Animal Obituaries

I wrote about Gigi in March last year. Gigi was the highest producing milk cow in the world before she was surpassed by Ever-Green-View My Gold-ET in 2017. As I wrote about Gigi, I wondered about exceptional animals and everyday animals; animals that are named and animals that are numbered. With Gigi, I thought about personalities, anthropomorphism, and the challenge of writing about animals in history.


Feeling close to Gigi, at least as a subject who forced me to ask hard questions about my own work, it was a shock for me when I opened my local farm newspaper to find that she had been killed in a fire along with 30 other “Bur-Wall Holstein herdmates.”

Firefighters were able to rescue 35 other cows from the Bur-Wall barn that collapsed as it was engulfed in flames. But it was Gigi who made the headline of the short article. I wondered if it could be considered a kind of obituary, as it highlighted her accomplishments and assured its audience she would be “remembered by many.” Do other animals receive such treatment? If they would, and mass text used to make tributes to the animals who contribute to our food systems, would we be more shocked by the numbers? Feel more thankful for their labors? Be more conscientious of suffering – both human and non-human?

Academics like historians, sociologists, and anthropologists use animals to think about the human – and many believe that if we dedicate time to blurring the line between human and non-human, we will make political strides toward blurring difference in humanity. If we account for inequity across species, some suggest, we may find solutions to solving inequity between humans. To see an animal obituary for Gigi makes me wonder about obituaries in general: who gets one and who doesn’t, the cost (in space, time, text) in making one and who is able to afford this, who is memorialized and who isn’t, what kinds of death are tragic and which are not.

gravestone cow

Traverse Colantha Walker was one of many cows to get a gravestone for her efforts. Credit: Traverse Colantha Walker Facebook Page.

I’m certain that if Gigi had a “natural” death, she would have been memorialized with some sort of gravestone like other special cows before her. But I’m uncertain if an obituary would have been made for her. This speaks to the tragedy of that fire – certainly not the first to hit the farming community hard this year,.

Such micro-level tragedies also force us (or, at least me) to reflect on macro-level ones, like the hurricanes this month that hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. The media coverage of these areas has been uneven – and this has much to do with the economic and political climates of today. Media coverage reflects “who matters” at certain moments in time in certain spaces, and there is always someone unnamed, or an event unmentioned, because time and text have price tags. This is why the evidence we gather in history – old obituaries, news articles, books – is not wholly representative of what happened in the past. We only get to experience a sliver of what happened and who was there. In many cases, we only get to see who could “afford” to be remembered, in the literal sense of the word. And future scholars – decades or centuries from now – will look at the material we produce in our media and make claims about our present moment. This will also only reflect a fraction of what we experience. It will cover some events over others, and name some of us but not memorialize all.

Why push on this point about power, privilege, and memorialization? Because I think it is important for us to be just as critical about our current media as we can be about what kind of evidence has been produced (and found) in the historical record. While I find it interesting and exciting, I’m critical of Gigi’s coverage because it celebrates high producing cattle and implies they are the ones worth memorializing today. This is not necessarily the reality for all farmers and their cattle. It only tells one story of many. It is still a story that needs to be told – of course! But if I want to highlight other efforts, other farmers, other cattle, I need to get to this information in a different way. This is the same line of questioning we should bring to all kinds of coverage: obituaries, tragedies, and celebrations. Whether intentionally or not, if we are uncritical of the media we produce we submit to one narrative. Unfortunately, not all actors (human or non-human) get memorials or obituaries. Sometimes, it is worth reminding ourselves of this reality.

The Exam List Challenge

This year it was difficult for me to explain to friends and family what I was up to.  My shorthand was, “I’m studying.”  But preparing for doctoral qualifying exams seems like a lot more than just “studying.”  It was a challenge in time management, information synthesis, and really a wake-up call to the amount of literature that exists in a given field.  Most days I felt overwhelmed.  A good number of days I felt incredibly isolated and alone.  It isn’t fun, but when it is done it is incredibly rewarding.  I successfully finished the process last week!

Every program approaches the comprehensive exam process differently.  In my department, we are tested on all of our respective fields in the same two-hour timeframe.  We have to answer questions orally in front of our committee with on-the-spot questions.  The qualifying exam process is not a uniform one, and I suggest studying to fit the “performance” you must complete to pass the exam.  That said, for those scrambling to find good study strategies to absorb a copious amount of information (or, at the end of it all, to have a good archive-base to tap into at a later date) I wanted to share the five methods that *successfully* made me feel prepared for my exam.

  1. One book: one index card

An alumna of my program gave me this idea, and this was by far the most helpful study strategy I had in my back pocket.  It was a lot of work in the moment, and I ended up changing the strategy slightly in the middle of my first semester of reading.  But now I have almost 100 cards that represent about half of the books I read for my exam period.  If I did this strategy over again, I would commit to making sure each and every book I read had a card.  My timing (and exhaustion) prevented me from doing this, but the books that got one were the ones I remembered the best.

At first, I wrote very short summaries on each index card for each book, but I found that I was still getting caught up in the details of the texts.  In one meeting with my main advisor, I became frustrated when I learned that the information I was remembering wasn’t the information he wanted me to take away from the text.  He assured me that this was part of the process, and encouraged me to think about why I wanted to do the project I was doing, and ask the same question of the author I was reading in the 2-3 hour moment.  “What is the ‘bee in their bonnet’?  Why are they writing this in the first place? ” he asked me.


So, my cards became a little more point-oriented.  I wrote a “Bee in Bonnet” – which was really just the thesis statement of a given book – and provided three to five “points” made in the text that helped support or answer this bee.  This process immediately clicked for me.  When reviewing, I was not only able to describe a main point of a book but some bare-bones evidence that were detailed but streamlined so I didn’t get caught up in the tiny points of the text.  This strategy also helped me read more efficiently.  I looked for the evidence that best supported an author’s argument, and if I had trouble finding it, I knew this was something I could critique about the text.  With my four lists, I color coded my index cards.  If I had enough room on the back of the card, I would sometimes write an author or two of relevance who was cited and also on my list.  This helped illustrate who was in conversation with whom on my list.



  1. One book: one Tweet

At the very beginning of my studying, I thought that I needed to be super succinct with my understanding of the books.  After writing extensive notes while reading, I tried to limit the point of each book to 140 characters on my Twitter page with the hastag: #examlistchallenge.

Pros: The Twitter archive with this hashtag is helpful to pull up time and again.  I took pictures of the title pages of the books for reference.  I was able to distill the main points into a very tiny bite.  And, at times, fellow #twitterstorians saw my Tweets and engaged with them – letting me know which books their favorites were through likes and retweets.  It was fun, and it gave me a presence on the academic Twitter network flagging to others “hey, she is working on comps!”

Cons: The very tiny bites were at times too tiny.  I wasn’t able to remember what I tweeted as well as what I wrote down on the index cards, and this may have to do with kinesthetic or visual memory preferences on my part.  I also sometimes took way too long thinking through ag, tech, sci, and med emojis rather than the actual arguments in the books.

  1. Monthly write-ups for each list

With my committee, I was actually *required* to provide write-ups based on the books I read over a two to four week period.  When I initially compiled my lists, I created different sections to organize the lists thematically or chronologically, depending on the desires of my advisor for each list.  The way my department approaches the oral exam period is that it is a year-long endeavor.  The “courses” we complete over the year are actually independent studies with our committee based on the theme of each list.  I met with each advisor throughout the year and “checked in” for one hour each month, going over my thoughts on what I had read to the point of our meeting.  The list I made was basically my syllabus, and each meeting required some discussion about my write-up on a theme or set of themes for my list.

If you do not meet with your committee regularly, I feel these write-ups are incredibly useful for starting to synthesize how many books can be in conversation with one another in a given field.  These write-ups became the basis for my other study strategies as I continued to pare down ideas and books that correlated with these ideas.  I also started to write questions and comments related to my dissertation in these write-ups, which I have since been using for proposals and grant applications.

  1. One write-up: one to two index cards


You are probably wondering what is up with these index cards.  I even had a colleague come up to me while I was studying and explain that the last time she used index cards was for a biology exam in her undergraduate years.  But trust me, the actual making of index cards coupled with their transport-friendly size saved my butt for this exam.

After writing the synthetic (or, semi-synthetic) monthly write-ups, I condensed my thoughts even further onto a notecard in a “map” format.  What does this mean?  I basically provided a script for myself that locked in the main points of a particular theme and the books I read that helped support these points.   These were the most helpful study tools I made in my longer study process.  My last two days were spent mulling over these purple cards, thinking about the various ways my fields overlapped one another and the ways they diverged.  Because I only had two hours to talk about four different fields, these cards helped me remember the books that were most important to *me* when thinking through the ideas held in my lists: historiographically, historically, and methodologically.

  1. The study buddy


This may be a no-brainer, but aside from the “map” cards I made, my study buddies made this exam process so much more bearable if not semi-enjoyable.  For the month before our exams, a colleague and I would meet at a local coffee shop off campus and ask practice questions about our books and about our respective dissertations.  We exchanged lists and (attempted) to personify our committee members.  We both found that as we talked, we surprised ourselves with what we remembered in our year of reading.  We were able to self-reflect on which ideas, books, or themes we felt most uncomfortable talking about, and these were the areas we would spend more time studying on our own time.


The most important thing to know, regardless of your study method, is that you are not alone in this process.  Though it is arguably an exercise of learning and processing information by yourself, always know that there are faculty, student, and online networks you can tap into to make the process worthwhile.

Writing Reflections: Cutting Back the Forest

This week, I had the pleasure to contribute to Nursing Clio‘s “Bites of History” section.  For those unaware, Nursing Clio is a collaborative academic blog that has gained a great bit of traction in the academic world.  It is a site for innovative academic writing and for bite-sized (pun totally intended) blog posts engaged with current events/culture using historical primary source material.  I learn so much from posts on Nursing Clio.  Those who manage the site also have a great commitment to accessible writing, which makes it a great source for budding historians (my undergrads love this site!).

One important caveat to good, accessible academic writing is knowing when and where to end a conversation.  As I was writing “Milk: A History of Tasting What Cows Eat,” I had to make some very difficult decisions on what to include and what to cut.  Why is this so hard for academics to do?  Because many of us are managing many different kinds of information at once, often forgetting that the debates and conversations held in the ivory tower do not always translate to a general audience (or sometimes, even, to the larger discipline)!  We get stuck in the details of our own interests and the interests of the people we want to readily speak to.  It’s hard to zoom out and see the forest instead of the moss on the trees – as one of my advisors so eloquently put it.



Taking a birds-eye view is tough!  I’d rather get to the nitty gritty of this rock, mildew, or the people in those houses.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger (Albuquerque 2015).


