The sign over the door at Schmidt’s Meat Market in Nicollet, Minn., says “Willkommen,” letting customers know that they will be able to pig out on authentic German fare.

With a smokehouse, butchering operation, sausage kitchen and retail store, Schmidt’s is thriving in its 68th year, run by the founder’s grandson. Many of the customers for its signature fresh wursts, bacon varieties, jerky and deli meats are third-generation, too.

“Lots of people make a jog out of their way to come see us. We’re a destination,” said Lynnita Schmidt, who operates the shop with her husband, Ryan. “People grew up coming to Schmidt’s.”

Today, Minnesota and Wisconsin have the nation’s highest concentration of mom-and-pop meat markets, and it’s no wonder. Sausages arrived in the region before it was carved into territories.

“The Germans and Norwegians were skilled sausage makers and they brought the tradition with them,” said Ryan Cox, a professor of meat science at the University of Minnesota. “Sausage making began centuries before refrigeration, when salting and curing preserved meat. It became an important part of our heritage and Main Street culture.”

That tradition may be one reason why giving up meat is unthinkable for many die-hard carnivores, even when the news mounts that regular consumption has serious health consequences. Recently a report from an international panel convened by the World Health Organization declared, after evaluating hundreds of studies, that there was sufficient epidemiological evidence to classify red meat as “probably” carcinogenic. It also linked processed meat, such as bacon, hot dogs and sausage, to colorectal cancer.

Our collective craving for animal flesh began thousands of years before medieval European sausage makers figured out how to use every part of the pig. Meat is humankind’s old flame, a throwback to our caveman origins.

“Eating meat is part of the adaptation that allowed people to survive, especially in latitudes closer to the poles where there was little to eat in winter before plants and animals were domesticated,” said Michael Wilson, an associate professor who teaches evolutionary anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

He said meat-related rituals sustained our early ancestors and encouraged the earliest forms of human cooperation.

“If you had to rely only on the meat you could kill, it’s possible you wouldn’t have enough. If you got hurt or injured, you might not be able to bring what you’d need for you and your family. Sharing meat across families created social bonds; meat was their currency and their social insurance.”

The dealmaker

Meat still has status, especially when a pricey prime cut is ordered at an over-the-top steakhouse. The place to be seen when you win a case, close a deal, want to impress a free agent or mark a significant anniversary is often a steakhouse.

“Manny’s is about excess and opulence. It’s a splurge,” said Donna Fahs, CEO of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, which owns Manny’s, in downtown Minneapolis.

Last year the athletes, entertainers and assorted high rollers whose photos line the walls of the restaurant walked in with $18 million in revenue. The tab runs up quickly; the more massive cuts of the dry aged Black Angus marbled meat on Manny’s menu sell for just under $100.

“When you’re celebrating, you’re in a better state of mind, and so the food might taste better,” Fahs said. “But meat has always been the centerpiece of the meal. When you say what’s for dinner, it’s about the meat. Other dishes just accompany it.”

That’s the problem with meat for Raghavan Iyer, a chef, teacher, cookbook author and restaurant consultant.

“When meat is not the focal point, the meal is about everything on the plate, its textures and aromas,” he said. “You get a better representation of balance.”

Iyer grew up in a vegetarian home in India, getting his protein from legumes, nuts and dairy products. Today, the longtime Minnesota resident will occasionally sample a bite of meat while testing a recipe, but he naturally gravitates to a plant-based diet.

“Inherently it’s much healthier; it’s more affordable. But what I love is the versatility,” he said.

Iyer develops vegetarian recipes and trains chefs for a national restaurant management company that’s filling a greater demand from patrons for meat-free entrees.

While there are more restaurants with tempting vegetarian options — hey, even White Castle offers a veggie slider — the number of declared vegetarians remains stable and small. A 2012 Gallup survey found that only 5 percent of the nation identifies as vegetarian, with 2 percent calling themselves vegans. That number hasn’t budged since Gallup began collecting food choice data 16 years ago.

Anecdotally, there may be a rising number of eaters who don’t go whole hog about being vegetarian. There are pescatarians (vegetarians who eat fish), lacto ovo vegetarians, (consuming eggs and dairy) and pollotarians (meat consumption limited to poultry).

Maybe there should be a designation called drinkatarians. A study by a British coupon company released last month finds that 37 percent of vegetarians admit they cheat with meat when they imbibe.

And then there’s the reduceatarian, a newly coined name for eaters who aim to consistently bring home less bacon.

“Cutting back on meat improves individual health and the health of the planet and spares animals from suffering,” said Brian Kateman, president and co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation. The nonprofit, launched with an Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaign, preaches part-time meat eating rather than taking the all-or-nothing approach that Kateman believes alienates many carnivores.

“The answer is not to tell people that they’re murderous killers or too lazy to make changes. That’s not going to motivate them,” said Kateman, a meat eater who consumes significantly less than he once did. “It’s more encouraging to ask people if they would be willing to eat less meat and look at every meal as a chance to make a meaningful choice. People can feel good about that.”

Less meat, more vegetables

There are other efforts aimed at consciously cutting back on consumption — meatless Mondays, or Mark Bittman’s “vegan before 6 p.m.” movement, which advocates eating meat at dinnertime only. And then there is Veganuary, an annual monthlong effort to encourage recovery from holiday excess with a pledge to start the new year with a plant-based diet.

Perhaps the newfangled pitches for old-fashioned moderation will nudge more die-hard carnivores to go bare bones on red and processed meat, which may ultimately lead to improved health. James McWilliams, a vegan who teaches history at Texas State University in San Marcos and wrote “The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals,” said that while he is glad to see the attention the WHO meta-analysis has garnered, he doesn’t see it as a game-changer.

“I don’t think the report will convince many consumers to give up eating meat altogether. That’s not typically how consumers react. But it will certainly influence the ongoing reduction of processed and red meat in the North American diet.”

Lynnita Schmidt has a more direct answer when visitors to her meat market quiz her about the risks of the smoked, cured and processed meats that bear her family’s name.

“When people ask me if meat is healthy, my comeback is that Grandpa Gerhardt, who started the shop in 1947, lived to be 96 and Grandma Esther is 104 right now,” she said. “They ate it every day.”

 

Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer and a newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.