A Meating of the MInds

BackStory producer Nina Earnest sits down with the hosts to sample and discuss meats of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

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ED: So, today on the show, as Americans across the country ignite their grills, we’re going to cook up stories about meat throughout US history. We’ll learn why the 1946 election was called Beef Steak Election. We’ll explain why slaughterhouses were pushed from overcrowded cities to the outskirts of town. And we’ll even take a tour around the Windy City, mapping the history of the Chicago hot dog.

BRIAN: But first, let’s take some time to explore just why Americans eat so much meat. It’s not an easy question to answer. Part of it, of course, is economic. Americans have more money to spend, but the US still outpaces the majority of wealthy countries in meat consumption. There’s a cultural side to the story, and BackStory producer Nina Earnest is in the studio to help us explore.

NINA EARNEST: Hi, guys. So, yes, I’ve been looking in some cookbooks and doing some research, and I’ve prepared three dishes from all three centuries that speak to America’s love affair with meat.

ED: Now, we should say that Peter is here only by the magic of technology. You’re on the line from Maine, right, Peter?

PETER: Yeah, me and my taste buds.

BRIAN: So, let’s get to the grub. What do you got for us?

NINA EARNEST: So, the first one, I’m going to dish it out and you’re going to eat it and then I’ll tell you what it is.

BRIAN: I don’t like that.

PETER: Oh, can we have a running description of what this looks like?

BRIAN: It looks like a pie.

ED: Yeah, it looks like a pie.

PETER: Oh, a pie.

BRIAN: It looks, actually, very good.

ED: If I see 20 blackbirds coming out of this, I’m out of here.


Peter, it looks like some kind–

BRIAN: I’m eating at the same time?


BRIAN: Can’t I wait for the 20th century?


ED: Yeah, it had carrot in it, and maybe onion. I’m just guessing.

BRIAN: Show Ed. Ed, this has scales in it.


I’m not kidding.

ED: Oh, come on. I don’t get paid enough to eat this.

PETER: Hey, guys, tell me what it tastes like.

BRIAN: Well, Peter, it’s mushy, yet kind of crunchy at the same time, which I attribute to the scales.

ED: Yeah, I would say fibrous.

BRIAN: So, what– what is it that we’re eating?

NINA EARNEST: So, this is eel.


ED: I– I knew those scales were fishy. I knew those scales were fishy.

BRIAN: I cannot believe I ate eel. Only for BackStory.

NINA EARNEST: So, when the first colonists arrived in New England, they realized that there was a lot of eel. That it was really bountiful. One early colonist was so excited about this, and he wrote this letter back to England. He’s like, we can take 150 gallons of eels in a night, it takes no work at all, we love it, it’s great. And this matters, because eel was already popular in England. People had been eating– including, as you guys did, luckily, and eel pie.

ED: Yeah.

BRIAN: Yeah.

NINA EARNEST: And, so when they came to the quote, unquote, “new world”, and they found this bountiful supply of eel, they realized that this was a land of plenty.

BRIAN: Land a plenty, Peter?

PETER: Yeah. The important thing to keep in mind is the prevalence of famine throughout the early modern worlds, and English people weren’t immune. It wasn’t until the 18th century that there was something approaching food security in this period.

NINA EARNEST: Yeah. And if we’re looking at the question of why did Americans eat so much meat, from the very beginning, for the European Americans, the idea could maybe be that they expected that there would always be more to eat.

PETER: They ate a lot of meat and they were bigger as a result.

NINA EARNEST: Funny that you mention bigger, because we’re going to move on to our next meat from in the 19th century.


NINA EARNEST: So, here it is.

BRIAN: Tell me that’s not a body part.

ED: Oh, God.

PETER: Tell me what you’re seeing, guys.

ED: This kind of looks a little bit like a vertebrae of a mastodon.


It looks– it looks like–



ED: Ew. It’s like–

PETER: What does it feel like?

ED: It’s like tongue.

PETER: So, is it a body part or an organ?

ED: Oh, God. This is a lot worse than the eel.

BRIAN: It’s– it’s kind of a gelatinous–

ED: Gelatinous and chewy at the same time.

BRIAN: Oh, God.

NINA EARNEST: So, what we’re eating here is buffalo, which went from prevalent across the plains to nearly extinct over the course of the 19th century.

ED: Yeah, but centuries a long time, Nina. In the mean time, the buffalo stood for, really, the limitless abundance of the West, right? So we go from the eel to the buffalo, but they’re carrying the same story. There’s more here than we could possibly eat, so have another serving.