For the past few months, I’ve been sitting in coffee shops reading and studying for my comprehensive exams.  This is why the personal blog has been so neglected.  My brain is not only filled with more information than I can handle, but I’m constantly having to consider and re-consider what my dissertation is and who it will be speaking to.  I find myself constantly caught in the weeds of the details of my agriculture history literature, not to mention the mass of data I’ve already collected to start writing the first few chapters of my dissertation.  How the heck am I to write a succinct blog entry when I’m reading through four lists of different historical and anthropological material?  What makes it all connect, and how do I make these connections in a brief, but clear, way?

The advisor who asked me to consider my forest suggested I pitch to Nursing Clio‘s call for histories of nutrition.  As a historian of animal nutrition, I had so many ideas and I didn’t know where to start.  I knew I wanted to speak to historians of medicine and agriculture historians, but I also wanted to consider environmental historians, historians of technology, and food scholars.  This was way too ambitious, and I knew I couldn’t write explicitly, “as these scholars have suggested, and you, and I’m also talking to you, and you, and you, and you, and you!”  I wasn’t going to make an interesting argument AND sing a rendition of La Vie Boheme in 1,000 words or less.  So I went simple and started with a movie scene many people were familiar with from Napoleon Dynamite.

The movie, in all of its awkward tendencies, heightened the awkwardness with the decision to make Napoleon and his friend, Pedro, members of their high school FFA program.  When the movie was released, I couldn’t quite make sense of this decision.  My hometown was not only familiar with FFA but very supportive of the program.  My parents were in FFA.  I almost joined FFA (a story for another time).  But for those unfamiliar with the organization, this narrative decision made the outcast characters in the film pushed even more to their high school’s periphery.  So I decided to bring the FFA milk tasting scene from this film back into context using history and current events.  Thus, my Nursing Clio article was born.

I could have expanded on the subject of milk tasting in many different ways, but I’m happy I stayed with the history of tasting contests, how tasting “tests” continue today, and how tastes may be perceived differently with the advent of animal-free milk.  You’ll have to read the post for the details!  As a complimentary writing reflection, however, I want to reveal three other points I wanted to engage with but that didn’t make the cut for accessibility/organization/clarity purposes.  I hope this illustrates how purposeful writing is and can be, particularly when trying to craft something for a wider audience.

  1. My hometown and personal FFA/4-H background.


This was an alternate way to speak to the wider audience.  I had to make the decision to either use my personal story to get readers engaged, or to use a more popular source like the film clip.  As my first post with Nursing Clio, I decided to go the popular route.  This helped me form a catchy introduction, and stay focused with the purpose of the piece.  Personal reflections, though helpful, can sometimes get the “TMI” mark rather than the “ICYMI” on Twitter.

2. Feeding cows (or, uh, giraffes?) Skittles is a big deal right now.


The great Skittles debate has gained some traction in the news.  But, I felt I talked about animal feed in enough detail for the purposes of the post. I mean, my whole dissertation is about animal feed!  I actually made the decision to use the room in my post to speak briefly about animal-free milk instead of this.  This is because I have been making efforts to use my academic work to speak to environmentally conscious food consumers, including vegans.  The questions I pose at the end of the post are, in ways, meant to be an open-ended reflection for this group.  If I talked about Skittles, I wouldn’t have had time to talk about animal-free milk.  Too many ideas, not enough room!

3.  The science of animal-free milk may impact the formula v. breastfeeding debates.


Nursing Clio has a commitment to discussions on the history of gender and sexuality.  I really wanted to speak to this more directly in the post but decided the subtleties would be enough.  With cows as female animals and men (problematically) dominating the science of milk for so long… the gendered labor and gendered animals backdrops are there.  But, I could have gone into this formula/breastfeeding topic in a few ways.  Some of my primary sources noted that women (really, secretaries) at the extension schools preferred “silage milk,” and one historical interpretation for this inclusion in the scientific reports may be because milk, in general, was being marketed most to mothers for feeding children.  This seemed like an unnecessary tangent for me to get into, so it was cut.

Human milk is also being tested to make synthetic breast milk, and they are using similar processes developed by the bovine-focused Muufri/Perfect Day.  But these tests are still “beta,” as human milk proteins are much more complex than bovine ones.  Getting into the weeds of this feminist/reproduction angle, I had to ask myself what the purpose of my particular post would be: connections between human and animal milk?  Animal welfare? Milk tasting?  I decided to focus my writing on this idea that tasting milk has historically meant tasting a particular feeding decision/relationship.  This doesn’t have the simplest history, but a quick snapshot, I believed, could get readers thinking… at the very least about the Napoleon Dynamite clip being part of a longer history.  Readers could get to some of these other topics I wanted to talk about on their own with some digging.  Perhaps they could even be the subject of future articles.


What is your writing process, and does it change with the genre?  When have you made the decision to cut out ideas in your writing for the purposes of clarity?  Would love to hear your thoughts!

Thinking with Gingerbread

I’m not vegan.  This is something that confused the students I spoke with earlier this year in a Feminism and Veganism presentation, and it may confuse some of my fellow food historians and food colleagues.  This is due to two main realities I grapple with in my research: 1) humans have a long history with dairy animals and dairy products that have created intricate social, economical, and biological dependency networks, and 2) all food systems have good and bad aspects to them, including those promoted by veganism.  Personally, I don’t feel comfortable rejecting one food system for another based on over-generalizations – and that is often what happens in the formation of certain diet cultures.  I’m all for moderation and thoughtfulness in eating, but I’m also aware that only a privileged group of individuals can execute this way of consuming food.

Despite my reservations, I cook and bake vegan when I can.  Why?  I think veganism, along with vegetarianism, gluten-free diets, paleo-diets and other dietary cultures, is good to think with.  Such diets help us contemplate different food relationships, and they often use experimentation and science to make lifelong favorites possible within dietary restrictions.  The re-creation of certain recipes to fit these models helps reveal the historical contingencies of our food systems.  It also shows what types of food certain people are not willing to give up, and which are able to be converted to different food network systems.

For example, the way humans have consumed sugar over the centuries has changed dramatically since the 16th century.  Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1985) outlines some of these changes, and nutritionists continue to grapple with the economic realities and sociological meanings attached to sugar and what this has meant for human health today.  During the holidays, we consume more sugar than usual.  Cookies and candies are markers of tradition: they once symbolized wealth, and they continue to symbolize giving, friendship, and family bonding.   Sugar may be a necessity for these recipes – but vegans ask if eggs, butter, and milk are just as necessary when making such traditional treats.

Using one of my favorite vegan gingerbread cookie recipes – I want to walk you through some of the thoughts and questions I encounter as an ethnographer and historian of foods and feeding.  Again, “baking vegan” brings up questions of contingency, and I’m always asking if the “vegan age” is truly a contemporary one based on an intricate set of understandings about animals, food, and consumer responsibility that only came to exist in the 21st century.


Question One/Step One: What are the ingredients?/Gathering ingredients


Not all ingredients are equal, and history can show how the economy has affected our baking over the past century.  The history of cake mixes, for example, reveals that a surplus of molasses in the 1930s affected how companies began to re-package and advertise flour and mixes.  Similarly, historian Kendra Smith-Howard does a terrific job in Pure and Modern Milk (2013) describing how milk surpluses were managed by the government and companies.  The book shows this was partially done by pushing consumers toward “new” milk products in the postwar period – including skim milk, butter, and ice-cream.  So, sometimes what we think are recipes located in long traditions are actually located in contingencies related to supply and demand.  To think of cake mixes as located in an historical molasses surplus rather than egg surplus is also interesting, as many scholars have located concerns of “freshness” and “authenticity” in the use of eggs by postwar housewives.

My gingerbread recipe requires a good bit of molasses – but this wasn’t an easy ingredient to find at my 21st century Philadelphia city store.  Is molasses used today as often as it was in the 1930s through the 1960s?  Perhaps it is dependent on geographical location (I’m thinking shoo fly pies are less popular in California… though I could be wrong!)  What has come to substitute molasses in the 21st century?  What does molasses symbolize today?  And, is molasses more necessary for gingerbread making than eggs or milk?  Is it a characteristic of the cookie?  I think it is – and it is perhaps one reason the cookie can be taken up more easily by vegan bakers (than, say, meringue cookies, though chickpeas seem to be providing a new solution).


Question Two/Step Two: How does it cook?/Mixing and cooking

As chemistry developed as a discipline, so did cooking.  Certain ingredients help achieve certain characteristics in a baked good – and this is why following recipes becomes important in that attempt to get a similar result each time you bake.  Historically, some ingredients took more trial and error to develop than others.  One better known story is that of baking powder, which is said to have been developed in the mid-19th century by Alfred Bird who was trying to find alternatives to yeast and eggs (his wife was allergic to both).  By the 1880s, Calumet Baking Powder would be advertised as “double acting” with leavening starting in the bowl and continuing in the oven.  Ingredients like baking powder were created/discovered out of need to find alternatives, and they have since helped in alternative baking efforts like this recipe I’m using (which requires canola oil, baking powder, baking soda, and soy milk, with the added step of refrigerating the disc of dough before rolling and cutting).


Advertisement for Bird’s Baking Powder, circa 1870s.  The advertisement may suggest new methods of baking were needed in the midst of war/exploration/colonial expansion. 

Eggs and milk are added to gingerbread to create a certain quality to the cookie.  For a long time, eggs were understood to be the primary binding agent for cooking – giving baked goods their structure and stability.  But with the development of cooking powders, milk substitutes, and experimentation with bananas and applesauce (with their own food histories!) – eggs are no longer the “one and only” method for achieving desired structures or textures.  Technology also allowed some of these methods to come about in the first place.  Professor John Walter of the University of Essex credits the semi-closed oven of the 18th century with a “baking boom” that permeated Western culture’s affiliation with cakes and cookies.  Nineteenth century chemical developments like baking powder went hand in hand with these technological changes.  Even the status of fresh eggs to be included (or avoided) from recipes was predicated on notions of “freshness” that relied on the development of the refrigerator.


Question Three/Step Three: What about taste?/Presentation, eating, and giving


Does the gingerbread I’ve made look and taste like gingerbread?  To me, absolutely!  To some of my family members, not so much.  The texture, the color, and the taste seems “off” to those who are more familiar with it; those who have made gingerbread consistently every year for decades.  Gingerbread was not something I made or ate consistently with my family, so the recipe’s end result does not bother me as much.  If anything I find them more earthy to the taste and soft in texture, which are preferred qualities for me.

Just as economic markets, technologies, and ingredients change, so can tastes.  There are scholars that attribute certain tastes to certain time periods – often based on what was available at the time.  This includes Kellen Backer’s work on the creation of the American industrial food system that still permeates our tastes today: from WWII quartermaster corps to frozen and canned foods.  Taste and agriculture is also a big subject for debate today, particularly as consumers define close relationships between “taste” and “authenticity” in food crops amidst genetically engineered, conventional, and organic agricultural methods.  Taste is less about sensation in these instances, and more about the moral, historical, and – related to this – nostalgic relationships humans have with their food.   This makes vegan gingerbread interesting to me, for though the taste is not quite the same, it is similar enough for it to achieve its nostalgic purpose.  It may even be considered “authentic” if its absence of eggs or cow’s milk is not brought to the attention of its consumer.  I’ve recently learned that Oreos are a fantastic vegan cookie choice – but I would have never placed them in this category based on taste alone.

