Flesh Mob

| 13 Aug 2014 | 02:50

    Amid the DJ spinning reggae and soul tunes and the occasional game on their big screen TV, the staff at Red Bamboo in Brooklyn busy themselves dishing out steaming plates of buffalo wings, soul chicken and beef kebabs. But at the four-year-old restaurant in Fort Greene, none of these plates had real meat on them—until now.

    Jason Wong, owner of this restaurant and the Red Bamboo located in the West Village (which will remain as it is), didn’t want to switch up the menu to include meat, but after he had to give up revenue from numerous meat-hungry holiday parties, he knew something had to change.

    “In the past year business has been down,” he says on the phone, upset because an enraged vegan just yelled at him for 20 minutes. “I know what the neighborhood wants and the restaurant needs to make money. It [dietary trends] has been my demographic for 15 years, and I have seen it change from vegetarian, to vegan and then back to meat.”

    Once upon a time, vegetarianism or veganism was the calling card of the socially conscious 20-something. Stocking up on soymilk and Boca burgers and celebrating birthdays at restaurants like Kate’s Joint, a vegetarian diner open since 1996 on Avenue B, were de rigueur. But these days, as high-profile chefs like David Chang resolutely refuse to cater to an animal product-free world, many New York vegetarians are giving up the greens and developing a taste for flesh.

    “I suddenly woke up to the fact that I had access to meat I feel great about,” says Gabrielle Langholtz, editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan magazines. “I thought all meat was produced in this horrific way, but now I eat some meat raised by my husband or raised on pasture, on green grass under blue sky.”

    Langholtz recently reacquainted herself with meat after over a decade of bouncing between veganism and vegetarianism. “I just didn’t want to participate in the way meat is made in the modern world,” says the 33-yearold mother of one. “You look at pictures of animals and would say, ‘I don’t want them to die for my sandwich.’ It’s a pretty easy thing to opt out of.”

    That is until everything changes. People were encouraged to avoid meat with scary PETA videos and horror stories about factory farming, but these days, newly carnivorous New Yorkers are able to cushion their consciousnesses with locally grown, free range and all-around-happy meat. It’s guiltfree grub, and there’s no shortage of eaters buying into it.

    In 2008, The Shameless Carnivore author Scott Gold coined a phrase for the metamorphosis from soy eater to meat maven. He calls it “conscientious carnivorism,” and he, like Langholtz, believes in knowing what happened to your meat makes a better meal. In his book, Gold bashes big business slaughterhouses and packaged meat from grocery stores, instead suggesting getting to know a butcher and learning about the beast that will one day grace your plate.

    A good place to start this quest is at The Meat Hook, a Williamsburg chop shop that opened in late October of 2009. There you will find 33-year-old butcher Tom Mylan, who, during the ’90s, was an indie-rockloving vegetarian. These days, the “celebrity butcher,” as he was recently dubbed in the New York Times, cuts flesh for the meatconscious customers who flock to the shop and teaches curious students how to properly break down an animal in weekly butchering classes. The classes have included topics like pig butchering and how to make chorizo— and they almost always sell out.

    “Now they can explore meat in more thoughtful ways,” Mylan tells me, as the smell of raw meat wafts from the butcher shop. “They wonder where does it come from, what breed is it, who is the farmer, where is the farm, what’s the slaughter house like, how is this animal actually killed?” The craze for local, organic meat and “happy cows” didn’t start at The Meat Hook, however. Mylan says he first saw it blossom about four years ago while he worked the cheese counter at Williamsburg’s bohemian gourmet shop, Marlow & Sons. There, the store started bringing in meat from Fleisher’s butcher shop, famously owned by another vegetarian-cum-butcher, Josh Applestone. As the cuts of beef and pig arrived, more people clamored to get it.

    “I think local meat just became available,” says Mylan. “People were fascinated with the fact that it was local and from properly raised animals. Before that, other than the farmers market, people didn’t have the chance to walk into a shop and buy meat that was from around here and have someone behind the counter who could actually talk about it.”

    As more people questioned Mylan about the cuts they were buying, he started learning about the meat and ended up training to butcher with Applestone for six weeks on his farm.

    “The good part of the trend is that people are waking up to how they are eating and taking an interest into how their food is produced,” he says. “A lot of our customers don’t eat meat if they don’t get it from us or another local source.”

    Just because some people have found their morally sound way to eat meat, not all vegans and vegetarians are buying into the latest craze. Take Jonathan Safran Foer and his latest work, Eating Animals, which, of course, is about not eating them. Not only does the 32-year-old author turn away from fiction to dedicate over 300 pages to why eating meat is bad, but he’s also been toting his dogma against meat-loving foodies like former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni and Anthony Bourdain. As an on- and off-again meat eater, Foer has publically made his decision to step into non-meat land and now is synonymous with whining about Bourdain to New York magazine for the No Reservations host’s admittance on Larry King Live that he thinks humans are supposed to eat animals. We wonder how he’ll respond to the recent Times story about the new “Caveman lifestyle,” described as “a small New York subculture whose members seek good health through a selective return to the habits of their Paleolithic ancestors.” One die-hard member purportedly indulges in “grass-fed ground beef, which he eats raw.”

    It may not be a full-fledged war, but fundamentalist animal lovers aren’t buying the latest, “proud to eat meat because I know all about it attitude.”

