July 2009

Kate Munning


The Chicken and the Egg: Slouching Toward Washington

When did people start replacing Campbell's soup with organic chicken stock and supermarket iceberg lettuce with locally grown arugula? Everyone cares about their food all of a sudden. It's partly a fad, sure, but many expected it to burn out when our nation's recession became official and the typical upper-middle-class locavore found herself with a lot less pocket money than she was used to in those carefree, pre-bailout heydays. And yet the trend persists, fueled in part by tainted spinach, peanut butter, beef, and our government's inability to trace and control these outbreaks. Food safety is certainly part of the equation, but it doesn't entirely explain why we still bum rush Whole Foods on the weekends.

Two new books might help explain the persistence of this phenomenon. First, Catherine Friend's Compassionate Carnivore is perfectly timed oasis of moderation while we weather the furor over the Obamas' White House garden and Alice Waters' campaign for organic school lunches. As a sustainable sheep farmer for 15 years, Friend is smarter than the average bear when it comes to fixing what's wrong with America's dysfunctional food system. She makes it clear, early and often, that she does not see anything wrong with eating animals, and in fact she's not much of a vegetable eater. I braced myself for the usual defensive claptrap about human sovereignty over animals that vegetarians hear all too often, but I am pleased to report that I was wrong. Instead, Compassionate Carnivore speaks in the most appealing terms of gratitude, moderation, and sustainability. As an ex-vegetarian and a veteran of food propaganda, it was intriguing to hear this language applied to the politics of eating meat.

This text asks, "Is it wrong, in the grand scheme of life, to assign a purpose to an animal's life?" Friend answers this for herself, and asks her readers to take stock and formulate their own answers. She stresses that she is a mere mortal, not a superhero the likes of Barbara Kingsolver or Alice Waters. She advocates introspection and small, measurable changes in food choices over dramatic experiments of virtue as described in Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Surviving on hardtack and home-canned goods through an Appalachian winter makes for good press, but Friend's belief is that a gradual shift in what and how we eat is more likely to be sustainable. She quips, "Change that doesn't last isn't change; it's a fad." Kingsolver's work has its place, though; her efforts have brought much-needed attention to American eating habits and her adventures make for entertaining, knowledgeable reading.

With that said, Friend presents a compelling case that there's plenty wrong with the way Americans eat meat. For a nation that prides itself on being number one, we're way off the mark when it comes to the quality of the food we eat so much of. There are plenty of wake-up calls in these pages; one chef in Argentina observes, "Looking at the fat of a USDA Choice steak is like looking at the face of a dead man." Sounds like we Americans might need to reevaluate our steak and potatoes mentality. And Compassionate Carnivore aims to help us do just that.

This unique perspective comes from experience of a farmer navigating the messy obstacle course of sustainable livestock farming. The section on meat certification is especially interesting for those who dare to peer past the slaughterhouse door. Consumers, in an effort to be more responsible, search for organic meat without realizing that many of the farmers who treat their animals with the most respect either can't afford the extravagance of USDA certification or aren't capable of jumping through all the certification's hoops. In fact, some certification stickers you see on meat packages mean very little when it comes to actual animal welfare. Friend suggests that we separate the idea of an organic system from the idea of legally organic food. While the term organic is useful to a point, it has been co-opted by corporations that follow the letter of the law but miss the spirit by a mile. An organic cow living in a concrete feedlot isn't much happier than a standard cow living in a slightly more crowded concrete feedlot. Readers are encouraged to look for more useful keywords than meaningless terms like "natural" and "free-range" and even "organic." For example, the label on the meat I get from a nearby farm bears the tagline, "Holistic grass-based farming to sustain the health and vitality of our environment, animals, and you." Since I bought this straight from the farmer, I'm pretty confident this is a meaningful philosophy rather than a string of industry buzzwords.

