s not a bad thing to aspire to cause less suffering in the world. It’s not a bad thing to aspire to better ecological practices and to want to address the urgent issue of climate change. But when you simplify the conversation to “Meat is bad, and anything we come up with to replace it must be better,” you’re doing the conversation a disservice. And you’re likely to create just as many unintended problems.
Take Utqiagvik, Alaska, a community I visited for my book. The folks in that area have subsisted on hunting and whaling for as long as it’s been a place. It’s a meat-heavy diet that is climate neutral. The idea that it would be somehow an improvement to send Impossible Burgers or lab-grown meat to the North Slope of Alaska is plainly foolish. We should challenge ourselves to look at what food exists in abundance where we live. It helps not to be so afraid of the moral implications associated with eating animals, I think, when we notice the enormous, growing populations of deer and feral hogs in North America. I’m far from the first person to make this argument: we need to make choices relative to our community.
For all the sophisticated rules and bylaws we’ve devised about how we make and prepare meat, it does resemble torture or punishment: being disemboweled or torn into pieces . . . which is one reason some of us don’t want to have anything to do with it.
Cohen: One thing we haven’t talked about is the health aspect of abstaining from meat. I tried to be a vegetarian years ago after reading that eating meat is not good for you, but my body had a difficult time with it. Still, a lot of people consume a meat-free diet with success. Where do you stand on the health benefits of being a vegetarian versus being a meat eater?
Williams: Indulging our deepest pleasures in excess every day is terrible for us, whether that’s alcohol or cigarettes or rib-eye steaks. One study found that if you eat four slices of bacon every morning, you will increase your chances of colon cancer by 20 percent. Does that surprise anyone? Four slices of bacon every morning? One of the clearest issues with culinary culture and industrial agriculture is that we’ve created a cheap abundance of things that are more pleasurable when they are rare indulgences. And I say that as somebody who really likes to indulge! I like good bacon, but it is no pleasure to enjoy these things out of balance.
There are great benefits to limiting the amount of meat in one’s diet, but is there much difference between having one cheeseburger a month and having no meat at all? Some people will swear up and down that a diet that completely excludes certain food groups is best, but I’m not convinced those kinds of prohibitions are necessary for good health. I believe the science is pretty clear that moderate consumption of most things is the key to health.
Cohen: The idea of overindulgence brings us back to the Arby’s commercial. As you said, there’s some performative masculinity there, but it also points to the idea that we should be able to eat as much as we want of whatever we want.
Williams: One thing that pushed me away from restaurant criticism is that, to do the job correctly, I had to eat in excess so frequently. To be able to judge a restaurant, you need to taste several dishes and visit a number of times. I had colleagues who were able to have a couple of bites of this and a couple of bites of that and feel they were doing their job, but I could never do that. I came to think, Oh, I’m at this good restaurant. I should order six things. It made me feel terrible. I had some mental-health struggles at the time that were not helped by my diet. And I developed this kind of entitlement, this expectation of being waited on. I think it’s very easy to slip into that habit of indulgence — or, at least, it was for me. We live in an unbelievably wealthy country, and we take for granted food options that are enormous luxuries elsewhere.
Meat is mixed up in that equation. The portioning that we associate with meat is a cultural problem in the States, and it needs a cultural solution; agricultural reform alone can’t solve that. The trouble is we’ve created a culinary culture that is divorced from agricultural reality. Neither the farm-to-table fantasies of artisanal everything nor the industrial-grain Impossible Burger tech visionaries seem in touch with it. It’s up to us, of course. We need to develop different ways of cooking and different ways of eating. But we always find a way to make a new problem, don’t we?