September 15, 2005

Book review: Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf.

Words cannot express my relief at being out of the dark and threatening woods of Symbolic Literature and breathing freely again in the sunny meadow of Clever, Bleeding-Heart Investigative Journalism. This book is a thing of beauty and a joy to read forever.

The essential point of the book is to find out where, exactly, beef comes from. Driving past the big feedlot in Coalinga on I-5, which is how urban dwellers like me see cattle, doesn't explain how animals turn into hamburgers. Where are they born, how, who owns them, why, how are they traded and for how much, how fast do they grow, how are they treated, what are they like, what do they eat, how long do they live, who decides when they're going to be slaughtered, when is that anyway, where do they go then, under whose control, how, and what then? So the author, Peter Lovenheim, bought two calves and followed them "from conception to consumption".

Really. Conception. Slightly further back than that, even: he went to the artificial-insemination company that provided the semen that was used to impregnate the cow that gave birth to the calves, and he watched them collect it from the bull. This is a new, and impressive, definition of thorough. He just went right ahead and bought a pair of barn boots and spent two years driving back and forth between his urban home and the farms where his cattle were kept. If the farmers, milkers, cattle haulers, vets, auctioneers, buyers, inspectors, or absolutely anyone else did absolutely anything, he wrangled a way to see it and ask about it.

Despite that fact, it isn't an exposé. It's just a description. There aren't any tales of sneaking into barns and hiding in the hay to watch cackling farmers feeding rusty nails and chicken droppings to the cattle (moldy bagels, yes, but last I heard it was still legal to give expired bread products to cows). Breaking news: some people are nice to cows, and some people aren't so nice to cows. People with jobs involving manure and getting kicked in the knee by irritable animals three times their own size are essentially the same as people with jobs not involving manure and getting kicked in the knee by irritable animals three times their own size. The indignant meat-eschewer can still find things to be self-righteous about: domestication is by definition an unnatural state for cows, and I wouldn't really want to be fattened up and kept standing in my own shit either. Not an exposé, though; for that you'd want Fast Food Nation.

I read most of the book a few months ago, got distracted, and only recently picked it up again to finish it. Once I did, I remembered that it's a hard book to stop reading, and I went back to the beginning and read the whole damn thing over again. It's that good. I should probably buy my own copy so I can give the one I've got back to my sister, because I'm likely to want to pick it up and read it again. Consider it vehemently recommended.

Posted by dianna at September 15, 2005 10:05 AM

Plus, his calves were really cute. Right up until they were beef.

I'm trying to remember if this was the book whose writing was prompted by the author buying his daughter a Happy Meal that came with a beanie baby of a cow, and wanting to show her how the former came from the latter?

Posted by: katie at September 15, 2005 11:43 AM

I don't think he particularly wanted to show her, but yes. The Beanie Baby story is in the introduction. I think maybe he wanted to show himself.

Man, check out those calves!

Posted by: Dianna at September 15, 2005 12:56 PM

Tooootally cute calves.

Like mine.

Hey, speaking of non-symbolically-loaded bleeding-heart pseudo-journalism, did you read the totally excellent Nickel and Dimed yet?

Posted by: katie at September 15, 2005 01:05 PM

I did. Pseudo-journalism? Oh, fine. Nickel and Dimed is next in my list of things to review. I could swear I just mentioned that.

Your calves have naked wimmin and big swoopy dragons on them. The ones in the book don't, which is probably for the better.

Posted by: Dianna at September 15, 2005 02:02 PM

Reading this I can't help but be reminded of a story about a tourist attraction in Cambodia where, for $400, you can shoot a cow with a rocket launcher. You get to keep $200 if you miss the cow with the rocket. This raises a question, is shooting a cow with a rocket launcher more or less morally reprehensible than eating a hamburger? C'mon, even vegans get itchy trigger fingers.

Posted by: dr v at September 16, 2005 02:13 AM

well if, as a vegan, you just wanted to shoot off a rocket launcher, you could deliberately miss the cow and laugh up your sleeve about all those idiot meat killers who paid twice what you did. whereas it would make less sense to buy a hamburger and then deliberately miss your mouth.

what am i even talking about?

Posted by: didofoot at September 16, 2005 08:40 AM

I don't know, but buying a hamburger and deliberately missing your mouth just cracked me the hell up.

One of the things that I say fairly frequently about my own veganism is that I, personally, wouldn't be willing to look a cow in the eye and kill it so that I could have a tasty dinner. If you believe that you would, I believe that you should try it before you eat another steak. In my ideal world, actually, everyone should have to kill all of the meat that they eat personally. Why? Because the death of a living thing on your behalf is significant, and you the consumer are morally responsible whether you like it or not, so you should goddamn well have to face it right up close.

This is becoming slightly digressive, but my essential point is that pulling a trigger and watching a cow die is in some sense less ethically screwed-up than buying bloodless prepackaged hamburger at the grocery store and never having to think about how it really got there. Mind you, I don't know that anyone's going to be eating the post-rocket beef, so it's a frustrating and unjustified waste of life. Kristen's idea, though, is sheer genius.

Posted by: Dianna at September 16, 2005 09:27 AM

I should amend that to say that it's slightly less ethically screwed-up, while still being, in fact, screwed-up. I can't be going around praising the rocket-launching of cows here.

Posted by: Dianna at September 16, 2005 09:34 AM