Pastoral or Pastiche? The Fictional Farm and a Philosophy of Food

“Many animals live on the farm. The cow and her calf live in the barn. The horse and the colt live in the stable. Mama hen and her chicks live in a coop.”

Maya’s books are full of lies. Chock full, you might say.

Even setting aside all the animals’ surprising gift of gab, book after dog-eared book has the pig running after the goose, consorting with the horse, and negotiating a game with the cow, all around a red-doored barn, sitting high on a grassy hill.

Contrast this heartening (if admittedly corny), picture with the chicken hellscape in Nicholas Kristof’s column about an investigation into an egg farm in today’s New York Times:

In some cases, 11 hens were jammed into a cage about 2 feet by 2 feet. The Humane Society says that that is even more cramped than the egg industry’s own voluntary standards — which have been widely criticized as inadequate.

An automatic feeding cart that runs between the cages sometimes decapitates hens as they’re eating, the investigator said. Corpses are pulled out if they’re easy to see, but sometimes remain for weeks in the cages, piling up until they have rotted into the wiring, he added. Other hens have their heads stuck in the wire and are usually left to die, the investigator said.

Several states – and all of Europe – have banned the most confining types of cages for egg-laying hens. But due to a lack of national standards in the U.S., animal welfare laws on farms are generally spotty and weak.

In other news just from today, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would begin a voluntary program to require prescriptions for antibiotic drugs for healthy farm animals. Since the drugs been used to spur growth rather than treat illness, risking super-bugs, this is a step in the right direction, albeit hampered inexplicably by its “voluntary” nature.

On the even ickier side, a small study of slaughtered chickens found (admittedly harmless) e coli fecal contamination in 48 percent of the samples tested. Mmm. Some poop with that hot wing?

Sadly, none of this is really news. If you have the stomach for it (and I don’t, most days), check out this This American Life episode for television (yes, TV), in which they visit a pig farm so removed from the barnyard that the Muppets’ segment “Pigs in Space” appears eerily prophetic.

The most heart-breaking part of the whole porcine show is when the farmer and his son visit their tiny group of rootin-in-the-dirt “outdoor” pigs and reminisce about the past in which pigs were pigs, and the push for production didn’t require farms to take on crippling debt to pay for expensive technologies that, quite literally, alienate the humans and animals involved.

As Michael Pollan observed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, modern practices of mono-cultural farming takes animals off the land, thereby creating health and waste management problems for the animals (and us), and impoverishing the soil so that it requires fertilizers, which in turn pollutes the soil. Rinse, repeat.

And garbage in, garbage out. The food resulting from this system is nutritionally impoverished, because chickens are not eating the grubs and insects that add minerals to their eggs, and because the meat of grain (as opposed to grass) fed cows is lower in Omega-3s, which are critical to health, as Marion Nestle explains in her seminal guide to healthy food, What to Eat.

Cows in particular, because they are ruminants that are supposed to eat grass, become ill under feedlot conditions. The animals, to maintain a baseline in such an unnatural setting, are given drugs, including hormones, caffeine, antibiotics, and even anti-depressants, all of which ends up in our water and also likely in our food.

I am not a vegetarian. Nonetheless, it troubles me, as it obviously does Kristof, that animals do not live as animals in this industrialized conveyor belt of nutrition pellets. It seems obvious to me that animals are capable of fear, stress, and suffering, and that they deserve access to sunshine and some reasonable semblance of a life that suits their animal ways.

Humans also fare poorly in this system, whether as workers, as chronicled in the wandering but humane video novella, Fast Food Nation, or as consumers of an impoverished and polluted food supply.

It is also profoundly, even unethically, wasteful. As Pollan explained in an incredibly hopeful and worthwhile summary of his thesis on how food policy should change, from the sunnily naïve perspective of 2008:

When we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. …[Instead,] crop plants and animals must once again be married on the farm — as in Wendell Berry’s elegant “solution.” Sunlight nourishes the grasses and grains, the plants nourish the animals, the animals then nourish the soil, which in turn nourishes the next season’s grasses and grains. Animals on pasture can also harvest their own feed and dispose of their own waste — all without our help or fossil fuel.

The truth is, when I look at Maya’s books, I think we know all this. The books are more than nostalgic markers for a pastoral imaginary that no longer, generally speaking, exists.

Both her natural obsession with animals and their many, many weird noises, and these books’ reflexive, fantastical depictions of the animal world, speak to a deep craving in children, and in all of us, to learn our place in the order of things.

We see who we are in how we treat animals, if we’ll only look. In this, the moral argument by animal rights’ activists is essentially correct. As John Berger observed in About Looking regarding a similar nostalgic assignment of place:

Public zoos came into existence at the beginning of the period which was to see the disappearance of animals from daily life. The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe, to see them, is, in fact a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.

So we’re all up against impossibility. And nonetheless, as grandiose as it may sound, I source our meat and dairy with great care, mainly because I want to nurture sources for these with intentional respect.

I choose certified organic grass-fed meats and pastured eggs because those animals are in the right relationship with the environment, with the sun, and with the nutrients that are supposed to enrich that food. The food is better, the farming we support is better, and the concerns about toxic additions like pesticides and hormones simply go away.

It’s flippin’ expensive, and certainly a luxury in a world where people still struggle to eat at all. For our part, though, I’d rather buy less, and more of the best — meat, milk, butter, and eggs — than just read to Maya from another damn book with talking animals, playing another winsome, cutesy game of “let’s pretend.”

