Thursday, December 16, 2010

Eating Animals from Farmer Jane with Radical Homemakers

Three of the books I have read in recent weeks related to local living are Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes, and Farmer Jane by Temra Costa. They are all worth a read.

The latter of the three retells the story of a number of women farmers across the United States who are leading figures, in the authors estimation, in the local food movement. In many ways it is similar then to the largest thread of this blog, which carries the personal stories of people who are opting out of the conventional means to get or grow food. The stories in the book are remarkably similar to those I've encountered locally, including pursuing biodynamic farming in a locale you wouldn't expect it (Kansas, as I recall), humane animal husbandry, and farmers who have come to their profession through a wide range of paths. One of the youngest is a graduate from an elite university, who returned to rural Oregon following graduation to pursue farming with her sister and mother. The biographies include a number of innovative approaches beyond the more widely known Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), like school groups and farm-focused educational events. For those who like to learn about others experiences, it's a good read. Beyond the personal aspects, the book also gives you a sense that the momentum to provide an alternative food supply, one that is environmental, humane, and plentiful, is increasing. You might argue that the concepts do not scale and, in particular, locations like New York City that essentially ship in all of their consumables certainly could never be satisfied. That might be the case but there are also a growing number of publications supporting vertical farming for city environments, including a number of books. It's not something I know much about, including whether those proposals are chemical-full or chemical-free, but they certainly exist. Since I have no interest in living in NYC, I've really only concentrated on what I can influence, both personally and through spreading awareness. Farmer Jane is a light, feel-good read that is inspirational and motivating. I did grow a bit weary toward the latter part of the book, but overall thought it was great, and picked it back up a few weeks later with renewed interest.

Radical Homemakers, on the other hand, is an intense relatively heavy philosophical read. This is a new book by the author of the well-known (in certain circles) cookbook, The Grassfed Gourmet. It argues that in order to have a sustainable local economy, meaning one that is environmental and humane in all common meanings, someone needs to be at home. She too provides a number of biographies, all of people who have embraced the philosophies of radical homemakers by having one, or sometimes two, people at home, outside of the wage economy. Shannon Hayes argues that the Housewife Syndrome accurately described by Betty Friedan in the seminal Feminine Mystique is due not to the fact that homemaking itself is unrewarding, but that the adoption of a consumer economy over the twentieth century created a negative spiral in which the challenging parts of true homemaking are lost and the ability to have a happy and healthy home are forfeited. Agree or disagree, her coverage of the economic changes over the last 150 years in this country and hypotheses of their impacts are thought provoking. It largely countered what I had been raised to believe, it questioned my assumptions, and as such, gave me pause. But I found myself nodding my head in firm agreement with the supposition that traditional homemaking skills are themselves challenging, intellectually and otherwise, and rewarding. I personally take great satisfaction in being able to care for myself and my family, and to be able to grow food, make cheese, or service the water equipment are all enriching to me. And I'm able to do them without political infighting. All the better.  I recommend this book for the introspection opportunity, and her cookbooks in order to cook grassfed meat correctly (very important). The writing is heavy enough here that I fell off during the last third of the book, wishing in this case that there was maybe more detail to the biographies, but the philosophical perspective of the first half was worth it.

Thinking of cooking meat and introspection, Eating Animals is a lightly written look at the heavy material of animal husbandry. By lightly written, I mean that it is engaging and relatively easy to read, without substantial references to other literature, history, or philosophical works. But the material is heavy and the challenges to your conventional thinking great. In the Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan focuses on the health and environmental impacts of conventional meat, particularly beef, production. From an animal welfare perspective, he primarily considers the life of the animal, the way in which they are treated, the space they have to live, and the humanity that is afforded them. He follows the life of one cow and highlights for the reader the manure-filled paddocks where the animals wade in feces, with little room to move and forced to eat corn, a vegetable their body was not intended to consume. He leaves off at the slaughterhouse. Jonathan Safran Foer doesn't. He peers more deeply into the life of livestock and poultry, focusing not on human health as Pollan did, but on animal welfare, and he follows the path from birth to slaughter. The set up for the story is that he wants to answer for himself whether it is ethical to eat animals so that he can convey that decision in confidence to his son. Everyone wants to know, what does he decide?  I won't be coy; for himself, he decides to become a vegetarian, but in looking at farming practices, he also decides that small ethical farms are things he wants to support. He's not against eating animals in principle, but is instead convinced that if people understood truly how the animals were being treated and how they reacted to this treatment, they'd be horrified and would force change. Part of what he writes about is pretty gruesome, but if you do eat meat, this is probably important to know. He asks some good questions. And he provides some great history and biographical stories. At the end of the book, I felt even more resolved in my decision not to purchase conventional meat for our household; we haven't done so in over 18 months now. He's right: knowing how conventional animals are raised, even in the best environments without cruelty, I don't personally want to be a part of it. But, he also caught me cold on the issue of restaurants. He's not tolerant of the person who makes home purchases one way, but gives themselves a pass when they are out to eat. guilty. If you like to challenge your own way of thinking, or you want to know the skinny on the chicken you've got on your plate, this is worth the read and it will only take a few days.


  1. Thanks for calling by. Good to read another person's point of view on it. It didn't occur to me that it was heavy reading, because that's the sort of thing I was used to reading for my degree studies (both the topic and many of her sources), and I live off non-fiction. Important for me to bear that in mind when I'm reviewing.

    Check out today's post on local food

  2. Sounds like such an interesting read...the radical housewife one I mean...I'm going to check it out, thanks for the tip!