These are just some of the ideas and questions that come to mind as I bake, cook, and eat foods made with certain ingredients in certain ways.  Perhaps you’ve changed a recipe due to surplus resources, new technologies, allergies or taste preferences?  I would love to hear about such experiences in the comments below!


Dupree, Nathalie, and Cynthia Graubart. Southern Biscuits. Gibbs Smith, 2011.

Freidberg, Susanne. Fresh: A perishable history. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and power. New York: Viking, 1985.

Smith-Howard, Kendra. Pure and modern milk: An environmental history since 1900. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Feminism and Veganism

On Tuesday, November 15th I had the amazing opportunity to speak with students from the Penn Vegan Society and the Penn Association for Gender Equity (PAGE).  My presentation focused on visual representations in both dairy advertising and vegan advocacy; where women’s bodies have been used to re-instantiate gender norms, challenge them, and/or challenge the normalization/naturalization of the larger dairy industry.   I hoped to provide participants with language and questions to help them better engage in the thoughtful promotion of their dietary activism: considering not only the implications of certain imagery, but also how they may successfully frame their concerns and goals as vegans and as feminists.


In the beginning of my talk, I spoke to the narrative challenges we all have when trying to argue for the acknowledgment of oppressive systems held in nonhuman nature.  I laid out quick, “simple” narrative histories in ecofeminism and vegetarian-feminist theory, when scholars in the 1980s and 1990s were encouraging nonhuman advocates (environmentalists and vegetarians) to pay closer attention to how systems of oppression are connected (really saying, “Hey!  You need to be paying attention to the patriarchy, like feminism does!”).   However, moving from human systems of oppression to nonhuman ones in advocacy (saying, “You’re a feminist, so you also need to be a vegan!”) doesn’t work as well in narrative or visual frames.   Human welfare and animal welfare issues often become blurred in these circumstances, and this has serious ethical repercussions.  Not only does it essentialize women (muting differences in gender, sexuality, race, and class from further critical engagement) it also tends to sexualize them, particularly when trying to illustrate the case against a food system predicated on reproductive organs and biological milk production.

Should vegan advocacy focus solely on the female body (human and animal) to make a case against bovine milk consumption?  It might not be the most successful narrative frame to use, or even the most productive.  For example, one of the topics I wanted to address in the talk (and didn’t have time to emphasize!) was the role of science and technology in altering dairying practices today.   New feeding regimens and new technologies (*including* rbST) have been developed and promoted considering current environmental concerns connected to dairying.  These concerns include the production of methane gas emissions, water pollution, and overall land use.  Not only are technologies being developed, but regulations are being passed based on these larger environmental concerns.


Small, anaerobic digester installed on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania – using methane to produce other forms of energy like electricity on the farm.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

To the students at this event, and to new vegan readers of this blog:  I think centering vegan advocacy on larger issues of climate change and ecological impact provides a different kind of opportunity; an opportunity for meaningful discussion and collaboration with farmers that animal liberation efforts alone may not be able to achieve.  For example, my dissertation looks into how “animal welfare” becomes differently defined between scientific, farming, and consumer groups.  So far, I can say confidently that welfare is a tricky subject, and what farmers think is best for their animals is often not the same for consumers.  These discussions often end up being unfair to the farmer who is asked to reevaluate their livelihood and the relationship they may have fostered with their animals.  Though animal welfare issues are certainly important to address, they tend to fall into dangerous, philosophical traps that are difficult to generalize.  And as I stated above, when trying to illustrate welfare in a visually meaningful way – connecting the feminist agenda with the vegan one – it often falls into the trap of sexualizing and thus ostracizing groups that are critical to vegan advocacy.  A shift to environmental issues also doesn’t take away from the feminist weight of vegan advocacy.  It relocates it to larger problems of capitalism, resource extraction, and technocracy that are wrapped up in ideals attached to the patriarchy.

There is much more I can say about the topic of veganism, my own feelings about the dairy industry, and dietary activism.  This is an ongoing topic for me as someone researching the history of the dairy industry.  But to those interested in advocacy, I wanted to provide a short bibliography of readings that address the important connections held between feminism, environmentalism, and veganism (call it a “starter syllabus,” if you will).   I hope my blog (in past and future posts) also helps demonstrate the complicated nature of human-cow relationships, technologies of care (including feeding), and technologies of production (rbST and artificial insemination included!).  I believe activists of all forms need to be educated on both sides of these issues to better craft arguments for and against certain practices.  Such crafting opens up opportunities for constructive conversation and, perhaps, tangible solutions to some of the things we are most worried about in relation to our nonhuman companions.


Helpful framing literature:

Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, 1980 (environmentalists need to pay attention to feminism)

Carol Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat, 1990 (vegetarians need to pay attention to feminism)

Vadana Shiva and J. Bandyopadhyay’s “The Evolution, Structure, and Impact of the Chipko Movement” in Mountain Research and Development 6, no. 2 (1986): 133 – 142

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Feminist Studies 1, no. 2 (1972): 5–31. doi:10.2307/3177638.


On connections between vegetarianism, veganism, and feminism:

Deckha, Maneesha. “Disturbing Images: Peta and the Feminist Ethics of Animal Advocacy.” Ethics & the Environment 13, no. 2 (2008): 35–76.

Lucas, Sheri. “A Defense of the Feminist-Vegetarian Connection.” Hypatia 20, no. 1 (2005): 150–77. doi:10.1353/hyp.2005.0015.

Schiebinger, Londa. “Why Mammals Are Called Mammals: Gender Politics in Eighteenth-Century Natural History. (Cover Story).” American Historical Review 98, no. 2 (April 1993): 382–411.

Taylor, Sunaura.  “Vegans, Freaks, and Animals: Toward a New Table Fellowship.”  American Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2013): 757 – 764 (Heads up: fantastic article!!!)

Thomas, Marion. “Are Women Naturally Devoted Mothers?: Fabre, Perrier, and Giard on Maternal Instinct in France Under the Third Republic: ARE WOMEN NATURALLY DEVOTED MOTHERS?” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 50, no. 3 (June 2014): 280–301. doi:10.1002/jhbs.21666.


Ecofeminism blogs:  (Particular emphasis on positionality) (Its history and connections with veganism) (More history!) (Helpful for more literature networks in the field.  Not so helpful in speaking to GMOs.)





Animals in the Archives Symposium

I encountered two animals in the archive my first day conducting research this summer.  The first was a mouse.  As I opened my very first box from a collection in Pennsylvania, pulled by the archivists for my viewing pleasure, I happened upon some torn paper.  A loose scroll was shredded.  As I lifted it for inspection, white pieces fell from it like confetti.  I panicked.  The archivists on staff took the matter very seriously, as they concluded a mouse had made a nest in this box.  We scrambled together to make sure the other twelve boxes I pulled from this collection were in good condition, finding dust and pests had inhabited some (not all!) boxes for some time and caused some damage.  Save for the scroll of paper, nothing else was lost to the collection.  But, it took my request for a series that had been in storage for several decades to reveal its condition (and its nonhuman inhabitants!).


The usual wear and tear of early 20th century archival materials.  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016.

That same day I flipped through the pages of a scientist’s journal.  His handwriting was mesmerizing.  I loved reading about the precise days and times this early 20th century chemist met with a veterinarian to make sure the calves he bought for experiments were healthy.  And there they were at the middle of the journal – pictures of these calves!  I squealed with delight to find the glossy black and white images accompanied by the beautiful handwriting.

These are two of many ways an historian or archivist can come to animals in the archives, and this barely scratches the surface of experiences and interactions.  This was evident in the papers and roundtables organized for the University of Pennsylvania symposium, Animals in the Archives.  The two day event took place from October 27th to 28th, bringing together historians, librarians, archivists, and even scientists (to a degree) to discuss interactions in the archive similar to the ones I had this summer.  The stories shared ranged from the recognition of animals as material (parchment, book binding, taxidermy) to animals as subjects in film narratives, photographs, and rhetoric.  Below are my personal “take aways” from this event as a budding historian of animals.


A film screening of Matto Grosso, The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931) launched the beginning of this symposium.  Housed within the Penn Museum’s archives, the film is known as one of the first non-fiction films to incorporate animal sounds, according to film specialist Kate Pourshariati.  This is due in part to the rapidly changing technologies of the time – when explorers could enter the field with various kinds of equipment to document visual and auditory material from a given area.  Many different kinds of animals were featured in the film and included both wild Brazilian animals and domesticated “Old World” species.  The story told by the film producers was one of science and friendship: the explorers collecting animal specimens for research purposes with the help of the indigenous groups of Matto Grosso.


Matto Grosso postcard from Penn’s Matto Grosso film website.

During a reflective roundtable discussion, Rosanna Dent provided some useful context about the history and area of Matto Grosso.  She noted how approaching the film as an artifact trying to achieve the “authentic travel narrative” reveals much of the intent behind this piece.  The back-and-forth between “authenticity” and “natural-ness” of the interactions between both humans and nonhumans was particularly striking to me – as many of the moments with animals could not be entirely staged in the film.  Carolyn Fornoff made the important nod to colonialism in the narrative, and Rahul Mukherjee reflected on how human identity is made through various interactions with animals, staged or not in the film.  Themes of extinction, creation and captivity (Noah’s Ark), and the difficulties in historicizing racism resonated with the crowd and affected the next day’s conversations.

The next day of the symposium demonstrated the multidisciplinary fortitude of taking animal material in archives seriously.  Bruce Holsinger outlined his most recent book project focused on animal skin – parchment – in the archives and his interaction with medieval texts and contemporary scientists to get at the significance of the medium in the past and today.  Iris Montero mapped the presence of hummingbird bundles in various types of archival material – making a case for the “pre-Columbian” archive.  To her, both memories and myths were materialized in these nonhuman animal artifacts.  Animal material, the question of its significance to understanding historical moments, and the question to archivists as to why material is collected and kept resonated in the other talks.   Rebecca Woods’s paper on Australian wool samples, Nigel Rothfel’s attention to elephant skins, and the “Materiality” roundtable, including both archivists and researchers, touched on these concerns.  We encountered issues of ethics in anthropodermic books, logistics in keeping taxidermy mice, and challenges in cataloging multi-species relationships: as insects and the plants they consumed leave DNA footprints on textual materials.

