It is a somber feeling to start this blog the week of Sidney Mintz‘s passing – one of the leading scholars in food studies. His book Sweetness and Power (1986) introduced me to the possibilities of writing comprehensive histories about food in ways that show how a commodity can be understood differently over time and across space. Sweetness and Power did just this, and I will never forget the intricate webs along which Mintz followed sugar: from the decorative centerpieces of aristocratic Britain, to the additives in coffee for factory workers. He took the somewhat dull, unattractive white granular specks and gave them new life. Really, he revealed the many lives of sugar and the people it affected – from cane to cup.
This page is dedicated to such followings of food. It will come as no surprise that like many people I am passionate about food. I identify as a “food opportunist,” willing to try and eat or cook anything. Because of this openness, I in turn find the politics through which people decide to eat or cook vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan or the like fascinating. But what I am most fascinated by is how these decisions can be intimately linked to how we feed non-human others. The politics of feeding cows, pigs, and chickens across the world have come to affect how humans eat – and I wonder why this is and how this happened.
Let me offer an example. Milk is one of my favorite animal food products because of its versatility. Not only is it a versatile physical product – a foundation for cheese, ice cream, and yogurt – but it is also a versatile ethical one. I know some serious milk enthusiasts: those who drink it in support of the industry, a particular nutritional ethic, or as a connoisseur of milk byproducts (turophiles, anyone?) And there are quite a few people, many close friends of mine, who won’t consume milk for reasons of animal and environmental welfare. Others claim lactose intolerance, and I have acquaintances who argue it is unnatural for humans to drink non-human milk. I get in conversations with others about milk often – both because of my favoritism for the topic as well as my upbringing on a dairy farm.
During a family farm “conference” in 2013 (which I will bring up in this blog later), I visited a raw milk booth where a woman offered me promotional materials about the movement and the importance of grass-fed milk. We entered a conversation where I let her do all the talking. She revealed to me that grass-fed diets were the only appropriate diets for dairy cattle – with corn unnatural if not abusive to “force feed” to the animals. “Are the cows really being force-fed?,” I asked, fishing for an opinion. “Of course!” was her response, and she cited some literature for me.
On the same day, I walked with an animal nutritionist who knew some of the farmers leading the “conference.” He looked out in the distance at some cross-bred dairy cattle owned by the farmer hosting the event. They were nibbling on brown patches of grass in a field. “They’re starving,” he told me briskly, “they need grain or they’ll be stunted.” I assumed he meant in both physical growth and milk production, but the latter was of greater concern for him.
These two brief interactions, from the same day, at the same “conference,” helped place my interest in food into perspective. I was struck by how these understandings of cow health and cow diet diverged, why one person looked at health in one way, the other in another. And the commoditization of these views! Buying one type of milk supported one practice. Buying milk from this label supported another. I wanted to know how this happened. I wanted to talk to more people from both points of view. Different ones. I wanted to look at the cows more closely, buy their milk more carefully, drink their milk more thoughtfully. I was hooked.
Now here I am, in a graduate program learning how I can find the answers and write about them for you. I hope you will comment and ask questions if you stumble upon this page – ideas I will certainly consider as I continue to explore my thoughts and feelings on these subjects. Human food. Animal food. Microbial food. Food for food. Following food is the task. Logging its many pathways (economically, ecologically, politically, and culturally) will be the result.