NINA EARNEST: And it’s not– it’s tough, because there are multiple reasons why the buffalo were nearly exterminated. For it’s meat wasn’t really one of them, but there is one part of the buffalo that may be emblematic of our destructive relationship, and that is its tongue.

BRIAN: Yes. I’m two for two. I got the tongue and I got the scales.

ED: Only you could interpret that as a victory, Brian. That you ate those two things.


NINA EARNEST: So, the thing about bison tongue– there’s stories of buffalo hunters going out and, you know, killing the buffalo, taking the tongue, and leaving everything else.


NINA EARNEST: So, frontiersmen and huntsmen did eat buffalo tongue out West, but I came across a lot of references that said buffalo tongue was the delicacy out East in fancy shmancy restaurants. But it turns out there’s actually little historical evidence to back this up, so one historian I talked to, to explain this discrepancy said that it maybe had to do with frontier nostalgia; that once the frontier was quote, unquote “closing”, people wanted to believe, for some reason, that buffalo tongue had been a big fad. So it’s more than just abundance, it also has to do with what’s fashionable in meat, whether it’s imagined or not.

ED: Well, I’d say two things. One, my understanding is that buffalo have come back, and so we did not cause any deprivation of the buffalo.

BRIAN: That’s too bad, isn’t it?

ED: Exactly. And, the next thing is, that I can’t really relax, because there’s some other piece of meat over there under a covering and I need to know what it is.

NINA EARNEST: Yes, we do have one last piece of meat from the 20th century. Let me grab it.


BRIAN: Well, it looks like a seaweed wrapped biscuit with something mealy inside of it.

ED: I think it’s rice, isn’t it?

BRIAN: I’m touching it.

ED: You’re handling– yeah.

BRIAN: Definitely feels seaweed-like.

ED: You know what it looks like? And I’m hoping that it is. I’m hoping that it’s SPAM. It does have an Asian appearance to it.

BRIAN: Yes, I think this is SPAM sushi. Here, I’m digging in on this one.

NINA EARNEST: So, yes, you are right. Our final selection is everyone’s favorite canned war time commodity.


NINA EARNEST: So, this is called SPAM musubi, and it is from Hawaii, but it’s a variation of a Japanese dish. In Hawaii is a– I think it’s pretty famously famous for its consumption of SPAM. They still love SPAM.

BRIAN: Really?

NINA EARNEST: In one article I read that Hawaiians eat five million pounds of SPAM every year, which is a lot of SPAM.

BRIAN: That’s a lot of SPAM.

NINA EARNEST: The military shipped a lot of SPAM to Hawaii, because there is a large military presence there in lead up to World War II. So, it seems like the mainlanders have moved away from SPAM, but people in Hawaii love it. But there might be a darker side to this story. One historian has argued that, because a lot of Hawaiians, in the lead up to the war, were of Japanese descent, that the territorial government in Hawaii placed a lot of restrictions on their fishing rights, basically, so they wouldn’t pose a threat to national security, and that really killed the Japanese fishing industry. And therefore, these people were looking for a source of protein, and they happen to find it in SPAM.

BRIAN: Nina, a fascinating story. And if I wasn’t so busy stuffing my face with SPAM right now, I would tell you why it’s a very 20th century story. It’s a 20th century story for a couple of reasons. The first is, while Peter and Ed deal with centuries where folks roamed across the continent simply harvesting what was there, or at least in Ed’s case, harvesting parts of that abundance, the 20th century– well, meat is different, it’s about the intensive production and packaging of meat. It’s about stuffing meat into cans. It’s about things like SPAM that are kind of unidentifiable. And the second part of the 20th century was about war. And that put American soldiers en masse in Hawaii. Hawaiians started eating SPAM, but they let their own twist to it, and that’s the story of America’s global expansion, especially military expansion, a very second half of the 20th century story.

NINA EARNEST: So, guys, you’ve had three delicious meals from across the centuries, what story do they tell?

PETER: Well, Nina, for one thing, I didn’t take part in this brilliant meal you guys just had. Sounds wonderful. But, what strikes me about the early period is that tales of abundance are really told with a sense of wonder from people who are used to scarcity or are aware that they can’t take this for granted.

BRIAN: Yeah, it means something to them.

PETER: Yeah. And now, if anything were– Americans are in a different world, and abundance has different meanings. Maybe there’s too much of it.

ED: Yeah. Today the problem is that we seem to worry so much about eating too much meat in too many forms, and a constant obsession is that how do we deal with the problem of abundance. How do we work it off? How do we avoid the disease that comes from it? Really, how do you deal with the after effects of eating so much meat? I think our predecessors here in American history would be scratching their heads.