Saturday, February 20, 2010

Meat and the economy

A recent trip to New York and the fashionable restaurants we sampled there had me ruminating on our current food culture, the economy and what is behind what seems to be an increase in overall meatiness in America.

On our first day in the city, we ate lunch at the
The Breslin Bar and Dining Room after checking out event space in the Ace Hotel, where the Breslin is located. I will preface my review by saying I'm a pretty flexible vegetarian. I can usually find something to eat just about anywhere, and it helps that I'm not super picky other than on the meat issue. That said, I don't think I've ever seen a meatier menu than at the Breslin: Onion and Bone Marrow Soup, Pork Scratchings, Chargrilled Beef Tongue Sandwich, Head Cheese and even Boiled Peanuts Cooked in Pork Fat. This isn't just meat, this is MEAT. I ate a salad, which was fine, but it was the only option for me. Does bone marrow sound good to anyone? I guess it must.

Later that week we tried the Standard Grill, which is a hipster dining spot with an appealing location under the Highline in the Meatpacking District (maybe that should have tipped me off ...). This was slightly veg-friendlier than the Breslin, but it did feature a meat counter for fancy-pants cold cuts, a pate menu and mashed potatoes laced with duck fat.

These days it can be challenging to find even a salad sans bacon or a grilled chicken breast (and if you ask for those elements to be left off, I might add, you don't pay any less). Vegetarians may be a favorite cultural punching bag -- we're too weak to punch back, after all -- but to judge by the menus I've seen recently, we're not much of a threat to the thriving meaty lifestyle, so ya'll can find someone else to make fun of.

So what does that have to do with the economy?

Earlier this week, I was listening to one of my favorite NPR/American Public Media Shows, Marketplace. The story was about Fashion Week in New York and designers' efforts to create styles more accessible to the average consumer. Kai Ryssdal, the show's host, was interviewing a reporter named Ray Smith from the Wall Street Journal about how designers (in this case Michael Kors) are toning things down to appeal to cost-consicous consumers. Here's what Smith had to say:

"I mean today in (Kors') runway show, which is one of the biggest shows of New York Fashion Week, he did show a lot of fur. But what was different this time was a lot more distressed looks. I think it's just a sign of the times that the distressing is sort of like toning down that sort of luxe factor if you will."

Okay, fur isn't meat. But obviously they are both animal products. And Smith's comments crystallized for me that we're in the midst of a trend I'd call "faux poverty." All the rich organ meats and "distressed" fur is just a way for people to feel decadent in a crummy economy. We're not having bologna sandwiches, we're eating beef tongue. Plain old soup isn't good enough, let's add some bone marrow. These types of meat, as I learned from Beverly Cleary's Ramona books as a kid, are poverty foods. (Ramona and her sister Beezus are horrified when their mom tries to pass off tongue as regular meat by drowning it in gravy.) We're tipping our hat to the times with a self-conscious posture of poverty.

I probably don't need to connect A to B for you, but I will. If we're trying to give the impression of moderation, it would be better to leave the poor animals alone and eat some beans. That's REAL poverty food. I guess I'm just disturbed by the seeming fashionability of meats most people wouldn't usually dream of eating. Despite the fact that we have fewer coins clinking around in our pockets, we're eating more meat than ever.

I guess it's a symptom of the other thing I've noticed about the crappy economy and the general American malaise. We're really having a hard time not feeling sorry for ourselves. News reports on the economy are constantly comparing our situation to the Great Depression - "the worst recession since the Great Depression" is a favorite qualifier. I'm not saying that the recession is a myth or that people aren't suffering. But what better time to choose to forgo meat a few times a week than when you could really save some money in the process? I'm sorry, but until someone shows me a bread line forming somewhere, I find it all a little much. At least bread is vegetarian.

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