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.