I’m going to go off on a rant for a second here.
The story above interests me for several reasons. The people concerned about the possible slaughter of poultry in their neighborhood grocery store don’t identify themselves as vegetarians, animal lovers, or even crazy PETA activists. They aren’t concerned that the method of killing the chickens is cruel (which it isn’t). They simply seem to have a problem knowing where their poultry comes from. I’ve run up against this dilemma quite a lot lately.
People want to eat, but they also want to know as little as possible about the food they’re consuming. We have become so far removed from our food sources that it’s worrying to me in a large-scale Malthusian way. If we were to lose all means of current food production tomorrow, how many of us would be able to sustain ourselves? How many of us know which wild berries or mushrooms are edible? Or how to grow a vegetable garden? Or how to clean a fish? Or how to slaughter a lamb for meat? Or milk a cow? Or simply even COOK?
I was reading a book by Anthony Bourdain a few weeks ago, called A Cooks Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines. In one of the chapters, Bourdain recounts visiting a friend’s family farm in Portugal and participating in the slaughter of a pig for a big feast later that week.
Even though he is a chef and deals with food every day, in its many states — cooked and raw and all stages in between — Bourdain is at first repulsed by the entire ordeal. He describes in ragged detail the struggle of the immense beast for its own life before it finally succumbs to the knife that has been plunged into its belly and drawn across its neck to bleed it dry. Bourdain nearly loses his composure entirely as he assists the butchers in cleaning the pig and removing its entrails. But it’s at that point he comes to a realization: this pig was a fine pig and struggled mightily — and for that Bourdain feels terrible — but the pig will also serve an entire village for a fortnight and more.
Every part of that pig is used up, even the bladder, which is inflated and tied off to form a crude football for the children. The feet are pickled, the brains are served scrambled with eggs, the head is made into lovely cheese, the entrails are transformed into delicious dishes and the flesh is processed and dried to serve as food for many months to come. This pig did not die in vain. The butchers are not cruel people. We have simply become too far removed from our food; in our puritanical minds, we view a pig and a piece of pork as two entirely separate and distinct objects. Why?
So, back to the business of Thomas Malthus and progress traps. Let’s talk about agriculture (and farming and ranching) to that end. Agriculture is a runaway train and a fundamental progress trap, leading directly to a vastly expanded population but seldom solving the issue of famines or hunger. This is due to two inevitable consequences: a population will grow until it reaches the limits of its food supply (Malthusian progress in action) and civilizations all become hierarchical at some point or another, meaning that the upward concentration of wealth (and food) ensures that there will never be enough for everyone in that society.
We can already see these patterns eagerly at work in Sub-Saharan Africa. Just take a look at the simple numbers of it all: the estimated world population at the height of the Roman Empire was 200 million. The whole world. Today, the estimated world population is 6 billion (up from 2 billion in 1925). To compare, it took thirteen centuries – 1300 years – to add another 200 million to the worlds population. Today, were adding 200 million people to this earth every three years.
Which leads me back to my first question: when global civilization and its people reach the natural limits of the earth and ultimately come crashing and grinding to a halt – not if, but when – how many people are going to be able to feed and support themselves and their family? Can anyone even remember as recently as the Great Depression when Americans got the first taste of their foundations being shaken to the core, unable to feed themselves, finding that their carefully constructed lives were nothing more than houses of straw? Or the dark centuries that fell over most of Europe and the Middle East after the fall of the Roman Empire? Or the great civilizations of the Mayans or even Easter Island?
And, at the end of the day, should the slaughter of poultry for food be our greatest concern? Really?
Getting down off my soapbox for a minute, all I’m really trying to say is that weve got far greater things to concern ourselves with. Maybe getting back in touch with the things that ultimately sustain us — food being one of them. So, when was the last time you cooked?