Science Book a Day Interviews Maureen Ogle

maureen-ogleSpecial thanks to Maureen Ogle for answering 6 questions about her recently featured book – In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America

I have a Masters and Ph.D. in American history, both from the (now budget-chopped) History of Technology and Science Program at the Department of History at Iowa State University. Focus: technology, specifically urban America. My “tenure book” was All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890. Let the puns fly. In 1999, I escaped from academia because I wanted a life. – From Maureen’s Homepage

Maureen’s Homepage:
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#1 – What was the impetus for In meat we trust?

Frankly, and boringly, nothing more than that I wanted to write another book and meat struck me as a great topic.

But the background is that in late summer 2006, my history of beer in America had gone to press and was due out in early autumn. I used that time to think about a new book topic. And what my brain presented to me was: meat. Write a history of meat in America.

[NOTE: by “my brain presented to me,” I mean this, which I wrote as a blog post for Powell’s Books back in 2006 when the beer book came out.)

I knew immediately it was a great topic. As a historian, I’m interested in what it means to be an “American”; all my books explore that question. In this case, I thought of the meat book as the other side of the coin of the beer book. The beer book was my love song to American opportunity. With the meat book, I wanted to explore the flip side: Americans enjoy a belief in infinite possibility, but what happens when people want it all? For example, we Americans want lots of cheap meat, but what’s the price we pay for that? And what do our diet and our desires say about us as a nation and a people?

When I started my research, I knew nothing about meat in America or about food politics or the food “debate.” And that’s my preference. I prefer to come to a topic with zero knowledge because that’s the best way to ensure that I’m also agenda-free.

#2 – Reviews praise you in being bipartisan in the writing of this book. Was this important to you?

Absolutely! As I noted above, I didn’t have an agenda. Indeed, I was so naive that I didn’t realize that there was any “agenda” about meat. I was more interested in looking at how Americans have thought about meat over a long period of time.

The comical (sort of) thing about all that back in 2006, Michael Pollan’s book OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA came out the same time as my beer book. I didn’t notice it then because I was promoting my beer book and trying to get the meat book off the ground by researching the colonial period and early 19th century. I definitely wasn’t thinking about meat in contemporary America. It wasn’t until about 2008 or so that I became aware of Pollan’s work, which stayed on bestseller lists for three years. Only then did I realize that I’d unintentionally picked a controversial topic.

Once I learned more about today’s food politics and the controversies about meat, I was even more determined to keep my emotional distance, to stick to the facts, to tell a full story rather than one driven by the so-called “food debate.”

Indeed, I was hellbent on being non-partisan, on being accurate, on bringing as much historical context as I could to what is, at least in the U.S., a contentious issue.

#3 – Your book covers some wide ranging topics. How did you decide what to keep and what to let go?

Oh, if only you knew…. Seriously, about a month after starting work on this book (which took seven years to research and write), I realized that the subject was beyond vast. Unless I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing this one book, I had to narrow the field.

But early on in my research, I also realized that story of meat in America was intimately linked to the growth of urban America. So I focused my research on how urban Americans shaped a meat-making industry to serve their needs. That provided me with a manageable and useful framework for thinking about how meat gets on the table.

Even then, I had to keep whittling both scope and scale. For example, early on, I decided to ignore almost everything connected with labor unions. A great deal has been written about unions and slaughtering, and I saw no need to go over that ground. I also ignored things like cattle and hog breeds, for example, as well as vegetarianism. I wanted to keep the narrative focused on how we got to where we are today.

#4 – What feedback have you received to the book? From the general public? From people in the meat industry?

Not much. Alas. Although there’s this: Even before the book came out, I was being described as a shill for Monsanto, which indicates what a polarizing subject this is. (For the record: I’ve zero connection with anyone or any entity in the meat-making industries, whether on the farm or in the slaughterhouse.)

But the book earned some lovely reviews and I was fortunate to be interviewed by people who truly wanted to hear another take on the topic (meaning a take other than Pollan’s OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA). And I’ve been invited to speak at several meat-industry conventions.

Measured by sales, however, book flopped. Badly. I’m sad, but not surprised. By the time I’d finished the book, I’d learned enough about contemporary food/meat politics to know that it would be difficult to find readers interested in a neutral, non-ideological narrative.

#5 – What is the story behind the video you created about the book? You and your friends looked like you were having fun!

We were having fun. Before the book came out, I pondered ways to promote it, and my best friend (the other woman in the video) suggested that we write a song about meat and make a video. Our original plan was to hire a local camera guy and make a polished video with a good soundtrack. But the costs quickly escalated and so did the time needed to pull that off.

But all three of us (the third person is my husband) had worked hard on that song. (I know, I know. Doesn’t sound like it.) And we didn’t want to waste it (although, cough, no doubt the rest of the world wishes we had). So one night we said the hell with it. Let’s just sing into an iPad camera. So there we are, a bunch of old folks, singing a corny song. And yes, alcohol was involved. And yes, it was FUN.

#6 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

My original plan, post-meat, was to do what I’ve done for the past 20 years: start a new book. I had an idea and was all set to go. But when the book flopped so badly, I had, well, a post-publication crisis. Put simply, I couldn’t bring myself to commit to another years-long project knowing that I would likely earn little no money for it. (By my calculations, I earned about eighty cents an hour during the seven years I worked on this book.)

And, too, the publishing business is in turmoil (as are many industries affected by digitization and the web). Given the poor sales of the meat book, I doubt I could get another conventional publishing contract.

So — I’ve decided instead to focus on writing short essays and selling those via Amazon and other digital, e-reader sites. I’m a natural-born ranter and I figure I can always come up with a topic on which to rant for 10,000 words or less. I doubt I’ll make any money on that either, but I gotta satisfy my creative jones somehow, you know? So: short essays (at which I suck), here I come! (And if anyone has an idea they’d like to see explored by a first-class ranter, let me know.)

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