Case: Meat in Literature
After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Apply the process of close reading to descriptions of foods and food contexts in literature.
- Analyze food writing through interdisciplinary engagement.
- Assess the value and utility of analyzing food to make unexpected connections, and to arrive at new or more fully developed cultural insights.
Although food is an approachable subject, studying it closely and critically in literature can make some of our most potent anxieties and cultural violences visible. This case uses literary analysis to consider not only the symbolic functions of a specific food within a literary text, but also its material significances.
The text in focus is Canadian-American author Ruth Ozeki’s 1998 novel, My Year of Meats, and the food in focus is beef. Although the novel features other commonly consumed meats and emphasizes their distinct cultural meanings in American culture, as indicated by the plurality of “meats” in the title, it is beef that takes center stage. In centering the novel on America’s most-emblematic animal protein, Ozeki reveals how the violence inherent in the production and consumption of beef extends directly to women’s bodies following World War II.
Process of Analysis
This case focuses on two of the main subjects of Ozeki’s 1998 novel: women and beef. It employs the aptly named process of over three observations to analyze the nuances of Ozeki’s language. This detailed analysis generates a clear unpacking of ideas surrounding the relationships between meat and meat-related media, modern perceptions of “American” femininity, and animal-human relationships.
Close reading is a deep analysis of the writer’s language—it focuses on the words on the page at hand, but it also always considers the context of the rest of the work. Effective close reading is a sequential process that starts small and works its way outward. Rather than immediately identifying themes, big picture ideas, or larger trends, it centers itself in and . It then uses the emerging observations to build bigger-picture arguments. Close reading, rather than trying to “prove” a pre-existing argument, allows for unexpected new inquiries. It is, by necessity, a personal engagement with the text. If close reading is performed in earnest, it is unlikely that you will arrive at precisely the same conclusions as your classmates or those found in existing scholarship on the piece, though you will be able to point to the evidence within the text that brought you to your own conclusion.
Context for Observations
The central protagonist of My Year of Meats is Jane Takagi-Little, an American documentarian of Japanese and Anglo-European descent. The three block quotations used in this study are all told from Jane’s point of view and carry her narrative voice, and as such, they are suffused with her attitudes, beliefs, and values. The novel begins with Jane reluctantly taking a new job on the fictional reality TV show, My American Wife!, which quickly leads her down a rabbit hole of deeply personal investigative journalism. The show is funded by fictional American meat lobbying company, BEEF-EX, and is made by a Japanese production company. Its goal is to sell two things to a primarily Japanese consumer base: beef imported from the United States, and regressive conceptions of the “ideal American” woman and family, so as to influence Japanese housewives to become more similar to these ideals. Jane states that she “made documentaries about an exotic and vanishing America for consumption on the flip side of the planet,” and much of what is “exotic” and “vanishing” is the white, heteronormative, nuclear family in the United States. Initially, Jane’s mission is to correct the show’s proclivity for featuring homogeneous white families, but as she learns more about American-raised beef and about her own family history, she learns that beef production is not only ideologically linked to notions of white supremacy and sexism, but that is it also physically linked.
Specifically, Jane learns about her mother being prescribed diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen that was first used as a fertility treatment following World War II. The drug was heavily pushed upon women by advertisers and doctors, to encourage those who had taken jobs during the war to return to what was considered their central role for their country: bearing and rearing healthy children. DES has also been used as an agent for promoting rapid weight gain in cattle to yield more meat product (beef) with less feed. Jane argues that “DES changed the face of meat in America. Using DES and other drugs, like antibiotics, farmers could process animals on an assembly line, like cars or computer chips.” In the history Jane cites, the basic comfort and well-being of cattle was deemed “inefficient,” and all that mattered was how much weight they could gain and how quickly they could be harvested for America’s favorite staple.
Women, Beef, and “Traditional Family Values”
After the chief producer of My American Wife! describes what he wants the show to communicate, Jane drafts the following deliberately “excessive” description:
Meat is the Message. Each weekly half-hour episode of My American Wife! must culminate in the celebration of a featured meat, climaxing in its glorious consumption. It’s the meat (not the Mrs.) who’s the star of our show! Of course, the ‘Wife of the Week’ is important too. She must be attractive, appetizing, and All-American. She is the Meat Made Manifest: ample, robust, yet never tough or hard to digest. Through her, Japanese housewives will feel the hearty sense of warmth, of comfort, of hearth and home—the traditional family values symbolized by red meat in rural America.