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What we do:

  • I like certified organic, because, as Marion Nestle puts in What to Eat (at 45): “[I]f you want fewer pesticides in your body and in the bodies of your children, buy organics. If you want fewer pesticides in soil and water, organics are also a good idea.”
  • Organic certification provides an agreed-upon set of standards, and government enforcement. Organic certification also has some shortcomings, including costs that favor larger producers, and animal welfare conditions that may not be much better than conventional farms (though with fewer antibiotics and pesticides in the feed). If farmers at the market say they are better than organic, that’s all well and good, but I have to take their word for it. I tend to go for certified (and local) if I can, even though it’s far from a perfect system. Still, local close-to-organic (to keep carbon miles down) can be fine if you feel confident in the promises made about the product. Visiting a farm is also a nice way to see for yourself how animals are treated.
  • Going beyond organic, basically, is all about grass and sunshine. So, organic, grass-fed beef is best (grass-fed and grass-finished is even better), even though, frankly, the rules defining “grass-fed” on the label leave a lot unspecified. If you can ask questions at the farmer’s market, all the better.
  • For milk, we buy whole, organic, grass-fed milk (which is quite a shift from the watery milk-like substance I grew up with). For safety reasons, I don’t believe in giving raw milk to children (if adults want to risk their health for a marginal increase in enzymes, that’s up to them).
  • For eggs, we buy pastured (sometimes labeled pasture-raised) and organic. These are often hard to find (Trader Joe’s never has them, Whole Foods rarely). Our crunchy-as-hemp-granola local natural food Coop and farmer’s markets are the best sources I’ve come across. 
  • For butter, we buy grass-fed and organic (see the pattern?). Given that chemicals like pesticides accumulate in fats, the key for butter is organic.
  • For yogurt and cheese, I look for grass-fed and organic, but will settle in a pinch for “rbST-free,” which indicates it’s free of bovine growth hormones.
  • For chicken, I look for pastured chicken, raised sustainably. At Whole Foods, this is indicated by the 4 or higher animal welfare rating, which always seems to be sold out. I’ve been buying whole young chickens at our farmer’s market and sticking the whole thing in soup, or, failing that, hacking it up myself, which is not a particularly pleasant thing to do, given that I’m hardly out of the Cordon Bleu.
  • We make do with less meat, due to the significant increase in price. I tend to make stews, soups and other dishes that stretch flavors along for half a week or so.
  • It is far more expensive to eat this way. And pickier to source, by far.
  • Buying in bulk from a farm share (or “CSA”) sometimes helps with costs, and usually is fresher and better quality. It’s always nice to know the farm and farmer, and connect the dots.
  • When traveling or eating out, basically all bets are off. I try to find organic snacks, and pack Maya’s food and milk at least. And we eat out much less than we used to. Still, the dearth of sources for the best food is a problem. When we’re out and about, given the challenges, I let it go, and figure that most of what we eat at home is better, and that has to be good enough.

More Resources:

  • Eat Wild is a great resource for locating wilder foodstuffs, local farms, and for reading about the benefits of grass-fed and pastured foods.
  • You can look up your local CSA’s at Local Harvest. Or ask around at your local farmer’s market, since you already have the pick-up location figured out.
  • If you haven’t read it already, Omnivore’s Dilemma is a moveable feast for back-to-nature foodies.
  • I also generally follow anything the eminently smart and sensible Marion Nestle writes, but much of her focus is on the (utterly inadequate) regulation of food, and (frighteningly corrupt) politics of food. People who are not nearly as nerdy as I am may have more life-affirming preoccupations.

Heavenly Pork Shoulder

Was going through the cupboards last night, and came across some lovely dried fruit. When I saw the pork shoulder from the sustainable farm at the farmer’s market this morning, I knew what I had to do.

This was truly delicious, and quite easy to prepare. You’ll need:

1 pork shoulder (organic and sustainably farmed)

Salt, pepper, rosemary, bay leaf and cinnamon sticks

1 white or yellow (organic) onion, diced

3-4 cloves (organic) garlic, sliced thin

1 cup (organic) carrots, diced

2 cups (1 bulb, basically) (organic) fennel, rough chopped

3 Tbls (grassfed, organic) butter

2 cups red wine

2-3 cups (unsulphured, organic) dried fruit (I used black mission figs, pitted dates, apricots, prunes and persimmons)

Beef or chicken (organic) stock (I used chicken, which was fine)

Preheat oven to 325F degrees. Melt the butter in a large dutch oven and brown the pork on all sides. Remove pork and add all the chopped vegetables, garlic and rosemary (as well as some pork fat or butter as needed). Stir occasionally until the vegetables are soft. Add pork back in, as well as red wine, and stock to fill pot.

Sprinkle in fruit, submerge cinnamon and bay leaves in broth.

Cover and cook for 2 hours. Uncover and discard bay leaves and cinnamon sticks (I also did not care for the taste of the cooked persimmons, though the flavor they left behind was wonderful.).

If you like, you can remove the pork and reduce the broth a bit over the stove. We liked the broth, so we merely poured it over some brown rice with a nice slice of the pork, which was juicy, sweet and falling apart. Happy Easter, indeed!

Adapted from a fussier version of this recipe, here.