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Author Archive: "Maureen Ogle"

Bye-bye, Beer — Hello, Meat

My last day as guest blogger. Enough looking back at beer. Time to look to the future — and to my next book: A history of meat in America, from the pork factories along the Ohio River in the 1830s to the Prather and Niman ranches in the 1970s.

Book ideas are mysterious creatures. My brain dishes them up, but I never know when they'll appear or why. The beer book, for example, arrived in my head, more or less fully formed, when I driving down the street and spotted a Budweiser truck.

So, too, the meat idea, which landed in my lap via a route I don't pretend to understand.

This past summer the beer book went into production and I started thinking seriously about my next project.

"Thinking" consisted of me flopping onto the sofa, staring at the ceiling, willing my brain to feed me ideas. Something. Anything.

No go.

I puttered around the house. I swam laps at the pool and took long walks around a nearby lake. Nothing.

Well, okay, not "nothing." My brain kept shoving an image of the King Ranch in front of my mind's eye.

The King Ranch? I'd heard of it — vaguely.

I knew — vaguely — that it was a huge property in Texas whose owners produced something. Oil? Cattle? I wasn't sure.

I ignored the image. Irrelevant.

Next day, the King Ranch re-appeared. The perspective was one I'd see from the air: a vast sprawl of dry scrub, cattle, and barb-wire fence that stretched to the horizon.

Huh? Again I ignored it.

Third day, the King Ranch returned. Same image.

Okay, so I'm a weeeee slow on the uptake. I realized that my brain was telling me something important. I let the image take a seat and settle in.

The next day, however, the King Ranch vanished, replaced by a new image: Cattle plodding across a scrubby landscape.

My mind's eye ranged (no pun intended) across the view: Cattle. Miles and miles of cattle. Off in the distance, a guy on horseback. A small sign along the trail bearing one word: "Abilene."

Now I was paying attention. The brain doesn't concoct stuff like this unless it's got a good reason to do so.

My mind's eye scanned the scene again. The King Ranch reappeared.

Light bulb!

Meat. I'd write a book about meat! Americans and meat. How have we produced it? How has our relationship to it changed over the decades?

I fell immediately and thoroughly in love with the idea and its possibilities.

And realized that my brain was prodding me to embark on yet another tour of the American character, in this case the dark side of our inherent optimism.

As I said a few days ago, if any one thing defines us as Americans, it's our optimism. Our belief that we can shape the world around us. That we can change what we don't like. That the future will be better than the past.

But that optimism also fosters the belief that we can have it all.

In the case of meat, for example, we believe that we can have clean air and water, four-bedroom houses, and ground beef that only costs $2.50 a pound.

Don't see the connection among those things? I do, but that's because I live in Iowa. Every day I am witness to a tri-sided battle among three powerful forces, each of which exemplifies the desire to have it all.

When the wind is right, I can smell the hog and cattle confinments lots that are less than ten miles from my house. These are vast enclosures where farmers raise thousands of animals that end up in our grocery stores as meat that is affordable to nearly everyone.

But every year, homeowners inch closer to these meat factories, thanks to developers and the people who buy the houses that they build. Indeed, twelve years ago, the land where I'm sitting belonged to a farmer.

But once the new homeowners settle in, they complain about the stench that emanates from their neighbors' properties.

Beer Isn’t Evil. Here’s Why.

Ambitious Brew is about beer, so I've spent much of the past five years thinking, directly and indirectly, about alcohol and its place in our lives — and about the people who yearn to halt the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol.

When the book came out, I expected an onslaught of tirades from the anti-alcohol crowd. Something along the lines of "Ms. Ogle glorifies alcohol." Or "Ogle encourages under-age drinking by praising rather than condemning the makers of booze."

So far there's been none of that. I'm relieved, but surprised: the current neo-prohibition movement is powerful and well-organized, and rarely misses the chance to attack drink.

This coalition of activists, who operate under an umbrella composed of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest), are chipping away at Americans' right to drink, using the "abuse" of alcohol as the rationale for their crusade.

I find it hard to take them or their cause seriously.

In the United States, we "enjoy" the drinking culture we deserve. We have no one to blame but ourselves for binge and under-age drinking and "drunk" driving — and groups like ...

Beer As Myth. Myths R Us.

Most Fridays during my sophomore year of high school (about a million years ago), I dressed in green and gold (the school's colors) and attended that day's pep rally for whatever sport was in season. I wasn't interested in sports and understood nothing about the action on a football field or basketball court, but I went anyway.

Looking back, I realize I was engaging in a middle-class kid's version of joining a gang: School colors, pep rallies provided me with a place where I could hang my hat and my identity. The teams' victories and losses dished up what amounted to a small series of myths — albeit small, localized ones — around which my group could coalesce.

That memory bubbled up in my brain these past few weeks while I traveled the country talking to people about Ambitious Brew and reading the reviews of the book.

Some people, I realized, would never accept what I'd written because it undermined their particular myths; the ideas and beliefs that sustain their corner of the world. No matter how rigorously I documented the book's more contentious claims, their myth carried more weight than my facts.

The most controversial part ...

Quick! I Need A Beer Chaser with That Review

My editor describes writing a book as an act of faith. We writers spend years crafting our prose. We hope someone will publish it. We hope someone will read it.

And then we spend a whole lotta time gritting their teeth over the reviews.

Not because we fear being panned or praised, but because most reviews come waaaaaaaay out of left field and don't have a whole lot to do with the book being reviewed.

More often than not (there are some fine exceptions) the reviewer will criticize an author for not writing the book that reviewer wanted him/her to write. And, too, reviews almost always contain factual errors that distort the content of the book.

Both have happened with the reviews of my new book, Ambitious Brew. Here's one example.

Don's a nice guy, a good human being, and an excellent writer. But in this review, he's annoyed that I "dissed" Philadelphia and its colonial brewing heritage.

Never mind that I offered readers an explanation as to why I opened the story in Milwaukee in 1844 rather than, say, Philadelphia in 1744. (Never mind that I explained that to Don in person!) ...

The Who/What/Why

Greetings! I'm this week's guest blogger. It's a safe bet most of you have never heard of me, so here's a brief who/what/why:

I'm a historian with a goal and an obsession.

First, the goal: I'm determined to persuade Americans that history is interesting and worthwhile. Even entertaining.

I know, I know: "Is she nuts? History is BORING! Nothing but long lists of the names of dead kings and the dates of wars that ended centuries ago."

Sad to say, that's most people's reaction. During our school years, instructors "teach to the test," doling out facts for students to memorize and then spit out during an exam.

That was my experience as a kid in school, but somewhere along the way, I discovered an alternate universe in which history consisted of stories of real people making real choices about life.

My professional exploration of history dates back to 1983. That was the year I turned thirty, gave up my life as a waitress and construction worker, and enrolled in college. A few years later, I started graduate school, determined to earn a PhD in history and pass my passion on others.

Not so fast. It was nearly impossible to find ...

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