Recent reading

In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America, Maureen Ogle — I first heard of Maureen Ogle through her engaging history of beer in the United States, Ambitious Brew. I enjoyed that book, so I was pleased to receive an advance copy of her newest work.

In both books Maureen tells the stories of industries that began with local producers, consolidated into industrial scale, and then saw the rapid recent growth of smaller, quality production alongside the corporate giants. But she doesn’t she go for an easy narrative of good versus evil. The story of meat is driven by changes in production, transportation, regulation, and the incentives they impose on the market. This is very much a microeconomic history: the industry is the way it is because entrepreneurs made understandable choices in the pursuit profit.

Maureen takes an ambivalent view of modern meat production, as, in reality, do most of us. We abhor the cruelty of factory farming and the environmental destruction wrought by consuming so much meat. We also like being able to enjoy meat in plentiful, affordable quantities, whether it’s humanely-raised and artfully prepared or greasily devoured at a fast food restaurant. As she notes in the introduction, meat is like gasoline. It’s easy to extol moderation when it’s cheap, but few desire the hardship of making it expensive.

To readers seeking a condemnation of modern meat production, this book may come across as insufficiently damning. Even so-called “pink slime” gets its due. “[The] process was simply a high-tech version of what frugal cooks have done since humans stood upright: it allowed processors to utilize every available morsel of protein and calories,” she notes in the concluding chapter. “Only a food-rich society like ours enjoys the luxury of dispensing with frugality.” But this hard-headed approach to the subject is exactly what makes In Meat We Trust worth reading. There is probably no better source for understanding our carnivorous society, in all its plenitude and horror.

Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen — This is Tyler Cowen’s follow up to The Great Stagnation, examining economic trends stemming from what he describes as “some fairly basic and hard-to-reverse forces: the increasing productivity of intelligent machines, economic globalization, and the split of modern economies into both very stagnant sectors and some very dynamic sectors.” The basic ideas are summed up pretty well in this New Yorker interview. One exchange from that apltly describes my friend circle in Portland:

I think there will be much larger numbers of people who live somewhat bohemian, [freelance] lifestyles, who culturally feel very upper-middle-class or even upper-class, but who don’t have that much money. (Think of many parts of Brooklyn.) Those individuals will be financially precarious, but live happy, productive lives. How we evaluate that ethically is very tricky. Still, I think that’s what we’re going to see.

Initially reading the book, I didn’t think my own career in the spirits industry was likely to be affected very much by the need to work with intelligent machines. Robotic bartenders? A novelty, and change-resistant regulators would be wary of taking humans out of the exchange. Smart software to create novel recipes? That’s only part of the job, and we already have The Flavor Bible. But on further reflection, I realize a lot of my relative success in the industry comes not because I’m good at making drinks — lots of people are — but because I’ve combined that well with social networking and blogging. The topic of how to make a long-term living making drinks is one that comes up often, and understanding how to use SEO and online platforms is a factor to consider in this and so many other lines of work.

If you follow Marginal Revolution or have read Cowen’s other books, you’ll know whether or not you’ll like this one. I found it thought-provoking throughout and even enjoyed the long sections on competitive chess, a field in which Cowen sees signs of where other jobs and life pursuits are headed. (Freestyle chess, which combines teams of humans and computers, reminded me very much of David Brin’s recent science fiction novel Existence, recommended in the previous round-up.)

Smoke: A Global History of Smoking, Sander L. Gilman and Zhou Xun — Given the ubiquity of cigarettes in the twentieth century, its easy to forget that tobacco was unknown to Europeans prior to the arrival of Columbus in the New World. It’s easier still to forget that tobacco has been enjoyed in many forms and contexts, from pipes and cigars to religious rituals and enemas. There’s much more to tobacco than addiction and cancer, and this compilation of essays gets at nearly all of them.

“Havana Cigars and the West’s Imagination;” “The Houkah in the Harem: On Smoking and Orientalist Art;” “Smoking in Modern Japan.” These are just a small sampling of the subjects covered, all of them amply illustrated with art, photos, and vintage advertisements. I know of no other book like it, and if the topic of tobacco is at all of interest than it is worth picking up.

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