Monday, May 4, 2009

The History of Your Blood

I owe it to my ancestors never to become a vegetarian. The family blood is literally mixed with that of cows, pigs and fowl, and if there is any defining feature of the culture of South-East Lombardy, of generations of rural folk who could yet not be called farmers because they didn’t own any land, it lies in the gestures and rituals that for them spelt survival: the rearing, the killing, the preparing and the sharing of animals and their flesh.

My mother speaks often of her own grandmother’s duck scheme. It worked like this: in spring she would buy eighty or so ducklings at the local market and for the next six-seven months she would take them every day to the local canal, la Comuna (meaning 'common property'), where they would paddle downstream and eat and frolic. By the end of the day, they would have travelled a good couple of miles. So in the afternoon my great-grandmother would grab the nearest relative and a long clothes-line and trot after them, then the two of them would stand at each side of the canal and use the clothes-line to beat the water and guide the ducks back home. Day in, day out. In early winter, she would kill the ducks, salt the meat and place it in terrines sealed with the animals’ fat. For months, that meat would complement the diet of a family of eight.

For my great-grandmother was a rasdora, a honorific of the Mantuan dialect that signifies the apotheosis of the housewife, and specifically in the area of nutrition. The rasdora was a woman capable of ensuring that her family would eat, and eat well, on little or no income, a task that required in equal parts resourcefulness, back-breaking work and extensive knowledge passed on by one or more of your female elders. I’ve heard very traditionally-minded and staunch patriarchs speak of the rasdoras they knew in hushed tones. They were the single greatest resource a family of little or no means could have.

And naturally my great-grandmother’s family had its own pig. That too would be bought in the spring, just out of piglethood, and reared next to the house, but you couldn’t do that on food scraps alone, and the feed was expensive. So my great-grandmother grew some corn in a portion of the little plot of land that the family accessed as sharecroppers, and from there came the corn flour to feed the pig. Then come November the days would start getting shorter, and especially so for the pig, but its parting gift to the family - under the auspices of the local masalin, the pork butcher - was a true gift of life: lard, dripping, salame, bacon, cotechino (but not ham, much less what is known outside of Italy as prosciutto, or Parma ham, for that was a luxury reserved to the families who could afford to let a pig grow up lean). Lard alone provided the condiment for the whole year, in the days when fat had none of the negative connotations it carries nowadays in the first world. And of course, proverbially, nothing went to waste (possibly sexist implications open in a new page). There are in fact throughout Italy a variety of elaborate recipes and methods to turn porcine ears and feet into true delicacies.

Then came World War II, and the post-war, and with it economic transformation and a sudden burst of affluence, after untold generations of debt and toil, of perpetually living at the edge of survival. For the chronically undernourished, this translated among other things into access to cheap lard, oil and butter, in the shops - you no longer had to make your own - as well as to a host of other foodstuffs. And if you could finally afford to buy oil and butter, why in the world would you use lard? So families stopped rearing pigs. Pork and salame and ham and cotechino didn’t disappear from the tables, naturally, but their production became part of an industry that soon came to resemble our burgeoning manufacturing. Large scale enclosed feedlots started to appear - my father used to call them maialifici, pig factories. When he knew we were about to pass one en route to my grandparents’, he would urge us to close the windows, and yet the stench would find its way into the car.

And that’s how we got to the Perote valley, and the Granjas Carroll mega farms near La Gloria, were the first cases of the recent swine flu outbreak are said to have occurred. Granjas Carroll de México is a subsidiary of the American food giant Smithfield:

It’s trademarked, so it’s got to be true, right? And you can read up about their many responsible initiatives here. Under Animal Welfare (another one of those categories where the company is ‘raising the bar’) you’ll find a quote from Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, affirming that
Smithfield's announcement that it will phase out sow gestation stalls has started an important trend. It has been an industry leader in animal welfare initiatives, and the conversion of farms to group housing is a welcome development.
'Gestation stalls' don’t seem too bad to start with, do they - until you realise that what they mean is ‘crates’. But ‘group housing for pigs’ sounds positively idyllic. Except the Granjas Carroll operations near La Gloria boast a yearly production of nearly one million hogs. Must be one impressive housing development. I wonder what the schools are like.

If you can read Spanish, here’s a report dating back to 2006 from Mexican newspaper La Jornada warning of the lack of regulation and safeguards regarding the then yet-to-be-established complex, and offering a cautionary description of the black water mixing excrements, urine and biological and chemical residues which would likely flow out of it and into the valley. For a bit of context, one needs to bear in mind that in 1985 Smithfield had received, as Al Jordano explains,
what was, at the time, the most expensive fine in history – $12.6 million – for violating the US Clean Water Act at its pig facilities near the Pagan River in Smithfield, Virginia, a tributary that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The company, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dumped hog waste into the river.
Another report from La Jornada dating this last 11 April, which is to say days before the swine flu outbreak became publicly known, details the intimidation of the activists protesting the environmental havoc caused to the valley. (Warning: graphic picture, and more gratuitous use of the Spanish language.)

