February 11, 2013
Let’s just say Dominic Episcopo has sunk his teeth into the “meat” of Americana. In his Kickstarter project, “Meat America,” the photographer has paired iconic images from Lincoln to Elvis (“Love Me Tender”) with hunks of red-meat art. He spent six years gathering what he describes as uniquely American images for the coffee table book-to-be “manifesto” that hits shelves later this month.
“I was absorbed in this world of meat. When I was at the supermarket or at a restaurant, I thought, ‘What else could that be besides a hot dog?’,” he says. “I go in with drawings into the supermarket—they know me there. Now they run into the back to grab extra steaks for me to look at.”
According to his Kickstarter page, the series “is a state of mind, an eye-opening and artery-closing tour of America’s spirit of entrepreneurship, rebellion and positivity.” A few more examples of things you’ll find in the book: A “Don’t Tred on Meat” flag, a map of the “United Steaks,” and the Liberty Bell.
Food art is no new concept (Arcimboldo comes to mind); whether it’s a fruit sculpture at some swanky gala or an Edible Arrangement sent to a loved one for their birthday, playing with food is a thing Americans like to do. But what makes meat uniquely American? According to a Food and Agricultural Organization report in 2009, Americans consume 279.1 pounds of meat per person each year. Australia is a close second with 259.3, but compare that to places like the United Kingdom (185 pounds/ person), Croatia (85.8 pounds/ person) or even Bangladesh (6.8 pounds/ person) and it’s clear: Americans like meat. And we like a lot of it, but what about a big ole’ steak connects the mind to cowboys rounding up cattle on the range? Episcopo says he’s not sure.
“I’m not quite as obsessed with meat as you might think,” Espiscopo says. “But I do think these images speak to a meat fetish thing that is uniquely American.”
He continues, citing his Kickstarter page: “This exhibition celebrates our collective American appetite of insurmountable odds, limitless aspiration, and immeasurable success. Though, some may just see it just as a bunch of states, presidents and American icons shaped out of animal products, which is also fine with me.”
Episcopo received his BFA in photography from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and has lived and worked in the city for the last 25 years as a commercial photographer. Most of his “meat” series was produced in his studio inside of his home—a converted 150-year-old abandoned church—he shares with his wife and three-year-old son.
“A sense of humor in photography is hard to pull off and still be taken seriously,” he says. “Weegee’s got that tongue-in-cheekness to it and Penn’s work influenced my straightforward rendering [of the meat].”
To achieve that simple, untouched look for his meat photos he used cookie cutters and a keen eye for the right cut of steak. For the map of the “United Steaks,” he bought a ribeye, made one cut-in, bent one side to create Florida and the rest he shaped with his hands. The lines from the fat of the slab matter.
For the lettering in examples like “Love and Death” based on the famous Philadelphia statue by Robert Indiana, Episcopo uses deli cuts of ham, roast beef, salami and bologna. The settings and surrounding materials all have meaning and play a roll in telling the image’s story, he says. For “Love and Death” he included what he calls a Philadelphia breakfast: A pretzel, some coffee and the cover of the Daily News—all iconic images for the city.
“I can’t just use a cookie cutter to get a shape of Abe Lincoln,” he says. “I wanted it to look like the steak you bought at the supermarket.” Though Episcopo and his family eats only local, organic and grassfed beef, he says there’s a reason he can’t go organic with his images.
“Organic meat is purple,” he says. “I need a big, ruddy robust piece of meat to get the right idea across.”
He tries to maintain political neutrality with his work, but that doesn’t stop the letters from PETA advocates from coming in, he says. But flack for his flank art hasn’t stifled his creative energy around this endeavor.
“I love when I enter an art show and they ask me the medium,” Episcopo says. “How many people get to say meat or steak? Or ‘Meat is my Muse?’”
While we’re on the subject, a few other examples of “meat art” out there:
- Mark Ryden’s “The Meat Show: Paintings about Children, God and USDA Grade A Beef,” will have you gawking at paintings with Colonel Sanders, Abe Lincoln and a big, juicy steak on the same canvas.
- Though Russian artist Dimitri Tsykalov, may not be going for the “Americana” theme with his work, he’s certainly another meat artist worth checking out. Rather than shaping sausages into the state of Texas, his series “Meat Weapons,” evokes a more visceral response featuring full-suited soldiers outfitted in very rare meat-made machine guns and ammo.
- Marije Vogelzang’s “Faked Meat” goes for the meaty look using anything but: Sapicu-wings with dark chocolate, “meat” lollipops, and veggie-made meatballs. The gist: there are a lot of meat substitutes on grocery store shelves.
- A basic search for “meat art” on Pinterest will find you something red and raw to look at (real or not). A personal favorite: This meat-looking mask by artist Bertjan Pot.
- Lest we not forget America’s bacon obsession: This Foulard bacon scarf just may be the perfect Valentine’s Day present for the bacon-loving, love of your life.
