Food Writing: A Quick Recipe for Whiplash

I’ve been insistent (maybe stubbornly so) in pushing the idea that small-scale, free-range animal husbandry–while certainly better for the animals–is still a system that’s fundamentally flawed. Central to my claim is the fact that these farms, although they traffic in non-human animal life, are ultimately reduced to the profit imperative. No matter how thick the cloak of sustainability and welfare may be, the fact remains that these systems ultimately bow to the hard logic of mammon. Farmers might care for their animals, but the bottom line always remains the bottom line–meat for money. Which, when you cut the core of the matter, makes the “humane” farm essentially no different than the factory farm.

As often as I reiterate this point, I’m still shocked to witness how blatantly evidence for this claim parades through the world’s most popular journalistic corridors. In a 2003 article about small pig farms in upstate New York, the Times Magazine, writer Amanda Hesser wrote an article that, however inadvertently, exemplified the moral schizophrenia endemic to the vast majority of popular food writing to this day.

On the one hand, Hesser sees pigs. And when Hesser considers pigs as pigs, she captures their “pigness” with warmth and generosity. After introducing a couple of yuppie pig farmers (“a married couple in their 30’s who look as if they’d be more at ease getting lattes at Starbucks”), she writes, “At their feet, a dozen Tamworth pigs muscled their way in, fighting for breakfast. The pigs are relatively small — 250 pounds –red-haired, intelligent and friendly.” One is tempted to credit Hesser with acknowledging the sociability, intelligence, and personalities of these beautiful animals (the pigs). But then, on that other hand, in a phrase ostensibly intended to inflict whiplash, she adds, “They are also delicious to eat.”

The entire article proceeds in this thoughtless, pattering I-must-appeal-to Sunday-readers tone. When the humane-earnest-yuppie farmers step into the paddock, “pigs trot up, bumping their snouts into their owners’ shins and playfully biting their boots. Some pigs stand impatiently, waiting to get patted or scratched.” And then, just when we might be thinking “wow, kind of like my dog . . .,” Hesser, seemingly unaware of the serious ethical issues her cutish prose is crushing, proceeds to inform readers that the farmers “sell bacon ($12 a pound) and popular primal cuts like ribs ($8.50 a pound) and loin ($11 a pound), and when they run out of those, they try to introduce customers to flavorful but unfamiliar pieces like the shoulder.” The fact that such a callous segue unleashed upon millions of readers obscures one of society’s heavier moral issues evidently matters none to the Times, Hesser, or, presumably, most readers. The article ends, inevitably, with a recipe for. . . . you guessed it, pork shoulder!

I think writers who indulge in this sort of intellectually lazy, morally flaccid, and elitist-populistic writing should catch a healthy dose of blowback for it. If I had 48 hours in a day I’d set up a website dedicated to critiquing popular writing about food and agriculture from an animal rights perspective. Maybe I’ll get there. Someday. For now, though I’ll end with that timeless refuge of those on the brink of hopelessness: sent a letter to the editor letting them know you find such writing to stink, at best.





About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

4 Responses to Food Writing: A Quick Recipe for Whiplash

  1. Tim says:

    That is an excellent idea, I wish you could make that website happen, desperately needed ! That article mentioned is just one of many working very hard to desensitize the masses regarding violence toward other species, an unthinkably sad, selfish agenda. Thank you so much for all you do on behalf of the voiceless.

  2. Pingback: News for September 22, 2011 : From A to Vegan

  3. Pingback: News for September 22, 2011 : From A to Vegan

  4. Jim Lahey says:

    in your first paragraph, last sentence you should have put quotes around essentially not humane. I’m vegetarian and I believe there is a huge difference in small truly free range farms over factory farms. My biggest concern for animals is how they are treated while they are alive and how they are killed. If those two are done properly I really dont have a problem with the people who perform those.

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