And so it goes. The agrimonsters migrate from rich countries to poor countries, in search of laxer regulations and communities and politicians more desperate to create jobs. In that environment, birds and people and pigs play a game of flu pinball that spreads across borders at the speed of global trade and in the latest instalment of which, as of this morning, it is reported that in Canada humans have started passing the flu back to pigs, opening the way for more mutations. In this light this stunning installation by Sierra Leone-born artist Patricia Piccinini for the Venice Biennale of 2003 acquires an even greater depth of meaning:

Patricia Piccinini, The Young Family

The symbiotic relationship with our porcine cousins passed down by generations of rural families becomes here literal enmeshing, a monstrous yet tender post-human diorama of silicon, acrylic, human hair, leather and timber.

We are, perhaps, after all, the same species, which may raise cannibalism questions vis-à-vis the bacon you just had for breakfast. But, in spite of everything, I cannot bring myself to renounce the dietary habits of my elders. I might have romanticised their ways a little bit, glossed over the scourge of bovine tuberculosis that was rife at the same time as my great-grandmother pastured her ducklings, but some of those systems and methods were sound. I just wish it were possible to integrate them into saner and safer farming practices, be inspired by the perfectly self-contained biodynamics dictated by poverty - maximum reuse, minimum waste - in designing environments that can look after the animals, ensure biodiversity, and yet produce enough food, not to sustain our perpetual first world binge, but rather nourish the hundreds of millions who survive on a third or less of our daily intake of calories.

But perhaps it just isn’t possible, there simply is no way to farm organically, or enforce the law and demand more of our regulators, and still produce food that is cheap and plentiful enough. Perhaps it’s one of those games of Russian roulette with a bullet in every chamber, a choice between eating today and succumbing to a pandemic or a climate meltdown tomorrow; another one of those impossible trade-offs between economic development on the one hand and safety, justice and the preservation of the commons on the other. Perhaps tomorrow's pandemic, like yesterday's earthquake in a city that dared to grow too fast, is the bill at the end of the meal that you knew all along you couldn’t afford.

A couple more things. On that Piccinini piece: I do urge you to click on the link to view it in greater detail along with the rest of her very inspiring work. I have yet to see any of it in the flesh - as it were - it must be quite an experience.

Also, Russell has a succinct and well linked piece on the history of H1N1, with local data on the disproportionality of the effects of the Spanish flu on the poor.

Okay, class dismissed.


Emma said...

My parents were the first generation of each of their families not to farm. My mother was born at the beginning of the Depression and raised on a philosophy of hard-arse self-dependent frugality the likes of which would make Msrs Tibby and Judd blanch and weep. There were no ducks, but you raised your own meat and then you ate every little bit of it.

I have a friend who's vegetarian for ethical reasons, except for chicken. This boggles me because chickens here are raised under horrendous conditions only bettered (worsed?) by pigs. Them sheep and cows done got it easy. But then she's Canadian, and those North American factory farms give me the heebies.

Paul said...

Now wash your hands.

GZ said...

I've seen much more graphic examples of animal suffering, a few in person.

There is no such thing as a perfect world, and if you want cheap food there will be a price to pay as externalities are loaded onto the animals, the land, or the workers. Something's gotta give. If you want the pleasure of eating meat, you either accept that this is a choice that means inflicting suffering or live in willful ignorance.

Me, I reckon food should be expensive, the current arrangements being unethical and unsustainable. Of course, all things couldn't remain equal for this to be the case successfully.

Paul said...

Is eating meat a pleasure or a habit? Eating meat of the quality that Giovanni describes would be pleasurable, but much of what people eat is of low quality, even in New Zealand. People have become accustomed to eating meat products, under the delusion that it is a luxury (as it was to most people until after the Second War). What they are eating is, more often than not, simulacra: Italian meals that can be prepared in an instant but which bear no relation to Great-grandmother's recipes, for example.

The world would be a better, and happier, place if people learned to eat meat less often and more discerningly, while eating vegetable dishes at other times.

Giovanni Tiso said...

What's more, simulacra aren't the sole domain of meat eaters, if the truly puzzling phenomenon of vegetarian sausages and steak is any indication.

Me, I reckon food should be expensive, the current arrangements being unethical and unsustainable. Of course, all things couldn't remain equal for this to be the case successfully.

