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It’s not as if mankind was destined to limit ourselves to such a small menu. Consider God’s input on this important question:
And [Peter] saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. (Acts 10: 11-13)
Self-proclaimed “radical” journalist Alexander Cockburn has called the Bible “the meat eater’s manifesto,” and he’s quite right. We’re by nature omnivorous—anything that doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
But humans don’t usually eat animals that eat each other. There are a variety of reasons for that: pathogen vectors, taste, muscle fiber, and the difficulty of hunting animals who are hunters themselves. Even pigs, which are considered unclean by quite a decent swath of the world’s population, don’t make it a habit to dine on flesh, so many of us eat them happily. It is more than a mere accident of history that cattle became our staple, and not big cats or small rodents.
A little carnivore here and there in our modern, hygienic era never hurt anyone, though. The ultimate in impressively carnivorous animals is the lion. Last summer, a friend claimed to have a freezer full of lion meat (and no particular taste for it) after returning from a stint in South Africa, but he left town again before I managed to snag some. To this day, I weep bitter tears at the thought of the one that got away.
I can only assume that the main reason humanity domesticated cows, and not kangaroos, is that cows are easier to catch in the first place—and happened to be on the appropriate continents—since kangaroo is delicious. It is, however, very lean, and would have been prone to drying out under most primitive cooking conditions. Cattle have been domesticated since at least the early Neolithic period, and are often referred to as the first form of wealth.
But the reason we mostly eat cows and pigs is that we have spent a huge amount of time and cultural capital making them taste perfect. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, beef is just right: fatty but not greasy, rich but not sickening, tender but not mushy, and flavorful but not gamy. This wasn’t always the case—the Neolithic ancestors of the placid bovines in roadside fields were a bit spunkier all around—but our ancestors, also a pretty spunky bunch, must have seen or tasted something in cattle that made them decide these slow, bigheaded beasts were worth the effort of domestication.
In “The Pimienta Pancakes,” another tale from the same volume of stories, steaks cut from the carcasses of fleet-footed, even-toed ungulates get another name-check. Our narrator comes upon the camp cook who, in order to chat, “laid down his six-shooter, with which he was preparing to pound an antelope steak.”
Perhaps surprisingly, I have yet to dine on antelope. But my partner in pursuit of strange beasts managed to find some in Williamsburg, Virginia. Perhaps ironically, he was ducking out of a conference on the obesity epidemic ravaging our nation. He and his companions, scoffers all at the conference’s dire predictions, feared the lunch would be too sparse for their tastes, or worse, too “foofy.” As luck would have it, a nearby restaurant was offering the least foofy meal imaginable: antelope. Any meal where the recipe might plausibly begin “pound the steak with the butt of your six-shooter until tender” should be manly enough for even the most carnivorous diner.
The wide world of odd meat is far from conquered. My esteemed colleague at Reason magazine, Ron Bailey, has publicly declared a filet of springbok antelope consumed in Johannesburg “the tastiest meat I’ve ever eaten.”
Fox-hunting may be outlawed in much of Britain these days, but a friend from Boston, claims to have eaten fox at home in Shanghai. So now, I’m on a foxhunt of my own, so to speak. But my campaign doesn’t require a red coat, rising at dawn, or much you-hallooing. And I’ve sorely neglected the fox’s other small rodentine cousins: Squirrel, groundhog, opossum, and beaver all remain untasted.
But there’s reason, after eating my way though much of Genesis, I still wind up with the domesticated basics in my fridge and on my plate on the average Tuesday. I could get the flesh from nearly any animal anywhere with surprisingly little effort and no more expense than a nice dinner out. Beef is what’s for dinner precisely because it has been what’s for dinner for millennia.
The narrator in the O. Henry story that started it all wasn’t convinced by his companion’s description of his perfect breakfast. He, too, prefers the familiar: