September 18, 2002

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Beef, two ways

IF, LIKE me, you are perpetually ambivalent about meat – liking to eat it, on the one hand, and not liking to think about how, exactly, it has found its way to one's dinner plate – then you will take a certain agnostic comfort in Peter Lovenheim's new book Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf (Harmony Books, $23). The book is an unusual amalgam of memoir and contrivance: memoir because Lovenheim is present throughout as both narrator and moral actor, contrivance because the book as a chronicle of the lives of two beef calves from birth to death is entirely the result of Lovenheim's buying the two calves and paying to have them raised so he might write a book about their – and his – experience.

It sounds forced, but the resulting details are compelling, as is Lovenheim's growing uncertainty as to whether he will actually be able send his calves to slaughter when the time comes. The facts of beef – and dairy – production are of course unlovely, but neither are they horrific; for the most part they're factory gray, with a slight but persistent chill. I found most disturbing the segregation by sex of newborns and the denial to males of colostrum, the essence of mother's milk that helps infant animals build strength and immunity. But the brutal truth is that, for human purposes, the males don't need colostrum; they don't produce milk, and their only value is to be turned into hamburger or dog food or Campbell's beef noodle soup at the end of their short lives. And so it is the males that are most often turning up sick or infirm as the pages go by and the tale gathers its slightly stomach-sinking downhill momentum.

The book does not condemn the cattle industry, and Lovenheim's portraits of the people who work in it are full and fair. But the book's lingering aftereffect is to raise yet one more question in one's mind about the industrial lives and deaths of the sentient creatures we end up eating. Of course, the world was ever thus. All the same, one does find it easier, for a time, to slip past the meat counter.

• • •

Taking the plunge: Lisa Koss, of the Thanksgiving Coffee Co., offers an alternative to my recent suggestion about French presses. Her way is to add the grounds to the empty carafe, bring the water to a boil, and then let it sit for 30 seconds in the kettle before pouring. Same result, presumably.

• • •

¡Olé! The longtime cantina at 18th and Noe Streets is now an El Castillito, and that can only be good.

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com