June 14, 2012
Food-wise, what will you be doing to fete your father this weekend? This time of year, you start seeing ads promoting grills and all the fun toys that go with them—tongs, brushes, mops, novelty aprons—and an internet search for Father’s Day fare will bring up lots of ideas for how to pull together a meal over an open flame, with the paterfamilias gladly taking the food prep reins. But why do we have this idea that grilling is a guy’s thing?
Globally, it seems that this gendered division of cookery is an American phenomenon. Across cultures, women generally do most of the cooking, period. In some parts of the world—such as Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Serbia and Mexico—you will see female street vendors selling grilled food. The cost of starting up a barbecue business is nominal: charcoal, a grate and you’re good to go.
Is it a matter of territory? At the first barbecue I attended this season, the guys were quick to declare the patio a “men only” area, which elicited a fair bit of eye rolling from the wives and girlfriends in the bunch. In my family, women generally have rein over indoor cooking spaces, but when it comes to outdoor cooking, it’s the guys’ turf. (And when men try to help out on indoor cooking projects, arguments over their technique will likely ensue.)
Meghan Casserly offered her observations in a 2010 Forbes article. There’s the element of danger—fire! sharp tools!—and the promise of hanging out with other guys. But she also finds that the tendency for men to grill is a construct of the mid-20th century and the rise of suburban living. In the United States, family dynamics and attitudes toward parenting were changing and there was an increasing expectation for fathers to spend their free time with their families instead of with their buddies at the local bar. Why not hang out in the back yard? Weber sweetened the prospect of outdoor cookery in the early 1950s when the company introduced the first backyard grill—basically, a streamlined and easy-to-clean fire pit.
In the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Makes Us Human, Richard Wrangham points out that in hunter/gatherer societies, the sexes each seek out different types of food: women forage and handle dishes that require the most preparation, while men go out to find foods that are more difficult to come by—namely, meat. Furthermore, they tend to cook on ceremonial occasions or when there are no women around. “The rule,” Wrangham writes, “that domestic cooking is women’s work is astonishingly consistent.” His observations don’t directly link men to the grill, but it makes one wonder if guys are just somehow primed to cook that way.
May 30, 2012
The average American eats 195 pounds of meat a year. That’s a lot of muscle, and it’s laden with meaning—in terms of human evolution, social habits and modern marketing. Men, on average, consume more meat than women. Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and the man responsible for the best-selling phrase “omnivore’s dilemma,” recently published a study establishing a metaphoric link between masculinity and meat.
He and his colleagues tested subjects on a variety of word-association and other tasks and placed different foods along a spectrum of male-linked to female-linked. On the male end of the spectrum were raw beef, steak, hamburger, veal, rabbit, broiled chicken, eggs (hard-boiled followed by scrambled). Milk, fish, sushi, chocolate, chicken salad and peaches were more toward the feminine side. This division loosely lines up with articles in 23 foreign languages using gendered nouns—as in le boeuf (male) or la salade (female)—but curiously phallic-shaped meats like sausages and frankfurters appeared no more linguistically “masculine” than did, say, ground beef or steak.
The study reports some counterintuitive findings. For example, cooking and food processing tend to be associated with femaleness, except when it comes to medium-rare or well-done steaks, which outrank raw beef or blood in terms of manliness. And if you thought placenta and eggs fell under the feminine category, you’d probably be the exception (although, admittedly, the study did not consider the male approximation, such as testicles or milt). Even more perplexing, the undergraduate men surveyed listed orange juice right up there with medium-rare steak and hamburger.
Really, though, what do these food metaphors have to with anything? Well, according to the Rozin and his co-authors, “If marketers or health advocates want to counteract such powerful associations, they need to address the metaphors that shape consumer attitudes.” This lends a certain credence to the practice of slapping artificial grill marks on a sausage-shaped soy patty, an otherwise potentially emasculating cut of protein—and it offers a compelling a lesson for those attempting to make fake or in-vitro “meats” here to stay. Make them manly, boys.
Photo: “Chorizo (Basque Sausage) and Fried Eggs” by Carl Fleishlauer/Library of Congress
February 2, 2012
Author Ron Rosenbaum recently revisited The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer’s landmark book that offered an extensive look at why and how the Nazi party rose to power. Where Shirer focused on the political and cultural environment, scholar Lizzie Collingham offers a unique perspective of the war years in her new book The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food.
“It is perhaps the quiet and unobtrusive nature of death by starvation which explains why so many of those who died of hunger during the Second World War are largely forgotten today,” Collingham writes in her introduction. ”During the Second World War at least 20 million people died just such a terrible death from starvation, malnutrition and its associated diseases.” Her book addresses how the major powers on both sides of the war handled food issues, and she shows how food was a major factor in the Reich’s war machine.
German soldiers on the front lines were encouraged to live off the land, appropriating goods from civilians along the warpath. “We live well,” one foot soldier wrote during the 1941 invasion of Eastern Europe, “even though we are sometimes cut off from the supply lines. We supply ourselves, sometimes chickens, sometimes geese, sometimes pork cutlets.” This placed the burden of staying fed on the conquered; in essence, the Nazis found a way to export hunger. They also killed people they considered “useless eaters,” including the Polish Jewish population.
