Did I mention that I’m a vegetarian?

11 09 2010

But the history of meat still fascinates me:

Cuts of beef.

5 09 2010

Another film clip for my history of food class:

To see all of “Beef Rings the Bell, Part II,” click here.

“Know Your Meat (1945).”

1 01 2010

No, it’s not a PETA video:

Let’s torture pigs so that we’ll have more left to kill.

12 11 2009

I am so done with Freakonomics. Like me, you’ve probably read all the stuff about how bad the global warming chapter is in Superfreakonomics. Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker writes:

Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong.

I figured I’d skip the new book, but keep reading the Freakonomics blog as it can sometimes be very interesting. Unfortunately, it seems like Levitt and Dubner have decided to give a permanent platform to this guy. Today he offers a heartfelt, compassionate defense of pig torture:

Horrible as it all sounds, many pig farmers vehemently insist on the humaneness of the farrowing crate. Critics might condemn the crate as little more than a productivity maximizer. But consider why it maximizes productivity: farrowing crates prevent piglets from being crushed to death. As many conventional pig farmers note, the crate’s design is carefully engineered to discourage mothers from rolling over on their suckling or sleeping babies, something that happens with alarming regularity in open systems.

Luckily, a reader named Richard has already posted what I was thinking in the comments:

OK, so let’s get this straight. Option 1: pig suffers. Option 2: baby pigs get killed.

Consider now option 3. If we cannot raise pigs humanely (because of 1 or 2) above, then we should not raise pigs. To the farmer who says they have to do option 1 to prevent 2, I say “no you don’t”. You are inherently engaged in a cruel, inhumane business – don’t make out that you are some sort of saint. You are not.

Paul Krugman picked out a particularly good line from Kolbert that applies here as well:

But what’s most troubling about “SuperFreakonomics” isn’t the authors’ many blunders; it’s the whole spirit of the enterprise. Though climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are.

In this case, you don’t have to be a trained scientist to figure out the problem with the pig argument. You don’t even have to be a vegetarian. You just have to realize that there are other ways to raise pigs than by the thousands.


“There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage…”

2 10 2009

Apparently, Texas State University historian James McWilliams hates locavores. I already knew there was an argument about whether eating local food really saves that much in greenhouse gas emissions, but in the first of what promises to be a series of posts at Freakonomics about the glorious wonders of industrial food production Williams has decided to attack a straw man:

I’m told that I’m missing the ultimate point of being a locavore. Local food is not only about reducing our carbon footprint. It’s about strengthening community.

Actually, I prefer local food because it’s always fresher and therefore usually tastes better, but then again, I don’t know James McWilliams. Perhaps his locavore friends actually make that argument.

But when he justifies industrial food production through this line of reasoning, you know there’s an underlying agenda here:

When merchant-led expansion fostered systematic trade with distant markets, the nature of local trade changed. Mediators entered the scene. The supply chain lengthened. The personal nature of exchange yielded to standardized norms required by middle men who had only a tenuous connection to the products for sale. Impersonal mediators and distant institutions (such as banks and insurance companies) ultimately diffused face-to-face interactions by placing a buffer between buyers and sellers. Markets became larger and less personal. Neighbors became customers. Legal battles continued apace, but they were not personal. Just business.

By coincidence, I just happened to be teaching Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle today. here’s everyone’s favorite part (courtesy of Google Books):

That’s what happened when “The personal nature of exchange yielded to standardized norms required by middle men who had only a tenuous connection to the products for sale.” That’s what still happens when food production is “just business.” It’s the ramifications of the impersonal supply chain, not the impersonality of the food chain itself, that all the locavores I know are trying to prevent.

Yet somehow I get the impression that Williams doesn’t care what locavores really think.

Classic Michael Pollan.

3 08 2009

I’ve been working on the syllabus for my first class on the history of food in America. I won’t teach it until spring, but since somebody at Fort Lewis (I think) did a class on porn a few years back, now all syllabi for special topics courses in the entire CSU system have to be approved months in advance. I had already planned to close the class with Omnivore’s Dilemma, recognizing that the course has to make it up to the present. However, another soon-to-be-classic article in the NYT Magazine reminded me that Michael Pollan can be very historical too:

The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40 percent since 1965. (Though for married women who don’t have jobs, the amount of time spent cooking remains greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs.) In general, spending on restaurants or takeout food rises with income. Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.

Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.

You can read a lot more of his articles if you click here and scroll down. My favorite, indeed the article that started me down the not particularly long path to vegetarianism is “Power Steer.” In a wonderful piece of timing, I got to see Pollan in the movie “Food, Inc.” this afternoon. It too is more historical than you’d think. It kind of implicitly asks the question, “What happened to food?,” and then answers it in very gory detail. I recommend it highly.

If butchers can be rock stars, what does that make meatcutters?

