My students are puzzled when I ask them, Why do you eat meat? Their answers range from upbringing to bacon. I don’t ask their ethical reasons for eating or not eating meat. I’m interested in where exactly the instinct for meat arises.
I became a vegetarian in January and wrote about comfort, empathy and the links between meat and climate change. I am deeply concerned about the sustainability of animal agriculture — Drew Hanson wrote that capitalism may starve humanity by 2050.
Like more than 400,000 people on average per day, I watch the Food Network and sink into the sea of cooking competition shows. I joke any time someone on Chopped says, “I’m not here to make friends.” Ever since January, though, I wonder at the absence of vegetarian/vegan representation on the network. Watch the Food Network and you will find meat. Lots of it. If you’re looking for vegetarian or vegan representation or celebration of plant-based foods, though, you are out of luck. You are so out of luck that any basket on Chopped containing no meat will receive groans or outright scorn from contestants. Give cooks tofu and they will revolt.
In 2011, Food Network President Brooke Johnson told AdWeek that viewership is 65 percent female, while that becomes more neutral in primetime. Vegetarians and vegans numbered 8.3 million people in the United States in 2013, with 79 percent of vegans and 59 percent of vegetarians being women. An earlier 2008 study by Vegetarian Times showed that around 22.8 million people follow a “vegetarian-inclined,” or what we might call flexitarian, diet. With those demographics combined, the Food Network has an interest in celebrating plant-based foods and vegetarian/vegan lifestyles. So, Food Network: Why do you eat meat?
American food culture is meat culture. Again, simply watch the reactions to meatless foods on the channel. Any time I tell someone I’m a vegetarian, they ask why. My father recently asked, when I talked about vegetarian diets, how I enjoyed anything. So much of the mythology of the west is built around livestock, meat, and consumption. Watch a show centered on grilling on the Food Network and inevitably you will see cowboy hats and often, outdoor, country settings.
Things are changing. Meat has been on the decline for a decade and some think at least part of the reason is due to health concerns.
If American food culture is meat culture, it is also masculine culture. And, that masculinity is often toxic, particularly in how it genders food (think about how often you hear women’s bodies associated with meat). Men are socialized to value violence and dominance. It’s easy to see that socialization extended to how we view food. Vegetarian diets are seen as anti-masculine, anti-male.
If meat is on the decline and meat culture represents male culture (at least in part), then the Food Network has every incentive to serve its demographic by celebrating plant-based diets.
I’ve written that meat represents comfort and community for me—I grew up in Nebraska with meat as a part of every meal. The Food Network’s lack of vegetarian or vegan representation or inaction on celebrating plant-based foods goes counter to what their demographic and viewership want. Is the issue as simple as comfort? Is food culture—and the comfort associated with eating meat—to blame for the Food Network’s exclusion?
Most of us do not grow up celebrating plant-based food. For many, it may not even be part of the discussion. Meat is a given in many households. The Food Network prides itself as a family channel. Perhaps part of the narrative of family and community necessarily includes the meat that has been central to American culture.
Questioning and critically engaging food culture does not have to mean changing completely. We can embrace and celebrate plant-based foods without condemning carnivorous diets. The Food Network’s viewership is at least in some proportion vegetarian/vegan or vegetarian-inclined. To celebrate and embrace plant-based diets is to simply recognize the people already watching. Exclusion makes a political and personal statement. Part of the responsibility of talking about food is talking about how we eat and why.
Photo: Moyan Brenn