The last speaker, Neel Ahuja, addressed moments when animals are discussed in documents, and the different ways these moments could be interpreted by historians.  His example demonstrated that the implications of such documents were so political in certain places and time periods that it often becomes difficult for the historian to disentangle lived experience from political agenda – particularly when trying to “get at” the animal.  The presentation addressed animal welfare issues with milking cattle in late 19th century India, when legal documentation was ambiguous and hesitant to cite methods of milking that were banned based on their cruelty and ineffectiveness.  Ahuja made the case of looking at such material with hybridity in mind: the reality of the cruelty in these methods for certain historical actors, and the ban implicating something specific about colonial power and the rationalization of industrial methods of milking over pastoralist ones.  Certain human-animal interactions that took place for hundreds of years were suddenly re-contextualized as inappropriate through legal documentation.  But these interactions were also rhetorically avoided in the writing; perhaps illustrating a similar experience of getting to animal material in an archive without much written documentation of the life/experience/interactions the body had while still alive.


Harriet Ritvo’s Animal Estate (1987).

Harriet Ritvo, who arguably jump-started the animal history movement with her book Animal Estate (1987), provided some helpful closing comments to the event.   The two big questions participants seemed to be grappling with included 1) What are animals like?  and 2) What are archives like?  When historians engage with animals in the archives they are forced to recognize their living qualities.  Animals are not just metaphorical, even though we often approach them in this form in writings.  Animals are very real, and they were very alive before their bodies were placed in museums, libraries, or universities.  When animals are archived today, we see some difficulty in placing material objects within their context – particularly as papers become part of separate archival spaces housed away from their objects of reference.  The importance of these material objects – these animal bodies – in understanding the past is something historians and archivists need to keep in mind, and they are sources that are useful, troubling, and fantastic.

Why Academics Should Tweet More

Don’t judge me if I’m looking at my phone during an interesting lecture.  Nine times out of ten, I’m not responding to a text or flipping through my emails.  Usually when I’m on my phone, I’m live tweeting – and I wish more academics (and farmers, and companies for that matter) would tweet more.

This past month I have been immersed in a sea of academic get-togethers. I participated in an oral history workshop and two different conferences, and all had developed a hashtag for tweeters to tweet and follow conversations.  These were three truly amazing events, and for me to take the time to tweet them and live tweet some of their take-aways helped me remember the content of the talks a whole lot better.  My tweets are now archived on my Twitter page, giving me an opportunity to look back on the important moments I thought were worth tweeting.  The entire process provides an extra dimension to my overall note-taking experience.


I only started tweeting when I started this blog, courtesy of a friend’s suggestion.  I’m really glad I took the time to start playing around with the website and app, finding not only people to follow from my discipline and the groups of people I conduct research with, but also finding conversations between handfuls of individuals having genuine discussions in 140 characters or less.

If you are already a tweeter, I don’t need to persuade you of the benefits of tweeting in x, y, or z discipline or for x, y, or z reason.  But for those of you still hesitant to jump on the bandwagon, I’d like to outline some additional perks to academic tweeting and the possibilities that could come with regular tweeting from intellectual and professional communities.

  1. Note-taking archive

Everyone processes information in different ways, and I appreciate this fact.  Some people can sit in a lecture, listen to the lecturer, and *presto-pesto* the information is transferred into their brain.  For me to process the same lecture, I have to take extensive notes.  I then have to transcribe these notes, and read them over again to really get at what was relayed to me from the speaker.  As I mentioned, Twitter provides an extra dimension of writing notes for me with the added pressure of a public audience.  Considering how my brain works (and I assume other brains out there), this process actually allows the information to become instantly more meaningful for me to absorb: writing a note first by hand to make sure it is brief enough, then writing it in my screen (sometimes with emojis), and then publishing it for others to see.  It may sound like this takes *more* time, but in the long run actually takes *less* time for me to remember the information. Plus, as I mentioned before, everything is archived.  And this happens not only within my own Twitter page, but through the hashtags I use.  I can go back over themes in “#dairy” or “#aghist” or “#histsci” using the hashtags – seeing not only what I have written but what others have written under these key terms and topics.

twitter cow

It’s nice to get “likes” and “retweets,” but sometimes tweeting is just another form of taking notes.


  1. Practice for precise and succinct writing

“If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.”  One of my past instructors, Richard Parmentier, would press this quote on us before assigning his notoriously short assignments.  I haven’t forgotten the power of time or the power of brevity.  Writing long, complicated ideas in clear, short ways is a skill I think everyone can benefit from mastering.  Twitter is one way to practice getting good ideas out there in brief, quick, eye-catching ways but *quickly*.  I’m learning to use my words carefully, and to swap out long, jargon-y words for shorter ones in my tweets.  The 140 character limit also forces me to be creative with pictorial representations, using the emoji inventory on my phone, images from the actual lecture/event, or even popular animated files from Google’s archive to better illustrate the arguments and stories I hear.

george rr martin


  1. Getting to know others and their research

Probably one of the greatest benefits of Twitter is the follow function.  Many great scholars and professionals are already on Twitter, and are constantly tweeting articles, reviews of books and journals, and even musings about their classroom and conference experiences.  I love following conversations when they blossom, particularly as people reply to a tweet that moves them.  Twitter is a great space to witness the thinking processes of individuals (if they Tweet frequent enough), as well as the many different interests we can have as an intellectual collective.  I also follow all of the major local, national, and international news sources on Twitter, and feel like I can access different kinds of information all in one forum.  Some would argue Facebook serves the same function, but the brevity of the Tweet makes this information seem more variable.


  1. Tweeting one conference theme while following another… in the same weekend!

This was something that happened to me while I was attending the Agricultural History Society Conference.  The conference was over the same weekend as the Three Societies meeting (HSS, BSHS, CSHPS), the Society for the History of Technology meeting (SHOT), and the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS) – but I could get a glimpse into the material of each meeting following their respective hashtags.  It was actually quite a wonderful forum, and with applications like Hootsuite you can follow multiple hashtags at a time (meaning, I could follow tweets from all four of the meetings at the same time).  This only works if fellow attendees tweet what they’re experiencing, which is why I advocate for more academic tweeters to allow for larger information sharing.  Conferences also often have more than one panel happening at the same time, but through Twitter I could often catch tweets from a fellow tweeter in a panel I could not attend and still get a sense of the important content relayed at the meeting.

  1. Live tweet forums

I love live tweet forums, and this is something I don’t see many academics doing just yet.  I have to give a hand to the farmers, scholars, and interested consumers who participate in #AgChat every Tuesday night on Twitter, as they introduced me to the wonders of the live tweet forum.  Every Tuesday at 8pm, those interested in the topic can follow the #AgChat hashtag and participate by answering a series of questions from the assigned moderator that week.  Some really great conversations can come from these spaces.  The idea of dozens of individuals talking to one another from cyberspace across the country at one time on a public forum is really amazing to me – and a great space for people to advocate (or “agvocate,” as this forum so boasts) publically for the subjects they are passionate about.  I think this space is one where academics can think more about the applicability of their research.  The live tweet forum could pose as an opportunity for an academic to invite representatives from the companies, institutions, or public bases their research actively addresses or affects.  It occupies a space somewhere in-between cyber-ethnographic venture and town hall meeting, which can be very engaging and helpful for those involved.  It takes time and a good rapport to successfully develop these spaces, but they are already happening!  We just need to take the time to participate within them.



Are you a big tweeter?  Do you have ideas for forums or hashtags that could start new public conversations – bringing in new participants (academic and otherwise)?  For example, I’m hoping to try and incorporate tweeting into my classroom discussions with undergraduates.  Or, do you use Twitter for different reasons (#GameofThrones won’t be relevant again until next season…)?  Comment below!


Some other websites/resources on Twitter in academia:



Reflections from Amish 2016

Part of my research includes the collection of different perspectives of nutritional health and welfare from different kinds of people.  Though I work primarily with “modern” American farmers and veterinarians, I’m always interested in what different cultural groups have to say about human and animal health.  When I was completing my Master’s degree, for example, I focused more pointedly on the Amish community.  My research on animal health companies that work with the Amish largely inspired the kind of cultural/historical work I do today, and I continue to participate in events involving the community and its farmers.

amish conference

Brochure of conference, Elizabethtown College 2016.

From June 9th through the 11th I participated in Elizabethtown College’s International Amish Conference.  This year’s theme was “Continuity and Change: 50 Years of Amish Society,” based in part on the timeline of John Hostetler’s renowned book Amish Society (1963).   What is the benefit of taking part in such a specialized conference?  I think Steven Nolt’s opening plenary helped contextualize the significance of the Amish and our current interests in studying them.  The group at the publication of Amish Society, for example, was thought to be a dying culture.  Reviewers of Hostetler’s book noted how he was documenting the traces of a disappearing community.  This was because in 1963, Nolt noted, there were a documented 21,000 members of the Amish community in North America.  Things changed, though.  By 1993, 135,000 members were documented.  Today, there are an estimated 308,000 Amish members on the continent.

amish society

Amish Society (4th edition), 1993.

The Amish have been growing, and so has general and scholarly interest in them. Their growing visibility is somewhat to blame, partially from scholars like Hostetler and partially (more significantly, Nolt would argue) from popular media representations of them.  The 1985 crime thriller Witness is constantly cited as a particular point of departure (albeit, inaccurate in many parts) when Amish life was played out for the public.  Nolt cited other examples including other films and reality TV.  He did miss the important intervention made by Orange is the New Black with its third season flashback of Leanne, which touched on the consequences of adolescent experimentation held in some of these communities.   Regardless of this missed opportunity, his speech emphasized that the general public knows about and is fascinated with the Amish – and often we find ourselves pressing our outsider desires, ideals, and misconceptions onto the community.  Amish romance novels with innocent storylines and environmentalists taking up Amish farmers as poster children for environmental sustainability are just two ways this is illustrated.  As Donald Kraybill would note in his concluding plenary, we hold up a cultural mirror to ourselves and think about our own society’s changes when we think about and study the Amish.

Leanne orange is the new black

Screenshot from Orange is the New Black, Leanne Taylor flashback.  I was happy to see at the conference that there was a panel on Amish and the State, with one presenter who looked into underage drinking violations during Rumspringa.  It would have been nice to see more engagement with this popular take on the community in this panel or others.

There were some incredibly helpful *academic* ideas expressed throughout this conference (which I write about below), but for some (including myself to a degree) this was not enough.  I think the level of engagement and reflexivity needed in working with the Amish community could be improved, as it continues to be improved more generally in anthropological, sociological, and historical fields.  For example, I was surprised to hear when I asked if Amish scholars were implicated in any of the changes we are seeing in the community today (particularly the instability of categories and nuance between churches), that most scholars did not have an answer.

I was later approached by an Amish convert who assured me that scholars probably don’t make great changes, but I still wonder what consequences may be held in living with, researching, writing about, and promoting studies about Amish life.  I think these questions are often avoided because there is a sense of fragility that comes with working with and representing a community so dedicated to being separated from our larger world.  This is understandable and comparable to experiences held by academics who work with other culturally specific groups.  But I want to challenge this notion of fragility a bit, as it is perhaps only reflected within our own perceptions of this kind of lifestyle.  Who has the self-control nowadays to limit technology use, to be satisfied with community-based (usually only up to 8th grade) education, and to be fully devoted to a religion largely criticized socially and politically for its exclusionary history?  I feel many scholars look to Amish communities with a sense that this space *can’t* be stable, forgetting that many members struggle daily with the *same* physical, economic, and philosophical challenges as us, but with perseverance that now boasts over 300,000 strong.  Their support system is different, and perhaps we are envious of this system in a world where definitions, categories, and identities have become more ambiguous, multi-faceted, and unstable.  Nolt proposed this of the non-academic media-driven world around us, but it certainly extends to those of us dedicated to studying and documenting different histories, cultures, and communities.

