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From The Archives: Food & Forgetfulness

(June 2001) Driving to town the other day I got stuck behind a livestock trailer taking calves to auction. Bum­bling along at 30 mph I was forced to listen to an NPR interview, by Terry Gross I assume, with some fellow talking about his garden, about which he had evidently written a silly-sounding book.*

After firing off some well honed clichés about the importance of the garden in making us consider the role of culture in man’s relationship to nature, the interviewee said ponderously that these days most people don’t know where food comes from.

He and Gross, or the Gross sound-alike, chewed that one over industriously for several minutes, while the truck ahead of me bumped up and down on the road to the Fortuna auction yards, where the densely packed calves would be offloaded and bid at auction. These are one-year-old creatures, raised on our Humboldt county grass here on California’s North Coast, and then usually sent up to feedlots in the state of Washington prior to being killed and cut up (in that order if they’re lucky) by underpaid Hispanics at IBP’s abattoir in Pasco, many of them with fingers missing. **

Why would you want to know where food comes from? Ignorance is probably preferable, if not morally desirable. Better to think that New York strip or T-bone was put together in a lab, which is the way we’re headed anyway. Why be curious about where your broccoli comes from? In the old days a lot of it came from the Pajaro Valley just south of Santa Cruz on California’s central coast. The fellows picking it were undocumented workers, mostly from Michoacan, earning $6 an hour. Then the growers figured it was more profitable to relo­cate the broccoli down in Mexico, pay the pickers $6 a day, ship the vegetables up to the border, re-label it as natural-born American and ship it east. One trouble with this is that the broccoli or spinach is often laced with raw sewage. Uncomposted excrement isn’t good for you.

Potatoes? I heard an account not so long ago of the chemical conditions in which Idaho russsets are raised, where the application of pesticides is so intense that when something screws up in the irrigation systems, they daren’t send out maintenance workers right away because the air is too toxic.

Who would have thought that eating broccoli or spin­ach is a high risk event, an X-treme sport right there in your own kitchen or dining room? The big food chains, Safeway, and the others, are trying to figure out a vol­untary inspection system (i.e., one with their rules and not the feds’) that will spot a toxic vegetable before it gets onto the shelf. Trouble is, the political economy of capitalist agriculture is structurally tilted towards the likelihood that your spinach will be toxic. It’s become part of the price for cheap food.

The alternative is a different system of land owner­ship and farm production that would give you a better class of spinach at a higher price for the farmer. No chance of that in the foreseeable future. Food will just get more dangerous, because the conditions in which vegetables are grown or cows are raised and killed become increasingly noxious. The latest scare is a fero­cious strain of E. coli (which is mostly benign and essential to our health) labeled E. coli O157:H7, that first became notorious in the Jack in the Box food deaths back in 1993. It’s a strain that has apparently flourished because of the intensive fattening methods of the modern feedlot.

On the other hand…

My mother took the view that people were exces­sively obsessed about clean food. Her view was that the human body needed a hardening daily dose of germs to build up a career of immunity. In the main it’s a sound position, though I don’t go as far as my friend Pierre Sprey who makes it a point to eat raw hamburger from his local supermarket at least once a week to keep his intestinal microbes in fighting trim. But then Pierre also ate canned pet food when he was at college on the grounds not only that it was cheap but made from nutri­tious organ meats no longer available for human con­sumption.

People are indeed too fussy, though not quite to the degree of Mrs. Deborah Wilkes, aged 44, of Pinellas County, Florida, who forced her husband of six years, Eric, aged 31, to disrobe when he came home from his work (as a surveyor) but not for the purpose of amorous diversion. He had to proceed directly to the shower, then re-attire in clean garments. She also forbade Eric the use of the domestic phone or computer on grounds that he might contaminate them. When visiting his parents for Christmas she would insist they sat with hands safely folded, then leave before the germ-laden perils of Christmas dinner.