8 07 2009

The food and dining section of the NYT is always a favorite of mine, not because I can go to NYC restaurants but because I usually appreciate the periodic food trends articles. Here is a rare example of one I don’t:

IF chefs were rock stars, they would be arena bands, playing hard and loud with thousands cheering.

Farmers, who gently coax food from the earth, are more like folk singers, less flashy and more introspective.

Now there is a new kind of star on the food scene: young butchers. With their swinging scabbards, muscled forearms and constant proximity to flesh, butchers have the raw, emotional appeal of an indie band. They turn death into life, in the form of a really good skirt steak.

And it doesn’t hurt that some people find them exceptionally hot.

Yes, I know I’m a vegetarian, but that’s not my problem here. My problem is the fact that this notion shows absolutely no appreciation for just how nasty this job can be. Seriously, did anybody find Jurgis Rudkus, hot? I remember digging up an old article where Walmart claimed that it switched to case-ready meat because people don’t like seeing people with blood all over them. maybe that Wal-Flack was actually telling the truth. The smocks on those guys look awfully clean.

At least there’s a little history in the article:

Butchery skills began to recede in the 1960s, when beef and pork, already cut and boxed, started arriving at supermarkets. Neighborhood butchers, who once handed a child a slice of bologna and saved the hanger steaks for special customers, began to evaporate. Modern butchers became more like slicers.

But the trend began to reverse with the rise of locally raised meat, and the popularity of so-called off-cuts. Some restaurants brought butchery into their kitchens, even though it’s a skill barely taught in culinary school.

It’s not as if butchery suddenly disappeared. It simply went from the storefront to the slaughterhouse where it could be more easily automated and the illegal immigrants who replaced the union members who used to work there could be abused by their employers without anyone noticing.

The point about local food is a good one, but other than that I wish the author here got more into how meat is produced. I’ve been kicking around covering that subject myself some day after the two books I have in the works are eventually done. In this case, however, I wouldn’t mind if someone beat me to it as that’s a book I’d really like to read.

Flying meat.

5 12 2008

Via Boing Boing:

No more bizarre than eating hot dogs.

29 11 2008

Yesterday, when I should have been watching football or talking to my wife’s relatives, I got caught up in the “Bizarre Foods” Marathon on the Travel Channel. Andrew Zimmern is my new hero. It’s not because I like being disgusted. It’s much more the travel and culture stuff that I liked. Besides, there was very little on the show (and I saw at least six of them) that I found truly gross. Take this clip for example:

This one in particular grossed out my brother-in-law, to which my response was, “Have you ever eaten a cheap hot dog?” I knew that historically, hot dogs were the perfect food for meat packers to use to get rid of excess organ meat. Guess what? Still happening today. From the USDA’s Food and Safety Inspection Service:

“Frankfurter, Hot Dog, Wiener, or Bologna With Byproducts” or “With Variety Meats” are made according to the specifications for cooked and/or smoked sausages (see above), except they consist of not less than 15% of one or more kinds of raw skeletal muscle meat with raw meat byproducts. The byproducts (heart, kidney, or liver, for example) must be named with the derived species and be individually named in the ingredients statement.

Get it at the ball park and you won’t see the label. I also thought this (from the same page) was very interesting:

The definition of “meat” was amended in December 1994 to include any “meat” product that is produced by advanced meat/bone separation machinery. This meat is comparable in appearance, texture, and composition to meat trimmings and similar meat products derived by hand. This machinery separates meat from bone by scraping, shaving, or pressing the meat from the bone without breaking or grinding the bone. Product produced by advanced meat recovery (AMR) machinery can be labeled using terms associated with hand-deboned product (e.g., “pork trimmings” and “ground pork”).

How exactly is this different from eating a baby pig cooked in goose fat? If anything, eating the baby pig sounds safer.

More turkey.

24 11 2008


Greetings HNN readers! If you want to see what I mean about “the public’s lack of interest in the quality of life of the animals it consumes” click here. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, start here.

Update: Yet more turkey:

But with the arrival of factory turkey farming in the 1960’s, all that changed. Factory-farm turkeys don’t even see the outdoors. Instead, as many as 10,000 turkeys that hatched at the same time are herded from brooders into a giant barn. These barns generally are windowless, but are illuminated by bright lights 24 hours a day, keeping the turkeys awake and eating.

These turkey are destined to spend their lives not on grass but on wood shavings, laid down to absorb the overwhelming amount of waste that the flock produces. Still, the ammonia fumes rising from the floor are enough to burn the eyes, even at those operations where the top level of the shavings is occasionally scraped away during the flock’s time in the barn.

Not only do these turkeys have no room to move around in the barn, they don’t have any way to indulge their instinct to roost (clutching onto something with their claws when they sleep). Instead, the turkeys are forced to rest in an unnatural position — analogous to what sleeping sitting up is for humans.

Like Kos says, I’m glad I’m a vegetarian because I don’t want all those tortured birds on my conscience.

Update #2: I borrowed the picture from Andrew Sullivan.

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