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Review: Marta Zaraska’s Meathooked is a bit undercooked

Marta Zaraska, author of Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat.

Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession With Meat
Marta Zaraska
Basic Books

The Polish-Canadian journalist Marta Zaraska's case against eating meat opens in the guise of honest scientific inquiry, with the story of her mother's undying love of hams and pâté. In the summer of 2009, the writer's mother read an article about the negative health effects of meat eating and was briefly scared into vegetarianism. Yet within a few weeks, she was back to gleeful carnivory, Zaraska writes. "I like meat, I eat it, end of story," her mother told her.

Which it wasn't, of course – not when an anecdote about a mother's weakness could be transformed into the beating heart of a zeitgeist-grasping book proposal. "What is it about animal protein that makes us crave it," Zaraska wondered. "What makes it so hard to give up? And if consuming meat is truly unhealthy for us, why didn't evolution turn us all into vegetarians in the first place?" Great questions, all of them. I hope to read the answers some day soon.

While the author calls her book "an investigation into why humans love eating meat," she views its consumption not so much as a hardwired or learned trait or even a love borne of culture and taste but as pathology – as something that humankind is hopelessly "hooked" on and "doomed" to continue, to our great mortal and moral peril. Americans, Zaraska claims just three pages in, each consume 275 pounds of meat annually. If that won't scare you meatless, her invocation of polls, studies, dubious health data – Meathooked should have been subtitled "according to studies," for all the times that phrase appears within its pages – things she heard from a guy and recipes for Korean dog meat stew just might do the trick.

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It'll either scare and/or disgust you meatless, or more likely, it'll have you siding in sympathy with Zaraska's mother. Meathooked isn't an investigation. It's 200 pages of being trapped in a naugahyde-padded room with a hectoring PETA campaigner who will grasp at any pseudo study or nonsensical quote or misinterpreted data to support her point of view. And it begins with a whopper (and not the flame-broiled kind, sadly) in her introduction, before the book has even truly begun.

About that alarming 275 pounds of meat that Americans "devour" every year, cited on page 3. Did the author not stop, as any critical reader might, to do the math? Does every American man, woman and child truly eat 12 ounces of meat – that's three quarters of a pound – every day, 365 days each year?

That 275-pound figure is the United States' "per-capita meat carcass availability": the amount of meat, bones, viscera and odd bits that the world's largest meat exporter produces per American, per year. Actual American meat consumption, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's estimates, is 125 pounds annually, or less than half of what Zaraska claims, and it has fallen sharply in recent years. Which, granted, is still way too much not merely for our health but also for the planet. But that early, egregious cock-up leaves a reader's faith in Meathook's author compromised, to say the least.

This may be the most frustrating thing about Meathooked: Zaraska is right, we do eat far too much meat and ought to cut way back. I'd argue that we're well on the way, too, thanks in large part to such writers, chefs and entrepreneurs as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Amanda Cohen, Yotam Ottolenghi, Mollie Katzen and the founders of the Freshii restaurant chain, to cite just a few. That sobering reality quickly gets lost, however, in a fire-hose stream of wishful thinking and breathtakingly sloppy thought.

Directly after we learn of Americans' (fictional) meat consumption, and read an alarmist, unconvincing "according to studies" section on meat eating's trail of health devastation, Zaraska turns to the case of a simpler, meat-abstaining people who should be an example to us all.

"Studies show that the vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists in California live on average 9.5 (men) and 6.1 (women) years longer than other Californians," Zaraska tells us. "Do reports like these deter us from eating meat? Not really," she concludes.

And neither do they deter us from adopting other Seventh-day Adventist behaviours that could just as easily explain the group's longer life expectancy, including the observation of a 24-hour Sabbath every Friday at sunset, as well as giving up shellfish, drinking, smoking and live theatre, not to mention abstinence from masturbation and recreational sex, which as everybody knows can sometimes lead to dancing.

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Causation? Correlation? Who cares, really, when there's an investigation at stake.

Meathook's science and history sections are breezy, to put it kindly. We meet a bacterium that began eating other bacteria (with tarragon frites and tartar sauce, one hopes) some 1.5 billion years ago, and then another creature that liked to eat anemones. From there it's a short evolutionary trip to the early earth-bound meat eater called "the penis worm," and another called nectocaris, and eventually to Homo sapiens and all those asinine "Mmmm Bacon Good" ads on TV.

But at every possible opportunity, Zaraska filters humans' meat-eating history through her meat-is-murder lens. Big-game hunting, as practised by our human ancestors, wasn't about sustenance, she argues, but about "showing off, politics, and sex," – which I'd love to see her try and explain to the descendants of the North American Plains indigenous people, who subsisted on buffalo meat for more than five millennia.

"Meat was not a physiological necessity. What they did need was a high-quality diet, and at the time meat was the best option they had," she further writes.

The book links meat-eating not just to cruelty and abhorrent foreign tastes (dog stew! Stir-fried rat!) but also to authoritarianism, misogyny, patriarchy, rampant capitalism and homophobia. It raises the usual China alarums ("How Asia is Getting Hooked on Meat, Fast"), pledges that if only we ate less meat we'd spend far less time on the toilet (because: salmonella; Zaraska conveniently ignores how frequently processed fruits and vegetables are linked to food-borne illness; clearly she has also never consumed an entire bowl of meatless mung bean and jalapeno stew), and quotes many more sensational "facts" and figures without even the slightest application of critical thought. ("According to a local chapter of the non-profit organization PETA, there are about thirty thousand illegal slaughterhouses in India, many of them turning holy cows into steaks," she writes at one point. Holy cow, indeed. Now if only there were, I don't know, a journalist or something to tell us if the allegation in that quote is even remotely true.)

The author's solution, contained in her book's final chapter, is perhaps the only sensible part of Meathooked: We should all eat much less meat, if not entirely eliminate it from our lives. Which shouldn't be all that difficult, considering Zaraska's starting line.

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With a bit of effort and self-denial, I hope to get my annual meat intake into the low 260-pound range by the spring of 2017.

Chris Nuttall-Smith is The Globe and Mail's dining critic.

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