On the home front, Germany managed to keep its citizens relatively well fed in part due to the government’s reshaping the nation’s eating habits. Starting in the 1930s, well before the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Reich officials acclimated civilians to a wartime diet centered on bread and potatoes, encouraging people to forgo meat and butter in favor of fish and margarine.
“But the ultimate Nazi food,” Collingham writes, “was the Eintopf or casserole.” The slow-cooked meal was designed to stretch low-quality cuts of meat and make them more flavorful. And since a single vessel was required to cook it (Eintopf literally translates to “one pot”), it also had the advantage of being fuel-efficient. Families were supposed to prepare the casserole on the first Sunday of the month and donate their savings to the Winter Help Fund, a charity established to assist less-fortunate Germans during the colder months. Even the higher-ups in the Nazi Party would encourage people to hop on the casserole bandwagon, posing for photographs while eating Eintopf along Berlin’s Unter den Linden. ”This transformed the drive for autarky [self-sufficiency] into a social ritual which was supposed to unite and strengthen the Volksgemeinschaft through sacrifice.”
But not even the best propaganda machine can completely convince a nation to sacrifice flavor in the name of national spirit. ”Breakfast and supper at our house usually consisted of bread and marmalade or evil-tasting margarine,” Ursula Mahlendorf recalls in her memoir about her childhood in Nazi Germany. “Dinners were monotonous. Most days we had Eintopf, a casserole of potatoes and various vegetables boiled in bouillon and thickened with flour.”
To learn more about how food figured into how the major powers fought the war, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food will be published in March 2012.
January 17, 2012
Everything tastes better with bacon, Sara Perry grandly proclaimed on the cover of her 2002 cookbook. Since then, the love of bacon has grown to surreal heights; it’s become a collective obsession. Should you get the urge, it’s easy to order some bacon ice cream, bacon-infused vodka, bacon soap, or even a monstrosity called the bacon explosion, which is essentially a loaf of bacon-wrapped sausage with yet more bacon.
So what, exactly, could be inspiring this cult of bacon-worship? And why won’t it die?
Well, it’s delicious.
Arun Gupta of The Indypendent explained that bacon has six ingredients with umami (savory) flavor. But that’s always been true, and while we’ve been eating bacon for centuries, the kind of mania that exists in America today is a new trend. A Chicago Mercantile Exchange report from September 2010 found a recent surge in pork belly (where bacon comes from) prices, which have climbed steadily since 1998. Earlier this year, the CME retired frozen pork belly futures after 40 years of trading. In the olden days, when bacon was a seasonal treat, buyers could store frozen pork bellies and sell them once demand was high. But in the past decade, our love affair with bacon has become a constant, year-round obsession. We don’t need pork belly frozen and stored, we want the fresh stuff right now and keep it coming. Now, bacon goes on everything, all the time.
It’s also very, very unhealthy.
In the diet-crazed 1980s and 1990s, bacon was mercilessly demonized. It even made the cover of Time Magazine in 1984 as the face of America’s cholesterol problems. Today, we care a bit less about the calorie content of our food and more about its wholesome origins. Three years after Everything Tastes Better With Bacon was published, Corby Kummer hailed a bacon renaissance driven by the production of artisanal bacon, which is “a perfect cherry-wood brown,” and has a “deep, subtle, lightly smoky flavor.” Standard supermarket bacon, by comparison, is “tinny and one-dimensional.” On the other end of the spectrum, you could argue that its popularity stems from the desire to fly in the face of all the trendy rules of food and health. As Jason Sheehan wrote in Seattle Weekly: “The phrase ‘Everything’s Better With Bacon!’ becomes like a challenge: Oh yeah? Watch what I can do…” Bacon is fatty freedom food. Putting bacon on everything (or, uh, wearing it as lingerie) is a statement of hedonism, pure and simple, a defiant stand against any movement that suggests we moderate what we eat.
It’s more American than apple pie.
Oscar Mayer started packaging pre-sliced bacon in 1924, and soon bacon became a staple of the American family breakfast. As Chris Cosentino, founder of Boccalone: Tasty Salted Pig Parts, pointed out: “You look at classic Norman Rockwell pictures of people at a diner, and what are they eating? Bacon and eggs.” Bacon is the iconic food memory of most people’s childhoods—which makes it the ultimate comfort food. The nostalgia for Mom sizzling up some bacon on Sunday morning—even if it didn’t actually happen to you—is a collective American experience. Bacon’s not just a delicious meat product anymore; it’s a shorthand for the fuzzy golden heyday of our past.
The most bizarre bacon products floating around the Internet:
Bacon mints: Doesn’t this kind of defeat the purpose?
Diet Coke with Bacon: Hold the sugar, add the bacon.
Bacon Kevin Bacon: It was only a matter of time.
Bacon alarm clock: An alarm clock that wakes you with the real aroma of cooking bacon.
Do you have even weirder examples? Leave them in the comments.