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October 1995
Editorial: A Brief Theology of Meat

By Martin Rowe



A recent full-page ad in the New York Times for Smith & Wollensky (“the quintessential New York steakhouse”) had the following byline. “If steak were a religion, this would be its cathedral.” A friend of mine mentioned the ad to me, and we both expressed a certain wonderment — indeed puzzlement — about what the byline actually meant. Obviously, at a basic level, all the advertisers are saying is that this steakhouse is the best, a place of maximalism — respect, dedication, even sanctity. The twist is, perhaps, that potential customers would think, “C’mon, this is steak we’re talking about here,” but that they would go nonetheless — curious about a place where succor is offered and certainty conferred.

But this explanation doesn’t seem quite enough. After all, flesh in the form of the body of Jesus Christ lies at the center of the religion addressed here. (Note it is neither a temple nor a shrine that is talked about). There’s not enough space to talk at length of how the commemorative vegetarian seder of Jesus the Jew became the transubstantive consumption of the Son of God. Suffice to say, the resonance of meat as a locus of truth, comfort, plenitude — even reality — echoes throughout Christian patriarchal culture; and that by calling upon the dual themes of flesh and the house of God, this ad is sending out a message to the faithful and lapsed alike to return to the fold.

My suspicion about this ad has been enhanced by a spate of recent ads operating under the same guiding principle. One TV campaign (“Beef. It’s what’s for dinner”) shows various nuclear families gathering together around a dinner table, drawn from all corners of the house to eat meat. An ad for The Post House has a picture of a large knife, with the byline: “Horrifying Vegetarians Since 1980.” Radio and print media ads for the National Cattlemen's Association talk about preserving an American way of life.

In each of these ads, what beef is — and those animals who have “disappeared” to become it — has vanished. Meat itself has converted itself to a symbol, an abstraction; albeit an abstraction that lies at the heart of white Christian America. It is heritage; it is the bond that binds the family together when everything else — including vegetarians (whom The Post House suggests, should be frightened by beefy meat-eaters) — is tearing it apart. To live without meat, runs the implication, is to live without the central forces that keep (patriarchal) society in place. This has always been the case; but like the cigarette industry (“You’ve come a long way, Baby”) the meat world can no longer deal solely (or even mainly) on the product. It must deal with easily-cooptable concepts such as freedom of choice, “hell-it’s-my-life”, and the American, God-ordained way.

Thinking about these ads, however, I feel some hope. Sure, when advertisers start calling upon faith statements and other such ultimates, to be a vegetarian, or an environmentalist, or for gun control no longer becomes an isolated battle (if it ever was that way). It becomes a struggle for the cholesteroled heart of America; any place (whether church or steakhouse) where authorized men place themselves behind a table to dispense food they have deemed manly and significant. But, by the same token, upping the anti to such an extent can only mean that these advertisers have no where else to go. Falling back on the self-identified eternal verities of meat is male America, these advertisers are still “falling back.” I think it shows they are losing the argument and more significantly losing faith and belief in their product, because their customers are. And I say amen to that.


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