Quite. At the moment the option - in the form of organically raised and grown meat and vegetables - is available to those who can afford to have a conscience, and I'm not sure that it represents any sort of progress at all.

I have a friend who's vegetarian for ethical reasons, except for chicken.

Maybe she despises chickens.

Keri Hulme said...

Ah! Wonderful essay!
I dont call myself a vegetarian - there is no way that I am - but, since 1977, I have not eaten meat that has been processed through a freezing works (which was the first time I ever encountered what went on in ANZ 'freezing works' = mass partly-mechanised abbattoirs.)

I eat, happily, fish that are not farmed(I catch a lot myself);almost all molluscs (except adult octopi); chickens that are raised by rellies (free range, killed the traditional way - neckbreaking); goat,occaional thar, red deer(& the very occaisional sika), wallabies, & rabbits that have been shot by family or friends...extremely occaisionally, I have eaten of cattle or pigs that have been slaughtered on the farm by someone I truly trust to do a good & humane job (that is 6 times, in the last 32 years.)
And, of course, titi- I am personally responsible for eating at least 40 birds a year...

I'd eat any of those bird/animals flesh about twice a week.

I enjoy them, respect the breath of life that I also breathe that was their's, and the work that went into raising and harvesting them.

One of the things that we truly need to alter within the latest generation* - well, among a lot of them - is the perspective that food is just food. You buy it at the supermarket. That's it.

I am writing a column for my tribe's magazine, "Te Karaka", about this very thing (comes out in June.)If you have no idea about how your steak got your plate, you've got a monumental amount to learn baby-

*grandnephews & grandnieces-

Paul said...

Vegetarian sausages are a source of endless speculation for me. They at least are obvious simulacra, in that we all know what they are imitating and that is a real fake thing, available in the next chill cabinet; the inauthenticity of the meat sausage on which it is based is another matter.

Such peculiarities as the Hawaiian Pizza are a greater mystery still. Neither the topping nor the base, neither the adjective nor the noun, have a lineage; yet they are presented as if they were natural. And then there is the Sweet'n'Sour pizza...

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Keri! And I'll come clean: I don't know how the particular steaks that I purchase got to my plate. I know how other steaks reach other plates, and the care that those few amongst my relatives who still farm bestow on their animals - but they're no longer my sources of meat, or any other foodstuff other than the yearly supply of parmigiano. There is the disconnect of my living in the city, lacking the time to tend the garden, and not really buying into englightened consumerism as a solution to the problem, much as we do practice it in a limited way. Yet the fundamental disconnect remains, and it's hard to remedy.

When I was a lad the farmer who lived on my nonna's street on account of my being a townie used to call me "magna gajine morte", lit. "eater of dead hens", and he was commenting on that very thing I think. Although at the time it gave me strange ideas about him and his family munching on passing poultry.

Such peculiarities as the Hawaiian Pizza are a greater mystery still. Neither the topping nor the base, neither the adjective nor the noun, have a lineage.

You can actually buy 'pizza hawaiana' in Italy, and there is a theory that it was invented by American soldiers stationed in Naples. I also met a pizzaiolo in Milan who claimed to have come up with it himself, so can't vouch for an official lineage. Still, I actually have no problem by and large with the mixing and the matching, the culinary misunderstandings even, after all the cuisine of Italy is the result of not always strictly amicable encounters of foreign peoples. I do bristle at the commercial appropriations, though. Not the word pizza to designate whatever it is that pizza hut produces, they can have it, but rather the regional products whose enduring quality is ensured by loving dedication to the craft. I commented elsewhere on the fact that New Zealand Parmesan made by Kapiti cheeses used to be (possibly still is, although the Euro has monstered the NZ dollar of late) more expensive than the original Parmigiano Reggiano, and the issue there is not copyrighting a name or an idea, but the fact that the local kapiti product is a shoddily produced knock-off, whereas Parmigiano takes a long time and a lot of effort and respect to make. That somebody can profit from the name without putting in the work annoys me verily.

Giovanni Tiso said...

It's also worth mentioning The Omnivore's Dilemma and the entire oeuvre of Michael Pollan in that it deals brillantly with what's being discussed here.

Amanda said...

Bill Buford's book Heat might be of interest to you, Giovanni, if you haven't read it. He is a journalist who goes and and works for a butcher in Italy as well as for Mario Batali in New York.

I enjoyed it even though I've been a vegetarian for 20 years. Since I'm descended from the urban poor and middle classes for generations back there's no familial tie of blood to the practice of raising and eating meat animals.

