“Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” So, Sam Elliot in his deep, husky drawl immortalized one of the most famous meat slogans in recent memory. The National Live Stock and Meat Board invented this piece of Americana and linked meat-eating to manliness for over seventy years. Now nearly forgotten, in its heyday, the Meat Board was the nation’s leader in meat advertising and much more.
I used my American Heritage Center travel grant to explore the Meat Board records for a book project tentatively called Cattle Cartel: How Big Cattlemen and Packers Harnessed the Meat Industry, 1916–1933. In it, I explain the origin of cooperation between these two groups and the many ways in which they reshaped the cattle industry. The Meat Board, I argue, embodied this new era of cooperation. It consisted of representatives from livestock associations, packers, retailers, and livestock exchanges. Surprisingly, its influence has remained largely hidden in historical literature. In the following paragraphs, I’ll tell a little bit about the Board and highlight some of its more amusing initiatives on the theme of meat and masculinity.
In 1922, industry leaders created the Meat Board to promote meat consumption. At the time, Americans ate less meat for various reasons, one being the popularity of breakfast cereal—pioneered by John Harvey Kellogg—which had replaced the traditional hearty morning meals. The Board struck back with studies on the healthfulness of meat and used that information to create all sorts of promotions. The pamphlet pictured here is called “Meat builds better Breakfasts—Better Breakfasts build better Bodies,” and it drew inspiration from eugenic contests like “Fitter Families for Future Firesides.” In its promotions like this one, the Meat Board often reinforced the age-old connection between meat and strength. The “’He-Man’ breakfast,” for example, explicitly tied a meat-centered meal to manliness.
The outbreak of WWII provided the Meat Board another opportunity to show off meat’s mettle. The Board used high school poster contests, usually directed at home economics students, to spread knowledge about meat. The annual contest themes were designed to indoctrinate students about the latest findings on meat. The posters shown here drew on the idea that meat imparted virility, more so than other foods, and was, therefore, more necessary for men on the front lines. These heavy-handed prints suggested that meat, like some sort of drug, created super soldiers. In “Meat behind the Man behind the Gun,” a steak with little arms and legs literally ran behind a soldier. Subtlety was not a virtue in meat poster art.
Meat also had a softer side, according to the Meat Board. In 1940, the Board released “Meat and Romance,” an educational and purportedly entertaining film. Intended for home economics classes, it featured newlyweds Peggy and Bill—played by Alan Ladd of Shane fame—who received a visit from Bill’s Dad, a physician, and his sister, a home economist. As Peggy, “the typical young housewife, inexperienced but eager to learn,” prepared for dinner she was given a lesson by these experts and others in meat selection, cooking, and nutrition. The local meat retailer even gave her an economics lesson on the price fluctuations of meat. The film is typical of the Meat Board’s view of “housewives” as uninformed and in need of advice. “Romance,” it appeared, was between Peggy and meat.
The Meat Board often cast women—like Peggy—as preparers of meat and “He-Men” as consumers. The Board reinforced this “separate spheres” notion about meat throughout its existence. Though the Meat Board broke up in the mid-nineties, groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) still carry on the spirit of the Board’s promotional work. In early 2021, for instance, the NCBA sponsored a NASCAR race called the Daytona 300 and renamed it the “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner. 300.”
Post contributed by AHC 2020 Travel Grant recipient Dr. Daniel T. Gresham, Professor of History, St. Mary’s College.