Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

Despite Increasing Prosperity, America's Appetites Remain Unique

Chicken Cow photo by Egui_ via Flickr

You don't have to spend much time in America before you notice something unusual. You hear no cows mooing, see no chickens flapping or pigs digging for roots. All you see are dogs out for a walk.

In fact, you see almost no livestock at all. Where'd they all go? You might be surprised to know: Most have been put in crates to be eaten.

Of course, as with most of the Western world, cows, pigs, and chickens make up the bulk of the local diet. At this, of course, America is hardly alone -- though the Daily Livestock Report ranks America as the world’s greatest producer of beef, and among the world’s greatest beef exporters. On the day of their biggest sporting event, the Super Bowl, Americans will eat 1.23 billion chicken wings, according to the National Chicken Council.

A CNN report states that "Roughly 95 percent of the nation’s 280 million hens are crammed into battery cages -- 18 by 20 inch cages that are so small that their lives are void of any natural activities beyond breathing and defecating.” Americans value those chickens for their mythical McChicken qualities and often many extra wings and legs -- like so many genetically modified-animal body parts.

The questionable practices of the meat industry explain the torture of cows, chicken, and other livestock. But what about the deer and pheasants and bear and other game and fowl? People go into the woods and shoot them, as they do almost every animal that lives there. In North Carolina once, I saw a man in a bright orange vest splash deer urine on himself in order to shoot a deer he wasn’t even going to eat, only mount on his wall.

For most of the last century, the once-plentiful American bison, part of the bovine family, have been close to extinction -- all but a few of them shot senselessly.

All of this raises an interesting question. Americans have been hunters throughout the very short time they’ve been a nation, while their native people, American Indians, have largely left their wildlife alone.

In earlier America, you would indeed have seen herds of bison that are gone now, replaced with numerous pet dogs and cats. Back then, people hunted for meat, primarily, and many people's weapons were used for little more than that.

America has always been an aggressive country. It has fought in over 20 wars since winning independence only 237 years ago, including many invasions of other nations, most recently Afghanistan. Meantime, the nation to its north has largely been passive.

Many anthropologists and historians attribute the difference to the States’ origins. America was born with the 2nd Amendment, while anti-gun laws heavily influenced other countries -- nations with drastically reduced murder rates today.

Well, certainly that played a part. But I would argue that because Americans have regularly eaten meat through the ages, adding significant protein to their diet, that also helps explain the States’ aggressive tendencies -- and the sharp contrast with its neighbors.

Right now, the favored dish is cow. In fact, cow meat is particularly prized. It has specialty names like the Big Mac and the Whopper. For Americans, tradition has it that you are what you eat, and cow meat can promote optimal growth in children and even prevent cancer.

Now, however, tradition is clashing with modernity -- and the law has changed with it. Fifty years ago, pigs and cows were not factory-farmed and it was illegal to hunt with an assault weapon. People held the view that cows should graze and assault weapons were a danger that could not be ignored. That point of view still pertains, though the food industry changed years ago.

In fact, today, driving down the highway it's not unusual to see an 18-wheeler hauling tons of packaged meat from meat factories where cows have been crammed into small spaces, now off to supermarkets -- similar to the way instant noodles are transported to market in the east.

But America is a rapidly prospering state. More than half the population was born after the Resistance War Against America (which Americans call the Vietnam War). Per capita income is about $42,000, which may seem like a lot and is higher than in most neighboring states. And as racial diversity increases in the middle class, so does international influence -- picked up from television, movies, Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

With that has come a new desire among some to farm organically. So now you do see an occasional cow here and there, lounging on the lawn of someone's home -- but under the watchful eye of its owner. Even now, as America rapidly modernizes and matures, if the cow wanders too far from home, someone will grab it and then send the cow to a meat factory.

Visiting America, many Eastern visitors despair. As one Eastern blogger put it: "I can quite honestly say it's the most gruesome thing I have ever seen."

I could not agree more.


Kirstin Chen's debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, is forthcoming in January 2014. A former Steinbeck Fellow, she has won awards from Emerson College and the Sewanee and Napa Valley writers' conferences. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Zyzzyva, Hobart, Pank, and others.

Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea at age two. His first novel, I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying, will be out in 2013, and a novella, The Last Repatriate, was published in 2011. He is a Contributing Writer and the Fiction Editor at the Good Men Project.


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