“Meat is the Message,” with a capital “m” in “message,” is a satiric to Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 text, The Medium is the Massage. McLuhan argues that the new electronic technologies of the information age control us—physically, psychologically, and socially—more than we control them. He contends, “all media work us over completely… any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.” Jane stating, however sardonically, that “meat is the message” suggests that meat is a form of media and thus is an active rather than passive substance with the power to “work us over completely.”
Jane then employs what can be read as pornographic diction to comedically analogize meat to both male genitalia and women’s bodies, to contrasting ends. She exaggeratedly writes that each episode of My American Wife! must “culminate” with a “celebration” of a “featured meat,” and “climax” in the event of its “glorious consumption.” That the “glorious consumption” of the “featured meat” results in “climax” communicates that Jane is making a direct comparison between male sexual release and the consumption of meat, as “climax” overtly suggests orgasm, since it is a colloquial synonym, and “culminat[ion]” more subtly suggests the same.
In the context of the show, analogizing male genitalia to meat glorifies the penis and suggests its theoretical desirability and centrality as the “star,” but analogizing women to meat suggests diminishment and debasement and renders them into consumable objects. Jane’s theatrical description of My American Wife! mirrors mainstream male-focused pornography in how it’s “the meat” and “not the Mrs.” who’s “the star.” In other words, women in the show are considered secondary to the animal flesh over which they labor and to the men they serve. The way the women in the show are “Meat Made Manifest” reduces them into products in a way not wholly dissimilar to how living cows are reduced and abstracted into “beef.” The women on the show must be “appetizing,” “ample,” and “robust,” but “never tough or hard to digest.” This suggests that viewing the women on screen is an act of consumption unto itself and they are intended to be consumed alongside the meat. And in stating that the “Wife of the Week” must be “All-American,” Jane alludes to the show’s preference for white women; although the women featured on-screen are rendered into props rather than people, women of color are marginalized further in the show’s willful obfuscation of their existence and importance as American women.
Finally, Jane ends the description with the ultra-patriotic declaration that “red meat” symbolizes “traditional family values in rural America,” which are only vaguely characterized by a “hearty sense of warmth, of comfort, of hearth and home.” The grammatically unnecessary repetition of the preposition “of” alongside the of “hearty,” “hearth,” and “home” gives this sentence the bouncy, upbeat, and musical quality of a mid-century advertisement. Jane’s use of such mnemonic devices makes this final sentence exude the very “sense of warmth” and white American nostalgia that My American Wife! seeks to capitalize on in order to sell beef.
DES and All-American Abundance
Whether as a fertility treatment or as a fattening agent for feedlot cows, DES has been used extensively throughout the twentieth century, despite the fact that its use in humans has been linked to numerous health defects including cancers and reproductive organ deformities. Jane also learns that DES doesn’t just affect those who consume it directly, but that it can cause health issues in their descendants—a discovery that led medical editor Cynthia Laitman Orenberg to coin of the term “DES daughter” in 1981.
Jane herself struggles with “a precancerous condition known as neoplasia” on her cervix, a misshapen uterus, and presumed infertility, which are resultant of her mother having been prescribed DES by an American doctor who assumed she was too “delicate” to carry Jane, an assumption with racial bias against Japanese women. Viewing an X-ray of her uterus, Jane recalls:
I’ve always pictured the triangular uterine cavity as the head of a bull, with the fallopian tubes spreading and curling like noble horns, and that was what I was expecting to see…what I saw instead was less symmetrical. The left side of the bull’s broad forehead was caved in, less triangular, as though my uterus had been coldcocked.
In likening Jane’s uterus to “the head of a bull,” Ozeki makes the link between Jane’s reproductive health and the American beef industry explicit. While the figurative bull’s head has been damaged to the extent of appearing to have been “coldcocked,” or bashed in by a club, so too have Jane’s sexual organs, suggesting that the bodies of both women and cattle have been similarly violated and brutalized by DES.
The imagined “bull” with its “noble horns” also functions to conjure images of the “all-American” frontier and “Big Rugged Nature.” It evokes cattle ranching, as well as bull riding, which despite the Hispanic origins of rodeo, has “long been thought of as a distinctively American sport.” The imagery of Jane’s X-ray reveals that the fate of her own body and future offspring and the fate of cattle are intimately linked due to toxic and exclusionary ideologies of American abundance.
