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The other day we were forced to listen to an NPR interview, by Terry Gross, presumably, 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 a Gross soundalike, chewed that one over industriously for several minutes.
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 veg up to the border, relabel 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 shit isn’t good for you.
Potatoes? We read an account not so long ago of the chemical conditions in which Idaho russets are raised, where the application of pesticides is so intense that when something screws up in the irrigation systems, they dare not send out maintenance workers right away because the air is too toxic.
Who would have thought that eating broccoli or spinach was a high-risk event, an X-treme sport right there in your own kitchen or dining room? The big food chains such as Safeway are trying to figure out an inspection system that will spot toxic veg before it gets onto the shelf. Trouble is, the political economy of capitalist agriculture is structurally tilted toward the likelihood that your spinach will be shit-enhanced. 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 in this country. Food will just get more dangerous, because the conditions in which veg is grown or cows are raised and killed become more noxious. The latest scare is a ferocious strain of E. coli (mostly benign), labelled E. coli O157:H7, which 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.
People are probably a little too fussy about what they eat, though not always quite to the degree of Mrs. Deborah Wilkes, aged 44, of Pinellas County, FL, who forced her husband of six years, Eric, aged 31, to disrobe when he came home from his work (surveying), 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 use of the domestic phone or computer on the 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 so 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.” Some expert testimony about obsessive-compulsive disorder will get the charges reduced.
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 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 put to death.
Back in the 19th 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 were completed in 1865) 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 that tells of Reed Anthony, a cowboy working for Andy Adams, 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.”
A version of this essay appeared in the June 2001 print edition of CounterPunch.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, Grand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: email@example.com.