BTW there are some good brands of vegetarian sausages. We buy sun dried tomato and olive ones. They are a quick handy meal; good as a pseudo hot dog with mustard. They don't taste like meat though. You have to remember that vegetarian cuisine, like all cuisines, isn't de novo and it builds on dishes from other places. It doesn't mean that vegetarians necessarily want the taste of meat. In fact, I think if you are a vegetarian for long enough you start to develop a different palate- vegans even more so.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you, I'll add Buford to The List. Sounds like the perfect book to read on, say, a plane to Italy...

The thing that puzzles me about vegetarian steaks and sausages is not the taste, it's the idea of replicating the shape, colour and texture of foodstuffs that either revolt you or you're against eating for ethical reasons. Don't get me wrong, though, whatever works for people... plus I don't think I'm a cannibal for eating gingerbread men. I just find it curious and it tickles my interest in how we relate to our past, including our dietary past.

I'm interested in what you said about reconditioning one's palate. It stands to reason that over time one would learn to appreciate different, subtler taste variations in a different (not necessarily narrower) range of foods. At the same time we'll learn to make better vegetarian/vegan food that is delicious no matter the palate. There is almost no way to describe the crapness of salads in your average New Zealand non-ethnic restaurant, but when I eat Indian I'll almost always choose the vegetarian option.

Artandmylife said...

Great writing. the disconnect of food/farm in city dwellers is a difficut one. I was raised partly on farms and know well how to butcher pigs, sheep etc as well as farm/orchard kitchen skills. I have tried to pass on this to my kids but as suburbanites its tricky. I am planning on getting chooks for eggs and meat though.

My partner is a city kid and cannot bear the idea of raising your own meat. tricky trciky tricky.

I am lucky though to have a brother who hunts, fishes and raises a few sheep. I much prefer to know where my food came from and how it was killed. This is why I try and buy from a butcher rather than a supermarket when needed.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'm going to go ahead and call you a rasdora, Pauline. But there is the added crux of the population explosion and the massive urbanisation that has marked the industrial revolution in general and the last century in particular. We can talk in (some parts of) New Zealand of raising chooks or going organic in the backyard or tracking where one's steaks come from. Meanwhile, Mexico City is home to 20 million people who need to be fed and don't have access to land of any kind. Is the Granjas Carroll operation then simply the farming equivalent of the sprawling madness of the metropolis, and of the terminal decoupling of food and land?

Susan George wrote about this beautifully in the mid-seventies in How The Other Half Dies, a great book that I see now is available here as a PDF.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, once again, Giovanni. I regret not being able to offer a more thoughtful response.

However. Some of the Piccinini pieces showed at the City gallery three years ago, and they are indeed quite confrontational, as I wrote at the time in my one and only attempt at art crit/review for the Wellingtonista.

And speaking of Buford, his Among the Thugs is a very interesting/scary account of his time with some of the football hooligan crews. I've wondered what he's been up to since then.

Paul said...

Maybe the alternative to the terminal decoupling of food and land is a Vertical farm

Giovanni Tiso said...

In Las Vegas, the least sustainable city in the universe! That is quite priceless.

And thank you Alan, for the kind words but *not* for reminding me of having missed that exhibition. In my defence, I was finishing my PhD at the time so I wasn't fully human. (And I didn't realise that The Young Family was included in it - farck).

harvestbird said...


Martin Heidegger
that famous Mitläufersaved some figures of speech
for cattle and people:

the cross-country route,
the wheels of industry,
unspeakable abattoir,
Arbeit macht frei.

For this turn of mind,
he won't be forgiven:
the wartime transported
made animal again.


A short walk from here
is the Sockburn abattoir,
quiet hub of the south-west
a bloodied green belt.

Still, I live my life
in furious inverse:
the best that I have
reserved for my animals.

This act of folly
is a kind of atonement.
I measure myself
by what I won't kill.

harvestbird said...

Typing error: there should be a line break after Mitläufer.

While I don't assume your readers Giovanni are as interested in the history of my local abattoir as I am, this image gives an idea of its former scale. On sou-west afternoons at primary school we could smell the killing floor, not to mention the larger freezing works at Islington about three kilometres further south-west.

Giovanni Tiso said...

That was beautiful and besides a vegetarian's contribution this week counts double.

(What? Yes, I'm keeping score.)

Large-scale abattoirs is something I don't recall from back home, in contrast with the dairy factories which were literally everywhere (one in every street, until they started merging after the war). I'm going to have to ask mum.

harvestbird said...

Via comments chez moi a legitimate question about the second stanza, to which I make what I hope is a clarifying answer.

Egy Azziera said...

Leaf lard is the fat that surrounds the pig's kidneys. It is of very high quality and, when rendered, makes some of the best tasting and flakiest crusts ever!