Book Review: Gristle (Thinking Twice About the Meat We Eat)

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Gristle Edited by Moby and Miyun ParkMost reviews of Gristle will start with an assessment of Moby, the fantastically irritating middle-aged multi-platinum electronic musician-turned-food policy expert who edited the book. Based on what I know of Moby, I do not like him. It wouldn't be fair to hate him. Hating is a tough thing to do, even when you really know someone well enough to feel okay about doing it. While, for a long time, Moby barely registered a chirp on my pop culture radar, he first became the subject of my considerable distaste in 1999, when his mega-smash album Play came out, saturating radio station playlists, television commercials, and department store dressing rooms with "soulful" Alan Lomax-recorded blues samples wrapped in pulsing techno. The songs were inescapable and horrible. Much to my dismay, they chased me everywhere I went. More recently, in late March, weeks before this book arrived in my mailbox, I thought of Moby again when the New York Times published a Sunday Routine feature about him. Every section reads as if the author (Moby, in his first-person voice, presumably as recorded and edited by writer Lizette Alvarez) cannot help but be astounded by his own charm and cleverness. He names his favorite kind of organic tea, brags about his wretched-sounding pancakes, revels in online Scrabble victories, rattles off a vile but fiercely healthy smoothie recipe, and (on account of Calvinist ancestors) admits to a few "guilty" pleasures -- including that leviathan of vice, "mass market fiction." A friend linked to the article on Facebook, adding a highly derisive caption. A day later, a mutual friend commented on the post, sharing a shameful nugget of hearsay from yet another friend who apparently knows Moby quite well -- well enough to text with him, at least. According to this undoubtedly suspect source, when Moby texts, he dutifully concludes each message with a jaunty sign-off: "This is Moby, on the text."

While Gristle's editor might come across as a smug self-righteous cartoon, an easy target given the trappings he's prone to wearing, the message he, co-editor Miyun Park, and the host of noble experts they've gathered are pushing is real and worthy of very serious discussion. Simply put, this book -- a featherweight at 144 pages -- has forced me to re-contemplate the advantages of vegetarianism in the face of a corporation-clogged taxpayer-funded mainstream meat industry dedicated to processing artificially cheap, unhealthy, and potentially dangerous animal protein products for mass consumption, with a startling disregard for its underpaid workers and the environment.

In Gristle, each contributor handles a brief chapter with a one word title focusing on a single negative aspect of factory farming's effect on people, animals, and the world -- an issue to house arguments supported, in turn, by facts. It's a tidy assemblage of frill-free prose and grim, gray-scale visual aids. There's a uniformity to the writing and presentation uncommon to a collection of such far-flung perspectives, but the diversity nips any argument that Moby's cast of contributors are all cut from the same animal rights activist cloth.

There's Brendan Brazier, Canadian Ironman triathlon competitor, weighing in on health. asserting that, "leaving farm animals out of your diet is a simple decision with life-long benefits." Whole Foods honcho and dedicated libertarian John Mackey talks taxes, revealing that Americans currently spend 8% of their incomes on food, whereas, one hundred years ago, they spent over five times as much -- a change brought about, in part, by government subsidies that distort markets "tremendously." Christine Chavez and Julie Chavez Rodriguez, human rights activists and granddaughters of Cesar Chavez, write about the abysmal working conditions in factory farms. Paul and Phyllis Willis, the manager of Niman Ranch Pork Company and a community activist respectively, discuss how factory farms tear up communities: In just two decades, Iowa has seen an 84% decrease in the number of farms raising pigs, yet almost five times as many pigs. That means bigger farms, and less farmers. Lauren Bush, C.E.O. and co-founder of FEED as well as the niece of George W., focuses on the environment, and Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappe and her daughter Anne address global warming, offering up a specific morsel I actually remember stewing over in my youth: 16 pounds of grain and soy are required to raise one pound of steak.

I have written before about my own experiment with vegetarianism. I never ate much meat as a kid, largely because my parents didn't. I stopped altogether when I was 13, in 1993. I tasted fish again in 2001, and poultry a few years later. Before long, I was a full-bore bone-gnawing omnivore, even more adventurous and meat-centric once I began writing frequently about food for amusement and income. Reading Gristle sent me back to a time I often struggle to remember -- the moment I decided to stop eating meat -- and about halfway through the book, I wondered why I had. There was a time not long ago when I saw the meatless phase of my young life largely as a drawn-out gesture of gentle rebellion against my cultural surroundings, a politicized substitute for dying my hair green. I was only vocal and remotely militant about vegetarianism for a few years, and yet I remained a vegetarian for many more. Did I stick to my diet out of habit? Was I trapped by a desire to maintain consistency? Making sense of the flights of logic generated by my 16-year-old mind always requires major effort, but in this matter, I was probably never so stupid. Meat -- as most of America knows it, and has known it for decades -- might not be murder, but it is a huge unholy mess.