**Note the comments by @easyEZ at the end of this LancasterOnline article.

Considering what academics might gain from Amish studies, I think Nolt, Kraybill, and others at the conference provided some really wonderful frames to think about many different academic topics that transcend Amish life and society.  I wanted to share some of my notes that might be useful for other readers and scholars.

  1. Satire is a “hypermodern” narrative. Nolt repeated this phrase a few times in his plenary.  He was interested in driving home examples of satire from talk show hosts like David Letterman who have poked fun at the Amish (or ourselves through the Amish) in the past.  What is wonderful about satire, Nolt expressed, is that it isn’t confined to one point of view.  Multiple points of view are revealed in a satirical narrative – and this is what makes it uniquely a device of our “hypermodern” age.  We are not confined to categories or even a singular perspective in how we express our feelings – we talk about, engage with, and essentially *are* many things at once.  This is what makes our contemporary age exciting and unstable, perhaps reflecting some of the longing we have for the seemingly more stable Amish community.  In actuality, the Amish are also experiencing similar in-betweens and multi-identities as we are; the anxiety is just expressed in different ways.


  1. Christianity may be too anthropocentric for environmentalism. This came up in an Environmental Stewardship seminar, which in ways challenged this notion that Amish farming “stewardship” is comparable to the goals held by environmental activists. Though the focus was on Christianity, and more specifically the Genesis narrative getting in the way of farmers caring more about non-human welfare, I thought this was an important frame of departure for those in environmental studies.  There are multiple ways of seeing the world that are human-centric, but the big question today seems to be, “how do we get past this?” However, *do* we need to get past human-centric notions to engage in meaningful behaviors that consider our non-human counterparts, including the climate we are altering?  In ways, Marilyn Loveless and David McConnell, who headed the seminar, implied that anthropocentrism isn’t the worst relationship one can have with nature.  The Amish community has a significantly smaller carbon footprint when compared to other groups, and this is in part due to their devotion to the Christian Bible.  The discussion left entangled notions of Christianity, environmentalism, and stewardship up in the air.  What “environmentalism” as a term triggered for Amish members, however (including liberal/immoral stances), should not be ignored.  Can’t wait for their book, which will cover these discussions in more depth!
faith in nature

The seminar reminded me of some of the arguments held in Dunlap’s Faith in Nature (2005) book.  Environmentalism has also borrowed a bit of language from Christianity in its history. How do we grapple with this?  Where do the Amish fit in this narrative?

  1. Externalizing v. internalizing rules is contested, informal “testing” of cultural structures is often more meaningful for individuals. In the technology panel of the conference, rules for adopting and using computers, the internet, and cellphones were investigated with the philosophy of technology in mind. I was happy to hear Gerald Mast cite McLuhan in his paper on internet-use between Amish orders (New v. Old Order).  For his paper and the others in his panel, understandings of technological control and extension (from body, mind, etc.) ran rampant through Amish debates about the use of these devices.  What all the panelists concluded was that testing was an important component of technological adoption, whether on part of individuals testing the Ordnung and its limits, or testing the tech itself and the dangers it could pose to the community.  I thought this finding showed an incredible, empirical nature to human decision-making and community building – the fact that “testing” was a meaningful process regardless of proximity to scientific practice (the Amish prefer “natural study” over “science” given its similar political underpinnings to “environmentalism”).  Testing was also shown to be an important internalized, informal process.  Formal notions of rule-making like written down rules or copies made of written down rules proved less meaningful to individuals when taking connections between technology and society seriously.  This is definitely something I want to keep in mind as I move forward as an educator.  Sometimes the informal spaces of learning are the ones where the most meaningful connections are made.




Where’s the beef? (or, where have the food blogs gone?)

One-woman blogs are difficult to maintain.  I started this blog primarily to share some fun ideas about food and farming and as an outlet to work on my writing.  If you are a follower and have been wondering where the heck I’ve been, I’ve found different writing outlets and different spaces to share work since April.  Apologies to my WordPress!

What are these spaces?  Well, one of them has been with the Penn Program for the Environmental Humanities (PPEH) – a really wonderful scholarly collective that acts as an outlet for building public awareness about environmental topics.  I believe I’ve mentioned in former blogs that the concept of the “environment” is tricky, as most seemingly concrete words are.  But this group does an amazing job organizing conferences, lectures, and workshops as spaces for thinking about the stakes of this term as we encounter real problems that will affect our biological futures (namely things like climate change, pollution, and water source management).  I was invited to contribute two blog posts to their Fellows Blog series titled, “Agriculture, Sustainability, and the Environment: Are We Doing It Right?,” organized by PPEH Fellow Fatima Zahra.  I’m all for blog sharing and sending traffic to different websites, so here are the links and some short abstracts about my write-ups:

NatGeo cow burps

My favorite image from the “Companion Species” blog post.  Source: National Geographic, 2015.


In this post I focus on Haraway’s term “companion species” as I dive into some technoscientific solutions the food animal industry has been working on to reduce methane gas emissions.  Microbe-management makes an appearance!


Food System map from Nourish Life, 2015.  I could talk about this map, what is there and what is missing from it for days!


This essay was a follow-up to the former, thinking more about emissions and how our larger food systems (not just food animals) affect the environment.  I try to distill parts of the larger system and demonstrate that there are many different ways what we eat can affect the environment.  Local food movements and the socio-cultural stakes of small/large, slow/fast food production and processing are questioned in this overview. 

It is a lot of fun contributing to other sites and for colleagues interested in the same subjects.  The blog as a whole is fantastic, and I highly recommend following it, as well as the Twitter and Facebook of the program!  I was also invited to speak at Philly Nerd Nite about microbes and food, and gave a quick, general presentation on the topic based on one of my prior blog posts.  I got a lot of questions about cheese, as expected, but overall Michael Pollan spoiled my “big reveal.”  His Cooked series is just exploding on Netflix (in a really good way).

blog dthin

cooked show

I recommend Cooked for some interesting tid-bits about food systems and food ideologies.  A word of caution, nostalgia is pretty heavy in most of the episodes which only leads to more questions about the future of our food systems.

In addition to writing and talking in other public spaces, I’ve also been busy preparing conference presentations for the summer and applying for summer research funding.  I’m finalizing these works, which gives me more time to reflect upon them in this blog forum.  So, expect some more regular posts over the summer!  I recently received the GAPSA-Provost Fellowship for Interdisciplinary Innovation, an award that helps fund work that talks across disciplines.  I’m happy to say my work speaks across quite a few academic spaces, including veterinary medicine, agricultural sciences, history, anthropology, art history, and even business/economics.  Some of my research/travels will make up future posts in the coming months, and I will write primarily about what it is like to do interdisciplinary research and the challenges I may (psh, will!) encounter in my ethnographic and archival work.  So for those of you still in the dark about what I do and why it matters, I hope these future entries will prove to be enlightening.  Stay tuned!

Writing about Gigi

Producing an animal history is a tricky endeavor.  It is sometimes very difficult to find animals in historical archives – and if they are there they are often left anonymous and passive.  Animals only make the archive when they are written about by humans, and as someone interested in producing a history of animals I often find myself in a difficult narrative trap.  I end up talking more about people talking about animals rather than about the animals themselves.


Often when I find animals in the archive, their achievements belong to someone or something else.  In the case of Frosty, she represented the first successful birth in the U.S. of a calf conceived from frozen spermatozoa.  The credit belonged to the American Breeders Service (ABS).  Photo credit: American Philosophical Society, ABS Folder, 1954.

Can anyone ever write a history about someone (human, animal, or otherwise) that is not under the mediation of someone else?  This is largely a methodological problem, but also a problem of what constitutes knowledge-production – what constitutes a “legitimate” written record, and whose voice is considered “valid” in the understanding of one subject or another.  For example, we can learn a great deal about certain time periods and certain groups of people by looking at written representations in public media.  Articles from a newspaper can be considered factual reports or idealized lenses, and I’m left navigating these two spaces when I read reports about animals who make the news.  These animals are usually ones that are considered exceptional enough to make human newspapers; they are usually given names and written about as if they were humans.  Perhaps we could call them “honorary humans” in how they are represented in these mass media spaces.

For the sake of this think-piece, and to give you a sense of this struggle I feel as I try and write about animals seriously, I want to share some writing I’ve been working through about Gigi.  You may be asking, who is Gigi?  Or, perhaps you are wondering if we should be calling Gigi a “who” at all?  Well, Gigi has certainly gained her “who” status in these last few months, and she will be remembered as the world’s highest milk producing cow (as of this year).  But what I know about Gigi is largely from what her owners and other sources have written about her.  Giving Gigi her agency is extremely difficult to do, but necessary when thinking about how this cow has recently “shaken-up” discussions about the American dairy industry, particularly discussions of animal welfare.  Here’s my go at it:


A professional photograph of Bur-Wall Buckeye Gigi.  Photo credit: Harvest Public Media, 2016.

Gigi’s full name is Bur-Wall Buckeye Gigi.  She resides in Brooklyn, Wisconsin and is a part of the Bur-Wall Holsteins farm – where she contributes her many gallons of milk.  As of this January, Gigi is logged to have produced 74,650 pounds of milk in one year, equating to about 24 gallons of milk a day.  This would sound like Gigi works really hard for a cow of her age (nine years old), but really Gigi is the queen of her homestead.  She is given her own box stall among her fellow bovines in a 60-cow tie stall barn.  Gigi has also been groomed and trained to take part in fairs and cattle shows since she was a young calf.  Her owners, Bob and Denise Behnke, note that compared to other cows Gigi has a distinctive personality.  Not only is Gigi “sassy” and a “diva,” but she is also “smart and driven.”  In addition to her accolades in the show ring, she has been awarded “escape artist” status at Bur-Wall – finding ways to unlatch the gate to her box stall, often in search of more food.  Her insatiable appetite has certainly contributed to her world record producer status, and she is known to eat everything put in front of her: from dense grasses to grain.

Gigi is a big, beautiful, black Holstein who was classified as an EX-94 cow.  This score was awarded using a national grading system, and is calculated by an outside “classifier” who visits pedigreed farms like Bur-Wall.  To give you a sense of how remarkable this score is, the highest score that have been achieved by a Holstein cow is EX-97 (around 30 American cows in history have achieved this score).   Hoard’s Dairyman, a magazine that promotes the grading and classifying of animals – particularly with its yearly judging contest, used Gigi as an exemplar to describe the connection between type-cows and milk production.  Their argument was that overall type (thinking about these scores, cattle showing, and pedigreed animals) correlates with extreme milk production – an encouragement for farmers dedicated to show culture and type-breeding animals to continue what they are doing.

