Roger Horowitz: Putting Meat on the American Table

by tigermanifesto

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In their relationship to the working class, capitalists long ago learned that they can make a lot of money out of taking back what they have given away. And, to the degree that—particularly in the 1960s and 1970s—workers became increasingly empowered in the sphere of consumption, capital starts to concentrate much more on pulling back value through consumption.

David Harvey, speaking to Roar Magazine

To help make ends meet in my last year of university, I cleaned my school’s auditorium building every weekend. The pay was minimal, but unlike many service jobs at the front end––working as a cashier or a station attendant, for example––the work was quite asocial and unsupervised. For several hours every weekend, therefore, I could turn on my iPod and listen to audio versions of David Harvey’s guide to Karl Marx’s Capital. 

I listened to every episode several times over those two semesters, and one of his crucial talking points, echoed in the above quotation, is that the global capitalist economy functions as a unity of production and realization. In everyday language, capitalism can only function as a cycle of making things and selling things. Without production, there are no goods and no value to capture, and without mass marketing, distribution systems, and retail outlets, all that capital would sit rotting and stagnant while the population lived on subsistence farms.

Further, we can see that these two unified but distinct aspects of global capitalism are separated both temporally and geographically. Here is a necessary evil in all capitalist investment: the time gap between sinking capital into a venture and realizing the returns. Naturally, every good capitalist seeks to minimize this temporal gap as much as possible.

Meanwhile, the geographical gap presently appears largely as the divisions created by imperialism; due to certain concessions won at the centres of capitalism, including higher wages and benefits for a large class of workers, industrial production has largely migrated to the Global South. Companies relocate their capital to minimize wage costs and maximize output, but the workers who are exploited in the South cannot afford to purchase what they make. This requires these businesses to haul their goods overseas to bring them to largely Western or Japanese consumers. Capital is thus produced in the South and realized in the North, at least largely.

When writing about capitalism and its recent history in the Global North, therefore, one of the cornerstones of a good analysis will be an assessment of consumerism. Rather than tackling the issue in its entirety, however, I have found it helpful to research a single commodity like meat or sugar. These simple goods have an outsized impact on people’s everyday lives-–everyone concerns themselves with food prices, quality, and availability, after all––and because of this they can be good test subjects for historical investigations. Food commodities rest at the bedrock of even our technically advanced societies, and studying them grants a peak at the tangled nets of social and material relations that make up capitalist society.

Now to the review: Roger Horowitz’s Putting Meat on the American Table.

Roger Horowitz, an American historian of labour, published Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation in 2006, more than twenty years after Sweetness and Power. Horowitz places a single commodity, or family of commodities, at the centre of his social and cultural history. One distinctive part of Meat is its emphasis on the technology part of its title far more than the taste part.

Where authors like Mintz uses anthropology and Marxism to show how both individuals and larger systems related to sugar, Horowitz is content with using more conventional social historical tools to tell a story about technological progress. Far less concerned with meanings or broader historical dynamics, it is much more focused––one could say myopic––in its emphasis on the production process and the capitalists and workers involved in manufacturing and transforming the American meat industry.

Though its narrower focus can be frustrating, it partly reflects a basic difference between sugar and meat. Sugar, though its processing is difficult and protracted, does not involve the same kind of visceral destruction as meat production. Much of the story of meat production in Horowitz’s book builds on the theme of “persistent nature,” the ways that animals remain integrated and organic beings that “refuse to die” despite capitalist industry’s attempt to standardize and restrict animals to uniform shapes and sizes.¹

Because of this endurance and Horowitz’s recognition of it, the book partly revolves around the bodies and agency of the animals themselves. For most of its duration, however, the book keeps such considerations in the background and focuses instead on the mechanical side of the conflict between flesh and machines.

Take the chapter on beef for example. Beginning with a summary of a Jack London story, it paints in the background of early industrial America, where urban consumer demand for quality cuts of beef drove the creation of transport and production networks that could process the animals efficiently and deliver the product quickly. The difficulty for capitalists was Americans’ relatively inflexible demand for palatable cuts of fresh beef rather than cured: “The necessity of preserving large amounts to make efficient use of the cattle’s meat warred with Americans’ persistent taste for fresh beef.”² What Horowitz does not do is trace this taste for fresh beef any further back in history, merely finding it readymade for his analysis.

From that point, the chapter focuses on how certain entrepreneurs transformed the beef business from a local affair centered on butchers and fresh cuts to a supermarket experience. Readers learn about refrigeration, distribution networks, grisly details about the ways butchers killed animals without causing stress, and the like. Overall, the story is focused on how producers fed a preexisting taste for beef in the American populace, with little focus on the hows or whys of that taste itself.

Though the book’s frequent use of “American” in the general sense could be interpreted as eliding racial, gender, and class differences, the book is not so reductive. Within the beef chapter, for example, Horowitz includes some snippets of labour history along with the narratives about technology. Beef slaughtering has always remained a relatively hands-on and non-automated process, meaning that butchers and other slaughterhouse workers in that industry have been able to build strong unions. “The capacity of butchers, in slaughterhouses and retail stores to secure recognition, and contracts, came from their essential role: putting meat on the American table,” he writes.³

In later chapters, this situation is played as a contrast to other workers in sausage factories, who were largely women. These jobs were devastated by automation in the 1960s.⁴ However, the women there were able to organize against discrimination and win back some of their jobs, though always at less pay than male butchers and workers. Another instance where gender appears as a category of analysis is in the discussion of consumer preference for certain meat colours––yellow chickens, for example.⁵ Meat shoppers were mostly women, as Horowitz points out. What is lacking is any further consideration of how gender, at a given historical moment, affected these preferences. Again, the story is one of how taste constrains and influences production but not either vice versa or how those tastes originated.

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Class and race appear in the same summary fashion. One notable tendency of the book is to use statistical surveys without breaking them down and looking beyond the numbers. Separating the country into three income brackets, “lowest third,” “middle third,” and “highest third,” Horowitz shows that overall meat consumption has increased and evened out between the three brackets over the last century.⁶ Higher-income individuals consume less meat than lower-class people by the 1990s. As he writes, for all classes, “meat supplies were simply part of what it meant to have a prosperous America.”⁷ He goes on to say approximately the same about racial and ethnic divisions: they have gradually narrowed and become less important over time as meat has become cheaper and more standardized.

But Horowitz does not attempt to look further than the data and analyze the qualitative differences between classes and races in their meat consumption. There are isolated mentions of how poorer people consume worse meat in rougher cuts, but it is never synthesized into the book’s main argument or presented in a systematic way. Much less is there an analysis of whether and how the symbolic meanings of meat differ between racial, gender, or class groups, and how this influences consumption practices. Putting Meat on the American Table, therefore, is less of a cultural history than a social and labour history of American meat production.

Notes:

  1. Roger Horowitz, Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 153-154.
  2. Ibid, 19.
  3. Ibid, 41.
  4. Ibid, 102.
  5. Ibid, 107-108.
  6. Ibid, 15.
  7. Ibid, 17.
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