Something snapped in Eric recently and he choked and stabbed Deborah until she was good and dead. He tried to make it look like a burglary, but messed up. The cops didn’t take long to figure it out and he’s now sitting in the Pinellas County jail, charged with first-degree murder. In the beginning, Deborah’s concern about cleanliness wasn't as severe, Eric’s mother, Barbara Wilkes told the Tampa Tribune. “He thought that was neat about her because she was tidy, he wanted the per­fect wife, and this was the perfect wife for him.”

I imagine some expert testimony about obsessive-compulsive disorder will get the charges reduced.***

When I was a kid you’d often hear the squeals of a pig having its throat cut by Dick Cunningham, a farmer down the road, then bleeding to death. It would go on a long time and didn’t perturb us. “That’s Dick killing a pig,” we’d tell visitors from London who were wonder­ing whether the Ripper was loose once more. Maybe every child should be taken on a tour of a slaughterhouse as a reality check. In Holland they have pig “facilities,” let’s call them condos, where an elevator takes the doomed creatures from let’s say the sixth floor down to the basement, where they’re killed and processed. There could be a viewing window, just like the one through which the Oklahoma families and some journalists watched Timothy McVeigh being killed last Monday morning.

Back in the nineteenth century, a trip to the killing floor at the Cincinnati or Chicago stockyards was a stan­dard item on the itinerary of cultured folk exploring America’s hinterland. In the 1850s and 1860s (the Chi­cago stockyards opened in 1867) these two cities per­fected the production-line slaughter of living creatures for the first time in the history of the world. At one end of the trail lay the prairies, the open range, the boisterous pastoral of the cattle drive, where the cowboys some­times spared a longhorn.

There’s a marvelous book by J. Frank Dobie called The Longhorns which tells of Reed Anthony, Andy Adams’ cowman telling “how he and other Confederate soldiers guarding a herd of Texas steers saved the life of one because he would always walk out and stand atten­tive to the notes of ‘Rock of Ages’ sung by his herders. Thus spared were two or ten or a hundred or a thousand from among the millions and millions of creatures that plodded to rail heads like Abilene, and thence eastward, or to slaughterhouses nearer at hand and then bought up by government agents to be sent to the reservations to feed Indians who no longer had buffalo to hunt.”

William Cronon has a good chapter on the stockyards in his book on Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis. “In a world of farms and small towns, the ties between field, pasture, butcher shop and dinner table were everywhere apparent, constant reminders of the relationships that sustained one’s own life. In a world of ranches, packing plants and refrigerator cars, most such connections vanished from easy view. In the packers’ world, it was easy not to remember that eating is a moral act inextricably bound to killing. Such was the second nature that a corporate order had imposed on the American landscape. Forgetfulness was among the least noticed and most important of its by-products.” ¥¥


*Note: This would have been Michael Pollan and his book “The Botany of Desire.” According to the NPR website Pollan’s book “suggests that plants have evolved to be attractive to humans.” The interviewer was Ketzel Levine, not Terry Gross. From Wikipedia: “Ketzel Levine is an American radio journalist who began her broadcast career in 1974. She joined National Public Radio (NPR) in 1977 and worked, variously, as the network's arts producer, sports director, features reporter and garden expert. From 2000 through 2008, she was senior correspondent for the NPR program Morning Edition. At the end of that year, due to cutbacks at the network, Levine was laid off while working on a documentary series about Americans coping with economic stress and job loss. Her final NPR broadcast was about how she, herself, had just lost her job.”

**Note: According to Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” the meat industry “is now dominated by casual, easily exploited immigrant labor and that levels of injury are among the highest of any occupation in the United States.” Schlosser specifically discusses IBP, Inc., recounting the steps involved in meat processing and reveals several hazardous

prac­tices unknown to many consumers, such as the practice of rendering dead pigs and horses and chicken manure into cattle feed.”

***Note: After telling police that her obsessive-compulsive disorder did indeed drove him to kill his wife Deborah, Eric Wilkes plead guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in May of 2002.

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