This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, I speak with historian Joshua Specht, author of Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America. It’s a fascinating history of the beef industry and how it changed not just America’s diet, but also its culture and politics. Beef was not always a centerpiece of the US diet. Prior to the Civil War, the most common meat source was pork. But after the Civil War, as white migrants, the railroads, and the US Army spread out across the Great Plains, cattle ranching emerged as a major industry. Over time, as entrepreneurs and investors figured out how to get cattle from Texas onto the Great Plains, then to the great slaughterhouse operations in Chicago, and then how to move large slabs of beef to regional wholesalers, who then sold to local butchers, who in turn sold retail cuts of beef to local customers, beef became affordable and widely available. Americans came to expect beef several times a week. So, too, did immigrants, who wrote letters home to their homelands in Europe extolling America as a place of freedom, opportunity, and beef. Today, even though beef consumption has declined by about one third since the mid-1970s, Americans still consume more red meat than any nation in the world.
In the course of our conversation Joshua Specht explains:
How beef went from a special occasion food that was raised locally, to an everyday staple produced by a vast, national market.
How dispossessing Native Americans of their land was a crucial early step in the formation of a booming beef industry.
How that process relied not on plucky pioneers, but rather the raw power of the federal government via the US military and support for a national railroad network.
How and why massive, heavily capitalized industrial ranching in the Gilded Age failed, causing investors to shift capital to the meat processing industry, centered in Chicago.
How as beef became cheap and plentiful in the late 19th century, it became a key cultural marker for white middle-class success, especially along immigrants to the US.
The emergence of the four great beef packing companies, including Swift and Armour, and how they used new technology and government policy to revolutionize their industry.
How the insistence on low prices led the beef packers to ruthlessly exploit their workers, a process famously chronicled by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle.
How one of the great challenges today is to reconnect the costs of low beef prices to the conditions that make them possible – exploited workers, government subsidies, and environmental damage.
Joshua Specht, Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America (Princeton University Press)
James R. Barrett, Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago’s Packinghouse Workers, 1894–1922.
Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
Jimmy K. Skaggs, Prime Cut: Livestock Raising and Meatpacking in the United States, 1607–1983.
Louise C. Wade, Chicago’s Pride: The Stockyards, Packingtown, and Environs in the 19th Century.
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)
More info about Joshua Specht – website
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Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)
Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, “Sage the Hunter” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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© In The Past Lane, 2019
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