Meat Expert Marissa Guggiana Wants us to Look Behind the Industrial Food Curtain

Marissa Guggiana
Marissa Guggiana

When Marissa Guggiana began research for her new book Primal Cuts: Cooking With America's Best Butchers last August, she did so by embarking on an epic, cross-country road trip, and talking to the country's top meat purveyors in the flesh.

Eleven thousand miles and a bit more than a year later, the Bay Area native and locavore activist recently stopped in NYC to celebrate National Butchers Week, and promote her project. Here, Guggiana discusses sustainable eating and looking behind the industrial food curtain. Tune in tomorrow for the second half of our interview.

You were already heavily involved in California's locavore movement, so did you take away any new ideas from your travels?

The trip was a focus for me. I'm really interested in butchery. I ran a meat plant in California, but I learned a lot of ideas that small meat producers had, the ways that they prepared meats, the ways that they shared carcasses with other businesses. The thing I learned that's sort of overarching: There's something happening all over, and people are coming to it for different reasons and motivations. It's not just happening in northern California: It's happening all over the country. People are becoming more self-sufficient and becoming more connected to the force of everything, not just food.

Explain.

I think food is a great catalyst because everyone has to eat every day, because growing food and producing food has such an impact on our environment and our health. But I just think people want to make things, they want to do things, they want to know who's the person on the other side of the transactions. They want to know who's involved in the daily rituals of their life.

Why do people care more now?

In our industrial food system, in the name of convenience, we've sort of created this curtain in front of how everything is made and what's really happening. Behind that curtain, there's all sorts of horrible, horrible things that are happening: the way that animals are treated, the way employees are treated, the horrible things that we're eating, the chemical processes that go into the food that we eat. I think more of just looking behind the industrial food curtain, they want to find another way. And the easiest way to do that is just to do it yourself, to talk to people that do that it themselves and buy it from people that do it themselves.

Is this attitude limited to progressively minded places?

I see it most in the Bay Area and in New York, mostly because there's a consumer base there that is wealthy and really interested in food, and the thing that's problematic, the sticking point in all of this, is that it's really expensive to grow meat on a small scale. Small farmers are generally not being subsidized with cheap feed. The way to make good meat accessible to everybody everywhere -- we're looking for a solution to that. It is happening everywhere, but there are just less people who can afford it.

Any signs local meat might become more affordable?

Meat community-sustained agriculture projects are one way that it can be less expensive for people, if you buy it directly from a farmer. I haven't seen a ton of trends that tell me, "Oh, this is getting cheaper." One thing that's happening: There are businesses that are somewhat in between buying from a farmer or some big factory farm in the Midwest. There are lots of sort of distributors who are aggregating meat from different farms, and creating something locavorish. They'll make it a lot less expensive.

You're from the West Coast, so was it hard getting to know butchers and farmers in other parts of the country?

A lot of these guys are really known for what they do. They're pretty good self-marketers. I knew about them by reputation, and I just introduced myself. And New York wasn't hard. In New York and California, it was for me harder to pick who not to include, because there were a lot of people doing great stuff. It was harder to find people in the Midwest, where I know less people. Some of them don't even really know how to market themselves in a way. They don't even know what they're doing is really extraordinary.

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