In contrast, NPR published an article on Gigi to address animal welfare concerns.   Luke Runyon, who also wrote a very positive exposé on Gigi for Harvest Public Media, noted the concerns of the famous Temple Grandin alongside those of Doug Ford, a veterinarian from Colorado.  While Grandin is incredibly critical of type-cow breeding according to the article, noting that larger cows are milk producers for shorter spans of time and risk injury in ways smaller cows do not, Ford emphasizes that exceptional milk producers like Gigi only exist through exceptional care on the part of their human owners.  It is unclear on which side Runyon stands on the issue given its neutral stance, but for him to provide equal attention to both sides proved controversial in the comments section.  There, an entirely different conversation on welfare emerged: a questioning of Gigi’s “natural” status with suggestions that her world record holding status was achieved through bovine growth hormone.  The comments even accuse NPR of being “pro-Monsanto” in their article, though this is untrue outright given the drug’s current ownership by Eli Lily.

gigi 2

Gigi held by her owner, Bob Behnke, in a 2013 spread about Bur-Wall Holsteins.  Photo credit: Holstein Association USA.

While farmers read Hoard’s with delight and consumers read NPR’s news site with concern, Gigi is probably laying in her box stall, chewing her cud while periodically licking at her nostrils.  She will enjoy the nuzzle of Bob Behnke’s hand as he passes her stall with the feed wagon.  Clean sawdust, regular baths and brushings, air tunnel ventilation in the summer, and heaters in the winter are in Gigi’s future as she (perhaps) dries up after a job well done.  It is unlikely Gigi was able to accomplish all she has with growth hormones, particularly with her pedigree and slow and steady climb up the production charts.  These are signs of a very “natural” milk production record.   But Gigi’s world record breaking status certainly disrupts the very notions of “natural” and “right” within the dairy industry – with visions of mechanization and enhancement dancing in readers’ heads.  Runyon even uses mechanized language to describe Gigi’s efforts: she was “built” to produce.

The reality is Gigi is a cow.  She moos, she eats, she sleeps, and she makes trouble from time to time escaping from her pen.  She makes a lot of milk, and this is partially due to genetics, part due to feed management, and part overall care over time.  Gigi is not an animal that has been “built” or even “engineered” to make the milk she does, but saying she has been reflects much about the time we live in today.

Vegan Dogs

Dogs have been the ultimate animal companion to humans for thousands of years.  Dogs are said to be the first animal domesticated by humans, well before cows, goats, or sheep.  Anthropologists argue that dogs were used by early hunter-gatherers, with the divergence of “dogs” from “wolves” thought to occur sometime around 35,000 years ago.  The divergence is said not to be entirely from the hand of humans, but interactions between humans and a dog-like species could very well have happened at this time.  This is certainly the difficulty with modern science – though genome sequencing can say one thing, it is really up to the interpretation of scientists as to what actually happened in the past.

Regardless if humans and dogs started out as friends or foes this far back in history, dogs have certainly maintained their presence as a companion species into the present day.  But our current relationship with dogs is very different from years past.  Dogs in the United States today are rarely kept primarily for hunting or herding purposes anymore.  They have become part of the human family.  Today dogs often live indoors, have their own dog birthdays, and even their own dog marriages.

dog wedding broad city

Who can forget the elaborate dog wedding featured in the second season of Broad City?  The reception even included species-specific food options.  Photo credit: Comedy Central, 2015.

The evolution of this relationship has been written about by many scholars – and I’ve always been personally fascinated by our strong connections to dogs.  There are interesting historical moments between humans and dogs that do not exist with other animals.  Dogs were given certain rights before many humans, for example, in legal arenas focused on criminalizing abuse.  In 1874, the first court case filed in the U.S. to approach a situation of child abuse had to go through the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York, with the organization formed eight years earlier.  Dogs have been dubbed war heroes.  Specially trained dogs are given rights to access many different public spaces, and K9 dogs can even receive the same social and legal treatment as humans with the same occupation.   As a result, care for dogs has become increasingly specialized.  And feeding dogs today has not only become a nutritional concern of veterinary medicine.  For some feeding is a political act in itself.  Such expressions between dogs and humans through the acts of feeding and eating have created new possibilities for dog identities – and I don’t mean breeds!  I’m talking about vegan and vegetarian dogs.

Kiwanis Vegan dog

Vegan dog photo from PETA webpage.  Photo credit: PETA, 2013.

Our long, intimate relationship with dogs (as I’ve noted above) makes a phenomenon like dog veganism less surprising.  But just because dogs can be vegan, does this mean they should be?  You may be surprised, but the answers to this question are very similar to those generated if you would replace “dogs” with “humans.”  But in addition to the obvious political expressions through pets, the purpose of this post is to point out that there are some biological realities at work in this movement.


Chewy, short for “Chewbacca.”  He even has his own Instagram page.

I’m going to use my own dog-companion as an example here.  Meet Chewy.  Chewy is not a vegan dog, and I don’t think he ever could be if we tried.   Chewy is a grain-free dog.  This was a dietary decision my husband and I did not choose ,and it is certainly not a call for political action on our part when we feed Chewy his grain-free food.  Chewy is actually allergic to grain, or at the very least the binding agents added to the mix for many grain-based foods.  We’re familiar with the physical results of an accidental grain-fed mishap.  His ears and belly become bright red.  He gets excessively itchy, and if it is really bad Chewy whines with discomfort.  How is it that Chewy became allergic to grain?  I liken it to allergies expressed in humans – it is really hit or miss with the reasoning behind the biological expression.  Chewy was a rescue, and there very well could be hereditary reasons why he has bad reactions to grain.  But as with many humans with allergies, we can never know for sure.

Some overly-expressive dog moms have told me that grain-based dog food is less “natural” for dogs.  I am often rewarded with the informal “dog-mom seal of approval” because of my dog food investments.  The same “natural” argument is often used to dismiss the vegan dog diet as well, with many of these same human-companions noting that dogs are more “carnivorous” than anything else.  But humans have been feedings dogs a number of different things over their centuries of interactions.  Barley meal mixed with whey was said to have been the ideal meal for a dog in the Roman Empire.  Cooked beans were also recommended during this time period and centuries later by agriculturalists and later veterinarians.  In The Complete Farrier, an 1816 guidebook written by British veterinary surgeon Richard Lawrence, it was warned numerous times not to feed dogs raw meat.  Rather, meat was to be cooked, placed in a broth and poured over bread crumbs or biscuits for dogs.  It was also recommended that dogs only eat once per day as “he digests his food very slowly,” particularly when eating anything meat-based (429).  These are certainly different diets from those shared with dogs in the 21st century, but does this mean their more “natural”?  More “healthy”?  Or even less healthy with our pups?


Considering this long and varied history of feeding dogs that spans at least 1500 years, the idea of a “natural” dog food is hard to distill.  Perhaps a dog paleo diet would be sufficient for some dog parents as the “most natural” diet for their pets, but it comes with the exact same reasoning as to why paleo would be more “natural” for humans.  Because dogs evolved with humans, they are able to eat similar foods to humans; or at the very least adapt with them.  And this is what makes vegan dogs that much more interesting.  Looking into veganism for dogs a bit more, it is admitted by all veterinarians that dogs are able to survive off a vegan-friendly diet.  Now, there is still a lot of debate as to whether “surviving” and “thriving” is the same thing when it comes to feeding dogs with such a specialty diet.  But if I were to define Chewy’s diet using the terms and expectations laid out from the Roman Empire – he may not be considered “thriving” either.  And my husband and I wouldn’t consider a grain diet in any form “thriving” for Chewy, given his adverse physical reactions to it.

Many dog parents are finding the “vegan solution” after realizing similar allergic reactions in their dogs to certain kinds of dairy and meat.  In 2011, CNN coverage of vegan dogs rested on the story of a woman discovering the vegan option when her veterinarian recommended it to pinpoint a specific allergy in her pet.  So did dogs develop allergies in the same way humans have through our constant interaction?  Perhaps, but both the biological reactions seen in dogs and increased importance politically in dietary decision-making for humans has certainly affected the dog food market.  There are at least seven vegan dog food brands available in the United States, and I don’t think allergies were the only consumer push for this reality.


Acana dog food – Grasslands variety.  A bag with baggage – not vegan but grain-free.  Photo credit: Acana Company, 2016.

The politics of eating (or in this case feeding) resonates with me more powerfully, though, every time I buy Chewy’s food.  Most of the grain-free options we find in the pet store come with other kinds of political baggage listed on the label: it is also GMO-free, cage-free, free range and “biologically appropriate.”  Dog food labels are just as politicized (and confusing) as human food labels.  I can’t help but wonder if fellow dog moms assume I possess a certain food politic when buying my Acana brand food, or if they recognize the biological limitations of my pet that prohibit me from buying a cheaper but still valid dog food.  For some dog parents, the biological reactions and political action may certainly go hand-in-hand.  But they don’t for me.  And I don’t feel Chewy needs to reflect my personal political, economic, religious, or social beliefs for me.  But for many people their dog has become so much part of their family that it is ideal if their dogs match their political efforts, if not required.  This is not a phenomenon to attack, but one that needs more attention, more study.  It is yet another example of the disruptions made between natural and cultural divides, and while it includes its fair share of anthropomorphism it is complicated with the biological realities of shared “becomings” – a result of our evolution with other animals.

**Featured image is from the V-Dog website, a vegan dog food company.  The company advertises that their food considers not only the health of dogs, but the health of the planet – with a mission to “minimize global depletion.”


Lawrence, Richard. The Complete Farrier, and British Sportsman, 1816.
The Wikipedia page on dog food is also a good introductory source for the general history of dog food:

Applying human rights to food animal bodies: A problem of perspective?

A few weeks ago, I received this Facebook message from a good friend of mine:

“I saw a video about dairy industries, I knew [about] most things, but they are horrible… I sent it to you just if you want to talk about some of them some time… you are the person who know[s] more about dairy that I know and I am [in] shock.”

She provided a video link with the message.  I watched it.  And then I watched it again – to make sure I heard the narrator correctly in her facts and reasoning.  My second viewing confirmed my fears: Yet another aggressive, hateful, fact-flexible, anti-dairy video.  It wasn’t the first I had seen, and it wouldn’t be the last.  But this one was gaining momentum across the web and having real social consequences for less knowledgeable consumers and overly sensitive farmers viewing it.  With my personal investments in dairy cows and the farmers who care for them, I couldn’t stand by idly.

If you haven’t watched the video here is my trigger warning: it is incredibly graphic and shocking.  It is meant to produce an intense visceral reaction.  The flashing images of cows being inseminated, pushed by skid loaders, and suffering various ailments (including cancer and mastitis) are disturbing without context.  Some images are just incorrectly attributed, particularly an image of cattle with iodine on their teats to describe “blood” in milk.  The narrator places all of these images, both legitimate and incorrect, within a discourse of violence and abuse.  She is able to do this successfully by making the viewer relate to the images on a more personal level – using vocabulary like “mother and baby,” “mothers’ crying,” “sexual exploitation,” and “emotionally exhausted.”