I applaud Friend's approach of finding balance between the extremes of mindless consumption and hyperawareness. One extreme is abhorrently ignorant, mind-boggling in this age of information, and the other unpalatable and shrill, as fundamentalists tend to be. She points out that vegetarianism and veganism don't have a true positive impact on the lives of animals. Of course, one could argue that if more people went veggie, then fewer animals would be eaten, but Friend believes that "remaining 'at the table,' if you will, is more effective than walking away." Every time you buy a steak you're voting with your dollars. You can use those dollars to buy meat that came from a cow who lived a happy life, and that will be more expensive, which may mean you'll eat less meat. That's okay. Vegetarians, on the other had, don't even have a seat at that table. As a former vegetarian who now eats meat occasionally, I am now able to ally myself with this way of thinking.

What bugged me at first but later endeared me to Compassionate Carnivore is that it isn't really for foodies. As difficult as this is for me to conceive, some people just don't like to cook. Some are too busy to pore over the grocery list or drive out to a farm once a week. Others just really like frozen pizza. These folks are a harder sell when it comes to good food choices. Even Friend opines on the lure of convenience foods, which is why she recommends a sensible, baby-steps methodology. The absolute best advice in the book to try new things, and that it's okay to eat a little less meat, even if you've had "less than successful relationships with vegetables" like Friend has.

Although the emphasis here is on personal experience, Compassionate Carnivore is chock full of facts and well cited, drawing from a variety of sources. There are a few missteps, mostly narrative ones. No cardinal sins; mostly confusing metaphors and awkward imagery. Friend starts off one chapter with that dreaded line from so many commencement speeches: "According to Webster's dictionary…" She uses that chestnut to launch into an impressively nuanced discussion of sustainability and profitability, how different farmers put sustainable farming into practice within the limitations of their acreage, budget, and geography. She uses the same painful device when she starts talking about butchering. The good stuff is in there, but at times it needs to be teased out.

On the other hand there's Fresh, a primarily historic account by Susanne Freidberg that starts at the other end of the narrative spectrum, although the two texts end up more or less meeting in the middle. It's a well-constructed diagnosis of our culture's obsession with freshness -- or at least the trappings of freshness. Jam-packed with historical facts and objective to a fault, Fresh begins as a history of refrigeration, and in the beginning it reads a bit like a thesis. But what starts off at a glacial pace thaws into a sophisticated evolution of eating habits, particularly those of Americans, from the 19th century to the present. Freidberg uses six foods -- beef, eggs, fruits, vegetables, milk, and fish -- to sketch the complex route from the farm of the mid-19th century to the supermarket of the 21st. It turns out that for some time now, consumers have been sold "freshness" by savvy marketers as a product rather than an actual quality of the food we are buying -- something farmers have known for years and SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, and ethical) foodies are beginning to understand. Apparently there are big food-industry summits on the topic of freshness, which makes sense after this heady read.

Food used to be a local business transacted between growers and consumers or shopkeepers. The frolicking "happy cows" in cheese commercials and rustic labels on our vacuum-packed spring baby lettuce mix try to convince us this is still the case, though we should really know better. Freidberg explains how the emergence of refrigeration enabled food to be shipped for thousands of miles and processed in myriad ways. Middlemen like centralized meatpackers and shipping companies began to wield power in the food business. One landmark event occurred in 1923, when newly powerful packing companies succeeded in driving down the cost of beef despite the best efforts of ranchers and state governments. These playground bullies eventually gave rise to the omnipotent conglomerates like Altria and Monsanto that we know today.

Despite Americans' demand for the highest quality food in the world, Freidberg admits that "the fare offered by these companies might now seem the exact opposite of 'fresh' in the farmers-market sense of the term," with food shipped globally and often processed beyond recognition into shady characters like milk protein isolate and high fructose corn syrup. She echoes Friend's point that American consumers are quick to purchase food that looks tasty without regard for where it came from. But Freidberg assures readers that pioneers of freshness and food preservation like Charles Tellier, inventor of refrigerated shipping, were trying to "boost workers' productivity, stimulate commerce and innovation, …and allow the poor to eat more like the rich." Forces like capitalism intervened, honing in on consumers' desire for gorgeous, nicely displayed food, regardless of the taste or provenance. "It's their experts who have figured out that we shop for fresh fruit with crow's eyes, zeroing in on big, bright, shiny objects."

