The Angina Monologues
There's a Bush back in the White House and beef is on the menu once again. Gone are the bobo-ish affectations of the Clinton era, as dated as Brie and Chardonnay. The cattle country club set prefers scotch and sirloin.
"Beef is definitely back," says Bill Carter, general manager of The Prime Rib, a Washington institution that has been feeding politicos for 25 years. "Beef is the food of celebration," Carter says.
Red meat politics are back as well, and no one serves them up better than that "son" of the beef belt, Vice President Dick Cheney. From recommending that the Arctic Refuge be opened for business, to touting nuclear power as a solution to the country's energy woes, Cheney has offered up a menu guaranteed to please political carnivores.
If the return of red meat politics has taken many liberals by surprise -- but Bush said he was compassionate! -- the fact that members of the sirloin set actually eat what they preach may be even more surprising. For never before have the ill effects of the meat itself been so apparent.
Just look at poor Cheney. A lifetime of rib eyes, roasts and rump steaks has taken its toll on the Vice Presidential ticker. The VP, who is said to love a thick juicy steak, even on a fishing trip, has suffered four heart attacks since he turned 37, and had to be hospitalized again this spring due to a rapidly closing artery.
"Cheney's taste for blood is literally killing him," says Bruce Friedrich, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, sounding more than a little gleeful. "Unless he stops with the steaks, he won't be around to advocate his programs much longer."
On the other side of the Atlantic, they're not just rejecting hormone-laden policies like Bush's missile defense plan and the shredding of the Kyoto Climate Accord. The Europeans are also turning up their noses at red meat. Beef sales have plummeted due to fears about Mad Cow Disease, the cattle virus that lays waste to the human brain. In Italy, the demand for beef is off by an astounding 75 percent. In France, consumption of le boeuf is down by 47 percent. Top restaurants such as L'Arpege in Paris have even gone so far as to remove steak from the menu.
And that's just the cows. Now that foot-and-mouth disease has popped up in the Netherlands, Ireland and Britain -- where more than 1,000,000 animals have been destroyed as a precautionary measure -- pigs and sheep are under siege as well. A report by Britain's Agriculture Secretary tying the outbreak of the disease to "pig-swill," a concoction made from boiled garbage and fed to pigs, is unlikely to send the British racing back to the butcher shop any time soon.
While Americans have yet to abandon red meat en masse like their European counterparts, there is some evidence that they are beginning to lose their enthusiasm for the traditional red-blooded diet. Despite all of those "Beef: It's What's For Dinner" spots run by the Beef industry, consumption has dropped some 25 percent in recent years. And the anecdotal evidence points to an even broader shift.
Consider Eric Schlosser's unlikely best seller, Fast Food Nation, a scathing indictment of the burger business. In his expose of "what really lies between those sesame seed buns," Schlosser uncovers a tale of epidemic obesity, particularly among children; of tainted meat that the government is helpless to recall; and of rampant worker abuse in the meatpacking industry, now the most dangerous job in the US. It's an unsavory story, and one that American readers are gobbling up.
But are they reading it at the White House? If so, it hasn't made much of an impact on the official taste buds. While Vice President Cheney may be the most notorious member of the barbecue bunch, he's got plenty of company. George W's favorite restaurant, for example, is a little barbecue joint near his ranch famous for serving up brisket, ribs, sausage and chops by the pile.
Only Cheney -- AKA the patient in chief -- has attracted the ire of medical groups over his dietary choices, though. The VP is setting a bad example for other Americans by chowing down on the foods that damaged his heart in the first place, proclaimed Physicians for Responsible Medicine after Cheney was hospitalized with heart attack number four. "Cheney is an intelligent man and, with all eyes on him, America needs him to make healthful choices," said PRM President Neal D. Barnard, MD.
But is the Vice President's apparent taste for self-destruction really all that surprising? This is, after all, the undisputed brains behind the operation that has proposed such pro-health measures as increasing the level of arsenic allowed in water. Some arsenic with that scotch and water, sir? It's an issue that many Democrats are hoping will prove plenty self-destructive -- to Cheney's party in 2002.
For the VP's heart, it may not be too late. Experts like Neal Barnard insist that even advanced cases of heart disease can be turned back by maintaining a strict vegetarian diet. Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is on Cheney's side; they're offering to send him one of their emergency vegetarian starter kits. But it's Cheney's taste for red meat politics that is unlikely to be replaced by tofu good will any time soon. For those of us who find his policies hard to digest, it's likely to be a long four years.
Jennifer C. Berkshire is a freelance writer based in Boston. Her writings on food and politics appear regularly in the Boston Herald.