Humans, Animals, and Trans-corporeality
Trans-corporeality, or the idea that, as environmental humanities scholar Stacy Alaimo argues, “the human is always intermeshed with the non-human world,” pervades the novel, in ways that go far beyond the usage of DES. The porousness of human, animal, and environmental bodies are highlighted when Jane organizes an exposé of “Dunn & Son’s, Custom Cattle Feeders” in Colorado under the guise of an episode of My American Wife! Rather than celebrating the glorious Colorado landscape, the ranch’s abundance of beef, and the “ideal” American wife for the show’s audience, Jane instead plans to film this “episode” as a documentary that exposes the inner workings of slaughterhouses.
The featured wife is Bunny Dunn, who Jane pitches to her boss as the show’s “best American Wife yet!” And Bunny is the show’s ideal—white, blonde, large-chested, decades younger than her husband, dressed in rodeo queen outfits, and cooking not just beef, but her “special recipe of Pan-Fried Prairie Oysters,” or bull testicles.
Along with her Prairie Oysters and the 20,000 cattle at Dunn & Son, Bunny’s body is on display for the audience of My American Wife! to consume. When filming, she is treated as a dish and, at times, as an animal. Ozeki even compares her to a cow as the camera crew film her: “the wavering ray of the sun gun finds Bunny’s face, illuminates it.” The subtle wordplay between “sun gun” and “stun gun” likens Bunny to a cow facing slaughter. This likening positions her as a potential victim of the camera and the violence of media representation, and it positions her as one whose body, like a cow’s, is consumable.
Jane observes Bunny’s body’s closeness to, and fusing with, animal and environmental bodies as she studies her ample figure and rodeo queen ensemble:
[Bunny] had dressed for the interview in purple stretch jeans, hand-tooled alligator cowboy boots, and a purple checked shirt decorated with fringe and mother-of-pearl snaps that fought to stay attached across the expanse of her bosom. The upper snaps popped open to reveal a massive depth of cleavage… And then there was her hair, golden, like spun metal forged into a nest by a mythical bird of prey, impossible to capture on television.
Bunny is either wearing or embodying numerous animals: alligators, oysters (mother-of-pearl), and birds, and her name, in addition to being suggestive of a Playboy Bunny, is that of an animal. The diction describing her body also suggests the landscape of Colorado with the “expanse” and “massive depth” of her chest, and the lengthy, clause-filled sentences suggest an awe-inspiring quality to Bunny’s presence. Altogether, Bunny’s appearance is meant to suggest not only a nationalistic ideal of American femininity, but also the permeability between human and non-human bodies.
Humans, animals, and the environment collide even further on the kill floor of the Dunn & Son slaughterhouse. In an ironic reversal of what is usually human on animal violence, a pregnant Jane is pummeled by a cow’s massive swinging carcass on the kill floor, and she is knocked out when she hits her head on “the edge of the knocking pen,” an enclosure that contains an animal as it is knocked out or stunned before slaughter. When she briefly returns to consciousness, Jane realizes that her “entire body had been drenched in blood” as she’d “fallen on the slaughterhouse floor, into the lake of blood,” with the “lake” connoting a natural body of water. She finds herself crying and notices that “every time [she] wiped [her] eyes the tears were bloody too.” In this scene, Jane’s body and those of the slaughtered cattle are shown to be thoroughly conjoined, and no matter how seemingly inert the body of the cow that swings into her may be, it has the potential to act upon her and change her life. Later, when Jane is in the hospital, Bunny holds her “fractured head […] against her chest.” Ozeki brings the novel’s parallel treatment of women and cattle full circle, with Jane’s “fractured head” connecting back to when she first saw her X-ray and observed that her uterus looked like a “coldcocked” bull’s head.
Synthesis and Conclusion
In My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki unpacks the overt and nuanced values implicated in Americans’ love of red meat. For many, beef exemplifies American cuisine—steaks, barbecue, pot roast, and of course, the hamburger. Ozeki, however, highlights the related ways that animals’ and women’s bodies are exploited throughout the twentieth century; both are used to project an image of the United States as a land of wholesomeness and abundance, and both are given synthetic hormones to increase production of meat and children, respectively. The novel investigates how this mythic portrayal of the United States is defined by its fertile, moral, “All-American” women, and its cheap, plentiful beef.
Although often-satirical in tone, the novel is too on-point to be entirely funny. In using beef as the “star” of the plot, Ozeki shows how American nationalism, the subjection of women’s bodies, the male gaze, and the medical gaze are intertwined with the mass production of American beef. The novel shows how the large-scale production and consumption of meat is far more than just symbolic of the objectification of women. Rather, My Year of Meats illustrates the ways that human and animal bodies are interconnected and endure similar—and at times overlapping—abuses.