Marketing wizards began directing their attention to advertising the health benefits of fruit, which were not overly popular foodstuffs for early Americans, and creating brand names like Sunkist, an unheard-of concept in the early 1900s. Fruit consumption skyrocketed, fueling a mad cycle of overproduction, processing, and shipping. Ironically, this led to a slow deterioration in the end product as well as the downfall of small farmers. Even organic produce, often hailed as the savior of our food system, has fallen victim to this mode of thinking. "As organic production exploded and organic sales moved into mainstream outlets, the market got pickier. Unless growers went back to face-to-face commerce…they had to produce fruit that was as pretty as it was pure." So now we know this system is bad for both farmers and consumers, but hey, doesn't the end result look great?

We learn that this is especially true of the enigmatic egg. There's no way to tell from looking at one how old it is or what's skulking inside. Eggs were a local, seasonal food until technology made it possible to trick chickens into laying year round and send eggs from "egg towns" like Petaluma, California across the country and around the globe. A hundred years later the essential quandary remains the same, even for eggs with bar codes that allow you to log on to a website and trace where they came from. This tool, called Eggfusion, purports to promote freshness, but Freidberg reminds us that "the company does not by itself get eggs to market any faster. Instead the coded shells are meant to make us trust the egg's innocence, a virtue as important as, and even conflated with, its youth. They promote the impression of freshness, and that is ultimately what sells eggs." In short, we're not as fresh obsessed as we think we are.

This text excellently illustrates the slow, heavy accumulation of externalized costs involved in making our food, from cheap immigrant labor to government subsidies to environmental degradation. This isn't something that happened all at once, but crept in like an illness-one that's now starting to make us literally sick with E. coli, salmonella, and swine flu. Fresh builds a good case, calling attention to the fact that "our very ideal of freshness in vegetables -- as a natural, even evanescent quality -- has contributed to the historic undervaluing of the human labor that produces them…. The real cost has always been borne by the people whose work we don't see."

For the smug foodies out there who know all of this already, or who think of yourselves as above the fray -- listen up. While eating locally is an excellent way to shorten the food chain and bolster the local economy, it is not the cure-all for the food industry's ills. In her epilogue, Freidberg sagely notes that "the same larger forces that have created prosperous local foodsheds in some parts of the world have undermined them in others. It is easier to be a locavore in Berkeley than in Burkina Faso." Colonial powers have created "banana republics," forcing native peoples to abandon their traditional foodways and support faraway appetites for apples and haricots verts. With that sentiment, she joins the ranks of food writers like Mark Bittman, who has called locavores "elitist," splitting with other high-profile thinkers like Michael Pollan on this topic. Bittman calls for cutting way back on meat as the most effective way to help the environment and heal our injured food system (sorry, Catherine Friend!). Although Freidberg doesn't go that far, she does say that "the basic infrastructure of locavorism can't be taken for granted everywhere." Fresh doesn't talk much about the environmental impact of our eating habits, but does mention the "world of interdependencies and inequalities, forged through trade, conquest, and politics" found in our refrigerators.

Although both Compassionate Carnivore and Fresh borrow from his approach, neither of these books will be mistaken for the work of Michael Pollan, who seems to effortlessly weave together food science, anthropology, history, and personal experience in an enlightening, reasonable voice. But if Friend and Freidberg aren't the rock stars of food writing just yet, it's because they've both gone spelunking into depths that would make most of us queasy or bored, or both. But they've both come back up with eminently readable, illuminating material that is useful to arugula and iceberg lovers alike.

The bottom line is that our food choices maybe less examined than we believe they are. Sometimes, when we think we're choosing fresh, healthy produce and meat, we're actually pawns-or as Compassionate Carnivore puts it, open-mouthed baby birds letting the food industry drop in whatever they like. But we consumers wield more power than we realize, and we can capitalize on the trend of SOLE food to shift government policy and supermarket inventory. Changes are already afoot, with campaigns to decentralize food processing for more accountability in food safety. Many states are tackling these issues with efforts to legalize raw milk and otherwise connect citizens with local food sources, and small farms are resurging as a result. One way to effect permanent change is to stop viewing healthy food as a fad and rethink it as new the path forward.


Kate Munning is a free-agent word-slinger navigating the wilds of northern New Jersey. She writes about food and gardening at coltivi.blogspot.com.