Of course the video wouldn’t show a cow enjoying a robotic brushing… right?  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

This strategy of placing human emotions, desires, and behaviors on food animals is incredibly compelling.  It has been used in many movements to protect animals, and has encouraged many individuals around the world today to change their nutritional habits.  More and more people are refraining from eating meat and dairy products in response to these strategies, and this is appropriate up to a certain point.  But the ethics behind this strategy of placing human attributes onto other animals is overall murky.  It also raises some important philosophical questions.  Should animals be evaluated on human terms?  What happens when animals are granted the same attention as humans?  How does this affect human food practices, and what does it mean for the animals raised for these purposes?

These questions are by far some of the most difficult for scholars in food and science studies to tackle.  Anthropomorphism (this placing of human attributes onto non-humans) is something that has existed since the dawn of human consciousness.  Scholars have attributed the strategy to hubris, a rationale to account for certain behaviors, religion, and overall as a way for humans to conceptualize the world around them in ways that are relatable.  I actually first encountered the term in a Greek Mythology class, where it was explained that Greek gods were conceptualized as having human qualities because it made unexplainable events (in nature or otherwise) more legible.  It made more sense for lightening to be a human decision rather than to be a distant, random, alien force of nature.


Mickey is just one of many examples of anthropomorphism applied to animals – a mouse that sings, dances, and has a girlfriend.  During my fieldwork, I encountered many farmers blaming the popularization of Disney for the unrealistic expectations consumers place on farmers today.  Photo credit: Google Images.

What makes anthropomorphism murky is that the social consequences of applying human qualities to non-human entities have varied throughout history.  Religion could be considered one consequence, and certain politics another.  But what we are seeing with this anti-dairy industry video is something quite new in human history – both technologically and socially speaking.  It is a critique and condemnation of a practice that has become isolated to most people living in the world today – a moment in time that has been dubbed “post-domestic” by historian Richard Bulliet (2007).  Animal husbandry, in this context, is seen not only as antiquated but as an abomination of animal rights.  Following the life of this video in YouTube comments and blog posts since its upload in December illustrates this vividly.  One blogger responds to a “debunker” from Canada:

“In what hellscape do we live in that is perfect fine with messing around and exploiting sexual organs because it isn’t seen as ‘an act of love?’ I personally felt a sickness to my core while reading this, as it’s an argument that thrives on a culture that has normalized sexual abuse in not just nonhumans, but human women as well.”

The blogger was responding to how the debunker farmer described the technological use of artificial insemination practices in cattle.  A commenter on this blog agreed, writing “humans are not special” and that “farmers are just cows’ pimps.”


Bulliet’s book looks into the history of animal-human relationships and how it has changed our perceptions of food.  Photo credit:

There’s obviously some room for critique about sexual abuse in our culture, but I hesitate to think that dairy cows and the dairy industry should be the analytic used to launch this discussion.  It places humans and other animals on an unrealistically even field for conversations about morals and ideals in care – ideals that are culturally contingent, human contingent.  This is a field where discussions can become dangerously distorted –  to the point where some farmers have been told by animal rights activists that farmer suicide is not a “problem,” but rather a “justice” for their “helpless creatures.”

There is a difference between denying an animal of its rights as a living creature on Earth and respecting an animal for whom/what it is.  I have seen much more of the latter in my interactions with farmers.  Farmers sweat, cry, and bleed for the health and welfare of their animals.  Healthy, cared-for animals are seen as more beneficial for farmers relying on them for their own health and prosperity, which happens to be measured in dollars nowadays.  The very definition of domestication hinges on the mutual benefit relationship shared by human and other animal – a “cooperation” that is fostered between these two organisms.  But “cooperation” does not imply “equal,” and you wouldn’t expect this if you were defining cooperation between an employer and employee, or even among family members, or more abstractly nation-states.  I thus share in a critique many farmers have in placing human and animal rights together on an incredibly flat and equal playing field: this frame does not account for the differences.  It does not account for biological difference.  It does not account for the cultural history of these differences.  And it does not account for the everyday, lived experience of these differences.  The post-domestic sphere has allowed some humans to abstract difference because they no longer regularly interact with food animals.

I want to be clear before I continue with this discussion.  I am well aware that historically some humans have justified the denial of rights to others through discourses of difference.  Sex, skin color, geographic location, and cultural practice have been used time and time again to justify inequality and violence.  This has never been right.  This history is far from fair.   And the human-animal divide has been muddy philosophically, psychologically, biologically… overall scientifically for centuries (and I have a colleague grappling with this material for her own project!)  This science has been used in the past to justify social inequality.  But I am not talking about the interactions humans have had with other humans for this post.  I’m talking about other animals we have been working with and eating for thousands of years – animals that are undeniably different; animals that rely on our care for survival.

Now biologically, we are all animals.  But seriously, how often do we interact with other animals – specifically food animals?  How often have you – sitting at your electronic device reading this post – touched, smelled, stood next to a 1500 pound bovine?   A 15 hands tall horse? A 200 pound pig?  A dozen chickens?  Have you ever cared for one of these animals?  Helped move one?  Feed one?   If you did these things every day, would your perception of these animals change?  These are some of the realistic questions that need to be asked before evaluating a situation that involves such animals, and before identifying the behavior of the humans involved with them as “abusive.”

If you have been reading my posts you may be asking yourself: but Nicole, weren’t you just writing about how impossible it can be to separate conceptual categories like “human” and “non-human.”  What gives?  This is when I urge us to return to the consequences of this discourse.

Blurring the divide between human and non-human (as a thought experiment, as a philosophical endeavor, as an ethic) in one context can be extremely important – especially when people are describing instances when humans seemingly have no impact on nature.  The consequences of this divide in this circumstance are detrimental.  The inability to place human action and environmental change in conversation with one another has arguably been the root cause of pollution, climate change, and, yes, even animal abuse.  But the problem with this video and others like it is that abuse is signified using human assumptions, and not just any assumptions: assumptions of consumers who have little interaction with the farmers or animals being addressed.  This is when the situations at hand need to be nuanced through the understanding that some animals are indeed different from other animals – and these differences emerge through different evolutionary histories, different geographic locations, different ecological circumstances, and different social interactions with humans.  Videos like “Dairy is Scary” do not help contextualize problems of animal abuse; they mobilize hatred for other humans through visual distortion and essentialist language.

For example, instead of condemning artificial insemination it would have been more helpful for the narrator to ask why cows are artificially inseminated.  The history may have surprised them – since AI was developed not only as a safer method in breeding cattle for humans (rather than moving a large bull from one pen to another), but also for the cow (who could potentially be harmed in the interaction).  There would have still been space in such a question to critique the size of dairy operations or even the diversity of dairy cow gene pools.  There would have been room to call attention to issues of animal health, and perhaps even American consumer culture.  But calling agricultural interventions like AI “bestiality” ends the conversation abruptly.  It launches a shouting match rather than a productive discussion.  And no one can benefit from this kind of criticism – let alone the animals themselves.

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From an American Breeders Service (ABS) Newsletter, 1954.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2015.

There are some images in this video that are obviously images of abuse – but condemning an entire group of hard-working people for the actions of a few also does not solve problems.  It creates distrust.  Distrust is the last thing we need between food producers and their consumers in a world where the majority of humans have no idea how to grow and store vegetables, rear and care for animals, or organize and manage a farming operation.   If we do not find new ways to talk across agendas, we can say good bye to any iteration of a pastoral ideal, and hello to more of these “post-domestic” nightmares.

**Elsie The Cow comics were developed by Borden Dairy Products in the 1940s – the comic featured in this post was published in 1949.  Photo credit:


Budiansky, Stephen. The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Choose Domestication. 1st edition. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1992.
Bulliet, Richard. Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships. New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Candlemas and Furry Weathermen

For those still hiding in an underground burrow after the “big snow” last week, you may not have known that yesterday was Groundhog Day.  Every February 2nd, Punxsutawney Phil (the Pennsylvania groundhog) emerges from his den and his Inner Circle of humans interpret his weather prediction for the weeks to come.  Phil can either announce we will have “six more weeks of winter” (which is marked by him seeing his shadow) or an “early Spring” (no shadow seen).   This year he granted us an early Spring.


Screen shot from Sony Picture’s Groundhog Day, featuring Bill Murray, 1993.   Murray’s character also found the tradition bizarre, at least before he relived the day over a thousand times…

For 21st century America, the tradition of Groundhog Day may seem out of place.  Not only does a furry weatherman seem more satirical than serious in nature, but the significance behind the prediction seems lost in translation.  Today, an early Spring means, for the most part, the prospect for better weather: perhaps celebrating the idea that we might not have to trudge in the snow much longer.  But this prediction means something entirely different for a farmer.

Groundhog Day correlates with Candlemas, which correlates with the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.  There are many speculations as to how this development from a Catholic holiday to a silly Pennsylvania folk tradition played out through history.  The Presentation of Jesus event for Catholics was a time when candles were blessed for use over the rest of the year, granting the holiday’s alternative name: Candlemas (Candle Mass).  The correlation between Candlemas and Groundhog Day is said to originate from a German pagan tradition – when bears (some sources say hedgehogs, others say badgers) and their behavior were considered signs for future weather conditions.  The important reference point that applies to all of the holidays is that they sit forty days after Christmas – a significant point in time for many parts of Europe and the United States that marks seasonal change.

farm implement

Farm Implement News, Chicago, 1893.  Photo Credit: Google Books.

The uselessness of Christmas as a “weather mark” was teased about in some nineteenth century writings.  In one 1893 article in the Chicago Farm Implement News titled “Ground-Hog Day is a Fraud,” the writer provided an old Scottish rhyme to describe the significance of Groundhog Day and its correlation to Candlemas Day:

“If Candlemas day be dry and fair,

The half o’ winter’s to come and mair.

If Candlemas day be wet and foul,

The half o’ winter was gone at Yule.”

The writer used the poem to point out that Groundhog Day “was a fraud” because Candlemas poems had used similar, specific weather conditions on the day for humans to be able to predict early Springs or late winters.  There was no need to rely on a furry weatherman.  Sunny days marked late winters, while rainy days marked early Springs.  This mapped nicely onto whether Punxsutawney Phil (then, Br’er Groundhog) could “see his shadow or not,” and provide his subsequent predictions.


The pig says, “Don’t get so cheaty, any old hog can see his shadow when the sun shines.” This cartoon also pokes fun at the shadow-prediction lore.  Postcard dated pre-1914.  Photo credit: Antique Shoppe Newspaper, 2006.