- What are your first impressions of each of these three block quotations from the novel? What words catch your attention first? Circle them, without thinking about it too much. Compare the words you’ve chosen with a classmate. Did you circle any of the same words? Why do you think these words stand out to you?
- What personal associations do you have with any of the topics raised in these three passages? How might your personal associations influence your interpretation?
- What field(s) aside from literary studies might you conduct research in to support your interpretation?
- What explicit and implicit connections does the novel make between food and sex/sexuality? How do you feel about the connections it makes?
- What do you consider to be America’s (or your own country’s) staple food? What makes it a national staple?
- Is there such a thing as any one national cuisine? If so, how would you describe it? If not, explain.
- How might a novel such as My Year of Meats change how readers think about a topic, situation, or relationship? How might it influence their behaviour or actions?
Food in Popular Culture
In pairs or small groups, select a food that has been featured in popular culture. List all of the times you’ve encountered that food in movies, television shows, music, etc., and describe how it was depicted. Was the food used to convey information or meaning in a non-explicit way? Were those meanings similar or conflicted? Did the food item symbolize or represent anything outside of itself? Record and share your findings with the larger group.
Close Reading Food Essay
Select a food featured in a literary text and conduct a close reading. Paying close attention to just one food item or category, consider how imagery, setting, diction, syntax, point of view, form, characterization, style, symbolism, and figurative language are used in relation to that food. Try to branch outward from your close reading to make new discoveries, with the aim of arriving at new conclusions about your chosen food and literary text.
In a 1,500-word essay, provide a sustained close reading of one food featured in an individual passage from a text you have read in full. Your analysis should answer the following questions:
- What is the food you have chosen to study within this passage?
- How is it used in this passage?
- What does the passage explicitly say?
- Is there meaning beneath or beyond the explicit message? What is (are) the implicit meaning(s)?
- How do the writer’s imagery, diction, and syntax contribute to that meaning?
- What specific examples in the passage support these observations?
- How could this food symbolize the entire work? Could this food serve as a microcosm—a little picture—of what’s taking place in the whole work? How?
- What themes running through the book are evoked explicitly and implicitly by this food?
- What questions does this food raise about the story being told?
- What conclusions can be drawn from your close reading of this food?
Adams, C.J. Burger. 2018. Bloomsbury Object Lessons. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Carruth, A. 2013. Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Specht, J. 2019. Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Vester, K. 2015. A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Alaimo, S. 2010. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Goldberg, J. and T. Falcone. 1999. “Effects of diethylstilbestrol on reproductive function,” Fertility and Sterility 72 (1).
LeCompte, M.L. 1985. “The Hispanic Influence on the History of Rodeo, 1823-1922,” Journal of Sport History 12 (1).
Langston, N. 2010. Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Orenberg, C.L. 1981. DES: The Complete Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
McLuhan, M. 1967. The Medium is the Massage. Berkley, CA: Gingko Press.
- Ozeki 1998. ↵
- Ozeki 1998, 15. ↵
- Langston 2010, 48. ↵
- Ozeki 1998, 125. ↵
- Ozeki 1998, 8. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- McLuhan, 26. ↵
- Langston 2010, 55–56. ↵
- Orenberg 1981. ↵
- Ozeki 1998, 152. ↵
- Ibid., 156. ↵
- Ibid, 153. ↵
- Ibid, 230-231. ↵
- LeCompte 1985, 21. ↵
- Alaimo 2010, 2. ↵
- Ibid, 230. ↵
- Ibid, 208. ↵
- Ibid, 209. ↵
- Ibid, 327. ↵
- Ibid, 283. ↵
- Ibid, 252. ↵
- Ibid, 284. ↵
- Ibid, 291–92 ↵
- Ibid, 292. ↵
- Ibid, 293. ↵
- Ibid, 153. ↵
detailed, critical examination of a text to discover its meanings and assess its significances and effects; considers imagery, setting, diction, syntax, point of view, form, characterization, style, symbolism, and figurative language.
word choice; contributes to the tone of a text and and creates context; may reflect attitudes, ages, eras, regional locations, subcultures, emotional charges, etc; may also relate to symbols and metaphors, or to refer to something elsewhere within or beyond the text.
sentence structure; enhances the meanings found in prose and contributes to its tone, meaning, and atmosphere.
an implicit reference to people, places, events, literary works, myths, works of art, or other elements an author believes readers may recognize.
a literary device in which consonants, especially at the beginning of words, are repeated for resonance and impact.