    For example, 32-year-old Brooklynite Jason Das, who co-founded the website Super Vegan in spring 2006—and has abstained from eating meat since the tender age of 18—thinks that breaking your vegetarian edge, trendy or not, is still unacceptable.

    “Ultimately, it’s not OK to exploit or kill others for arbitrary or pleasure-based reasons,” he says. “I think a lot of people would agree with that but wouldn’t include animals and I don’t think humans are above animals.”

    Whether your diet includes meat or not, (or, as I have experienced, your meat-loving tendencies go dormant while in the throes of a romance with a veg-head), the vegetarian debate has been around for centuries. In fact, according to Karen and Michael Iacobbo’s detailed account in their book, Vegetarian America: A History, vegetarianism in America dates back to the 1700s, most notably with the 16-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who was inspired to give up animal flesh after reading Thomas Tryon’s books on health. Though the true father of vegetarianism would be Sylvester Graham, whose crusade started in 1832 during a cholera epidemic when he offered the idea that sickness could be prevented through an animal-product-free diet. After the outbreak, Graham continued preaching the benefits of this diet. He took these theories to a religious level by referring from the book of Genesis, which includes descriptions about an idyllic time when humans and animals lived in harmony. His followers, the Grahamites, became the first straight-edge vegans.

    In 1850 the American Vegetarian Society formed, and in 1903 John Harvey Kellogg opened the posh vegetarian health spa Battle Creek Sanatorium (formally the Western Health Reform Institute built in 1866). But even then, it was something of a hip thing. “The glitterati of the day would go,” says Karen Iacobbo. “It became a status symbol.”

    By the 20th century, the meat industry started to gain power by using radio and magazines to promote the concept of needing meat to be strong. “In the 1940s, veggies were cast aside and ridiculed ’cause meat and potatoes were king,” explains Iacobbo. As World War II ended, she said, people wanted to go back to the land. “Lots of people transferred the anti-war into anti-violence to animals,” says Iacobbo. “It was led by people you would probably characterize as hippies, though not all of them were.”

    According to Iacobbo, with the movement came the saying, “Violence begins on your breakfast plate,” and as more people wrote songs and preached the evils of meat farming, vegetarianism began to take hold again. In the 1980s, when Iacobbo became a vegetarian and when PETA was founded, not eating animals was more accepted, and by the 1990s, it was a hip trend. That’s when the glossy magazines, cookbooks and celebrities—like Alicia Silverstone, Moby and Kim Basinger—started touting vegetarianism.

    Almost nowhere was vegetarianism and veganism more accepted (and, in some cases, required) than food-conscious hot spots like New York. And in the early aughts, with young, earnest types pouring into the city, restaurants like Foodswings, a vegan restaurant serving faux meat junk food, could prosper. Foodswings’ 36-year-old co-owner Jeff Blanchard sports a long, salt-and-pepper goatee, tattooed arms and biker bandana. He matches the painted black-wall and vegan-inspired poster-coated interior of the restaurant (including a The Devil’s Rejects poster, which makes sense: Director Rob Zombie is also vegetarian). “I think I’m the only heavy metal listener and biker out there that is vegan,” Blanchard says.

    For Blanchard, who has been a vegetarian for over 10 years and vegan for two, the specialized diet isn’t a passing “cool” fad, it’s a way of living. He thought long and hard about his decision and, inspired by his two dogs and two cats, never plans on going back to meat. He does, however, recognize that some of his customers might not be as dedicated as himself.

    “I think for some people it’s a trend.

    I know some people that used to be a vegetarian and then…” Bacon got them? “Yeah,” he replies to my question, with a deep and raspy chuckle.

    This story is the same for many failed vegetarians. Near the end of the past decade came the age of bacon (and bacon martinis, bacon cupcakes, chocolate-covered bacon, etc.) and, whereas a high school gym teacher might tote pot as a gateway drug in health class, bacon seems to be the gateway snack to leaving a meatless life behind. Perry-Elena Segura, 27, can attest to that.

    “I was craving bacon for two weeks, and then I went to Village Inn or Denny’s and ordered a plate of it and—it was delicious,” she says, discussing the end of her six-year vegetarian “phase.” From there, Segura went into food studies and started exploring local food sources. She joined a CSA (community shared agriculture), got into raw milk and took to cooking whole animals. One day, she ended up with a full-sized rabbit in her kitchen and realized she had no idea how to butcher it. It was then Segura had her “Aha!” moment.

    “I told people, ‘I am going to move to New York to learn to cut up animals,’” she says. This past summer she moved from Colorado to the most fashionable place to do it: Brooklyn.

    Of course, unlike the stereotypical meat-and-potato diet of the 1950s, today’s outlook on meat mirrors the idea behind the vegetarian movement of the ’60s: getting back to the land.

    Now married to a meat farmer, Gabriella Langholtz has no qualms about feeding her 10-month-old daughter organic turkey from their farm. She recognizes the new meat trend and feels glad for it.

    “The evolution of my thinking is typical of my group,” says Langholtz. “Everyone who was eating tofu in 1992 is eating lamb now.” But for others, like Tom Mylan, whose first meat meal after vegetarianism was cheap Chinese food, the fight to keep flesh out of the diet just got old. “I was just sick of that dogma that just seemed outdated,” he says, “If I wanted to eat bacon, I would eat bacon.”