Growing up, I always liked animals, particularly cute ones like pigs and sheep, but I didn't stop eating them because they blinked, breathed, and made noises. The philosophical heft of my decision didn't approach Moby's. Once, as he describes in the aforementioned New York Times piece, "the most pretentious person [he] has ever met, Moby outlines his reasoning in the introduction. Essentially, he followed the golden rule as extended to animals, with Blaise Pascal's Gambit wading in: "I took the logic of ["betting" on God's existence as opposed to non-existence] and applied it. . .I decided that it's probably a better "bet" to extend compassion as far and wide as possible as opposed to restricting the lengths to which I would extend compassion." Me, I just had a vague aesthetic aversion. Meat seemed heavy, dirty, and unclean. There were just icky inklings, though I soon found facts to back them up. In Gristle, those facts come off as particularly devastating.

Gristle rather delicately avoids directly damning all carnivorous acts. For all its polemics and pamphlet-esque tone, this book is, at its core, optimistic, hinging on the idea that, if people really know the facts about where the meat they eat comes from, they'll change their ways. They'll eat less meat, and make sure that the meat they do eat comes from truly reputable, responsible farms -- even if it's expensive or inconvenient to do so. Maybe they'll even eschew it entirely. In the introduction, Moby writes, "if enough people find out about the hidden ramifications of industrialized farmed animal production, we'll eventually see a shift away from supporting these destructive industries, which would lead to a healthier, cleaner, and more humane world."

I'm not positive that would help. In his chapter, John Mackey suggests that, "the only reason our abuse of animals is still tolerated is because most people aren't aware of it." While the average American may not know the details of how domesticated animals are treated in factory farms, the net of ills cast by the meat industry's participants is too huge, perfect, and ridiculous not to warrant suspicion -- especially considering how much attention a slew of best-sellers have devoted to it. Even with Moby's name attached, a wee volume from a smallish press is going to be read by the same people who already read Diet for a Small Planet, Fast Food Nation, and The Omnivore's Dilemma -- not exactly obscure texts, but not quite Oprah, MTV, and Good Morning America either. In her epilogue, Miyun Park writes:

"[S]omehow industrial animal agribusiness has largely managed to get away with oppressing workers, making us and our children unhealthy, slowly but surely destroying rural communities, contributing to global warming and global hunger, cultivating the emergence of devastating zoonotic diseases, and polluting the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the land on which we all live -- all while getting subsidized by taxpayers."

It's astonishing, and while saying "enough" to the injustice is fine, the problem isn't that the information hasn't at least begun to trickle down. The problem is that a lot of people really don't care that much. It's one thing to read about abused, confined fowl, tortured, manure-smeared stacks of swine, polluted rivers, and drug-resistant bacteria, and be horrified, but it's another thing entirely to implement a dramatic lifestyle shift. It isn't, as Brazier puts it, a "simple change."

Speaking personally, fast food restaurants -- where Americans inhale most of their factory-farmed meat -- are easy to avoid. At the same time, my favorite local ethnic eateries likely source from the same coops and lots. Grease-laden sidewalk tacos, Filipino breakfast silogs, sausages at Lao dives, Shanghai soup dumplings, Cambodian curries, and Korean short ribs don't always come with a Niman Ranch stamp. Enjoying those flavors, supporting those small businesses, and by extension, the communities from which they spring means eating meat that does harm. It's a tough call sometimes. At many area restaurants catering to diners with Slow Food-friendly values, menus proudly name the farms and ranches charged with raising the meat they serve. High-end grocery stores do the same, and they're rewarded with customers from the same relatively moneyed, socially-conscious pool. To put it mildly, the circumstances encourage elitism, and discourage a wider diffusion of responsibly raised animal products.


I take my meat-eating opportunities one bite at a time. I'm not nostalgic for the vegetarian days, but I struggle with guilt for grazing broadly, especially when I'm pretty sure I'm eating an animal whose life was miserable and brief. Eating in a professional capacity scrambles good intentions. One week, I shop at the right stores and eat very little meat, and only that which I know to be of worthy provenance, and the next, there's a new torta to taste, and taste it I must. Since reading Gristle -- an amped-up Cliff's Notes for the pro-vegetarian literature I inhaled as a teenager -- the predicament has been a little tougher. Dancing above my head like Mango, Moby is there, surveying every bite, sipping a cup of organic white tea, wagging a skinny little finger, eyes closed, his huge pale noggin shaking back and forth. You can't have the torta. No, no, no, he says softly. Sadly, I can't just smack him away.