The meaning of Candlemas and Groundhog Day seemed to get confusing for other Americans in the nineteenth century – particularly within this decade after it was made an official holiday in 1887.  In a newspaper clipping from Michigan in 1894, for example, a writer known by “Kelper” pondered the origins of “Candlemas”:

“As far as my observation goes, it is not a general custom with American farmers to burn superfluous candles on this important anniversary.  They seem to have more cheaply compromised the matter by giving over the duties of its appropriate celebration to the bear and the ground-hog, and no member of either species, if of correct principles and competent education and acquirements, ever fails on the second of February to climb out of his den, sit up, and diligently look about him in search of his shadow.”

Kelper obviously did not read the Chicago Farm Implement News.  But it is interesting to note that farmers were still called out on the tradition of Candlemas in the article.  Kelper prefaced their writing with a “proverbial rhyme” collected from an “old farmer”:

“Half yer wood an’ half yer hay.

Fer to-morrer’s Can’lemas Day.

‘Yes,’ replied the other,

An’ ef there’s a chance for snow er rain,

A plenty o’ meat ‘n grain.”

natural history groundhog day

From Forest and Stream, which was advertised as “the weekly journal of the rod and gun.” New York, 1894.  Photo credit: Google Books.

Candlemas was not just a day for weather predictions, but a specific day for farmers to remember to save some resources that may be needed for a probable winter.  These resources were not just for the farmer himself (the wood most likely for fuel), but for his animals – more specifically his cattle.  The last two lines of the proverb lend themselves to this interpretation.  The possibility of a longer winter is arguably still on many farmers’ minds as we make our way into February.  In this time period, however, cattle were principally pasture-fed, and hay and grain were used as alternative feeds when snow did not allow for grazing.  To anticipate a longer winter on this date and remember to save hay for the animals possibly kept farmers from preemptively selling or over-using their supply.  This made for not only happy cows, ensuring full bellies through the season regardless of the prediction, but also happy farmers with healthier, fatter animals if the winter continued, and more hay and grain on reserve if the early Spring panned out.

But is Groundhog Day really the “fraud” the Farm Implement proposed it to be?  To place the pressure of predicting weather on the shoulders of a groundhog truly has significance to farmers.  Groundhogs were nuisances for nineteenth century farmers, and are still considered nuisances today.  Their holes create problems in preparing land for crops and even in letting cows onto pasture.  I remember my father being animate about filling holes before letting cows out to graze, fearing that one of the girls could trip into a hole and hurt or break her leg.  These were not creatures to be celebrated, and in many ways Groundhog Day isn’t meant to celebrate a chubby rodent.  Shifting the blame on the animal for the misfortunes held in an incorrect weather prediction is definitely appealing if not ideal for the farmer who needs even better reason to hunt mischievous groundhogs.


Farm Implement News, 1893.

Forest and Stream. Forest and Stream Publishing Company, 1894.

Yoder, Don. Groundhog Day. Stackpole Books, 2003.

**Cover image is from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club website,

Defining Natural

Public comment dockets have become an interesting space for policy makers and the public to engage in conversations with one another about various issues in public health.  The ever-developing internet has allowed dockets to take on a life of their own – public comments submitted in almost a blog post format for perusal.   If you haven’t ever checked out the dockets before, I strongly encourage you to take a look at the subjects being opened for public comment.  They include some really important issues – from tobacco legislation to air quality regulation.


On November 12, 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opened a docket to “receive information and comments on the use of the term ‘natural’ in the labeling of human food products, including foods that are genetically engineered or contain ingredients produced through the use of genetic engineering.”   The FDA asking for public opinion on the issue of the “natural” definition is not a new event.  In 1991, the organization proposed trying to define the term in labeling in order to create “consumer consensus” on what the term meant and how it should be regulated for use.  Easier said than done.  The comments were apparently sporadic enough to discourage the FDA from defining this term through rulemaking.  At that moment, the FDA maintained that “natural” would be interpreted as the following: “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.”


The increased development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been enough cause to establish a new docket on the issue.  Three citizen petitions were received by the FDA requesting a hard definition of “natural,” and one petition to eradicate the term from labeling altogether.  The docket (as of the end of the day yesterday) has received 3,336 electronically submitted comments.  You can read the public submissions as they are uploaded online.

food fray

There are many books published on the subject of GMO technology – many with biased slants against it.  Even Food Fray (2008), which is advertised to provide a “middle ground” to the debate, cannot escape the language of conspiracy inherent in narratives about the science.  The cover of the book speaks for itself.  Photo credit:

Many of the comments have broad-sweeping consistencies; largely that “natural” does not apply to food created in laboratories or from unsustainable farming systems (pesticides are largely noted in these comments).  Additionally, it should also be applied to food that is not pasteurized, not artificial, and not “man made in any form.”

The OED defines “natural” as “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.”  This seems like a reasonable definition overall and fits the description of commentators on the docket.   But when this definition is realistically applied to something “caused by humankind” like the larger global food system – it falls apart.  Why is it so hard to define “natural” in these instances?  Can it be done, and should it?

“Natural” is inherently difficult to grasp because “nature” is just as abstract.  Raymond Williams – a scholar who had dedicated much of his work to the meaning of words – noted the challenge of the word “Nature” in his essay, “Ideas of Nature” (1980).  Throughout literary and scientific history, Nature has meant a myriad of things for humans.  According to Williams, Nature described a primitive form of life that existed before human society, and a quality of innocence that existed before the fall in the Garden of Eden.  Nature has also been considered a force – one that simultaneously destroys, creates, preserves, and changes life (72 – 73).  As time went on and in the interest of studying “natural processes” in the wake of scientific inquiry, “Nature” and “Man” as conceptual arenas had to be separated.   Through this separation, man was able to not only observe nature without contestation, but largely control it.  This control seemed inherent to the philosophical definition of “human,” Williams speculated, and it has arguably created the historical social disparities we still see today – arguably byproducts in the history of science.  Sherry Ortner (1972), for example, has written that because women have been historically considered closer to nature in their ability to biologically reproduce, women have been considered less separate from Nature, and thus inferior to men – who are considered more separate from Nature.   Though now considered a simple feminist description, it is important to note that even misogyny was thought to have been solidified through the Nature – Man divide.  We even see similar arguments held in old explanations of racial and class hierarchies.

raymond williams

Photo credit:

But what these scholars and many after them have shown is that defining nature is contingent on an abstract, ever changing definition imposed by a particular group of humans.  The irony of this?  All humans are a product of nature.  Philosophically this has been difficult for us as a species to come to grips with – particularly the flip-side that nature is also a product of humans.  I think Williams wrote it best:

“In this actual world there is then not much point in counterposing or restating the great abstractions of Man and Nature.  We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out.  Except that if we mentally draw back, if we go on with the singular abstractions, we are spared the effort of looking, in any active way, at the whole complex of social and natural relationships which is at once our product and our activity” (83).

Considering that our food systems are products of longstanding engagements between “nature” and “man,” defining “natural” today to label human food products becomes an enormous philosophical endeavor.  This is particularly weighty with the case of GMOs, where genetic modification has reached sophisticated lengths beyond selection and hybrid breeding.  Lines are being drawn by many different types of consumers as to where modification is no longer “natural,” and a newly bounded definition that limits human intervention on food products could have consequences (negative and positive) for the future of food production.


It really depends on how “genetic modification” is defined as well.  Photo credit:

Is it “natural” for Americans to have access to seasonal food all year round?  Are foods grown in greenhouses more or less “natural” than seasonal, non-pasteurized crops?  Is hunting and gathering more “natural” than intensive agriculture, and does this “natural-ness” translate into “healthier”?  These are questions consumers have been asking themselves in regards to the “natural” label, and they are certainly reflected in the comments posted to the FDA docket in question.  But the answers to these questions are also clearly based on generalized assumptions of current food systems, assumptions about food science and research, and romantic notions of what it means to be “existing in or caused by nature.”  Our relationship with nature has changed, and thus both Nature and Humans have changed.  As Williams and others have noted, this needs to be acknowledged, as well as the fact that “nature” and “mankind” are not separate entities and never have been.  This is where the OED definition becomes incredibly flawed, and the possibility for a new definition of “natural” for food product labeling potentially dangerous.  Such separations mute human accountability, assume the stability of human-made categories, and simplify both ecological and social relationships.


Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (1996): 7–28. doi:10.2307/3985059.

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Feminist Studies 1, no. 2 (1972): 5–31. doi:10.2307/3177638.

Ph.D, Lisa H. WEASEL. Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn, 2008.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays. Verso, (1980) 2005.


**Cover image from USDA film strip, published in the article “Stewart’s Wilt of Corn” by J. Pataky (2003) from the American Phytopathological Society.

Farm Show Features Families: Both human and animal

Livestock shows have provided an opportunity for farmers to come together and appreciate their shared knowledge of animals since the 18th century.  Though arguably initially organized to promote ideals held about animals by the aristocracy, particularly in England, by the end of the 19th century shows were spaces where ordinary farmers could trade information about animal rearing and celebrate the best breeders of their time (see Ritvo 1987).


fans witnessed the importance of Lady Mary’s aristocratic participation at the “fat stock show,” which showcased the skill of ordinary farmers from the village.  This episode was a great example of the tensions and shifts happening between the English classes at early 20th century livestock shows.  Featured in Episode 2 of the 2016 season.  Photo Credit: PBS, 2016.

In the United States, agricultural shows gained momentum by the early 20th century.  One of the oldest national cow shows includes the American Royal, which is still held annually in Kansas City, Missouri.  With its first show in 1899, the American Royal was considered the first national exhibition to showcase purebred cattle in the United States.  But more localized shows across the country popped up years before and after this time.  This past weekend the Pennsylvania Farm Show celebrated its 100th anniversary, with its organization completed by state agricultural officials in 1916 and the first show taking place officially in Harrisburg from January 23-25, 1917.  It is considered the largest indoor agricultural event in the United States.

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Farm Show Program.  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016. 

Walking around the Farm Show this Saturday, I encountered much of the old “sharing knowledge” doctrine that remains at the heart of these national, state, and local-level meetings.  Some of this knowledge is similar to what we would have seen in the 19th century, particularly the sharing of pedigrees in award winning animals.  For breeders interested in not only animal aesthetics but food-livestock utility, pedigrees help fellow farmers understand ideal breeding combinations.  High quality bulls and their families are of particular focus.  In the past, farmers advertised the studs of prize-winning animals for sale at the shows.  The popularization of artificial insemination and frozen spermatozoa technologies in the 1950s made breeding from desirable bulls easier, allowing bulls to contribute to offspring across the nation and around the world without having to sell or even move the animal.  Today, a dairy farm from the States and a farm from Japan can house daughters from the same sire without ever having to interact with the bull.

Pedigree information is exchanged in a few different ways at shows today.  Not only do show catalogs feature this information, but participating farms will often display these facts with a name plate hanging above the animal in her tie-area.  These plates can be lavishly decorated and often include the full name of the animal, her dam (mother), and her sire  (father).  Some plates may indicate longer lineages, and if the animal has been classified list her classification score.  An “EX” after a cow’s name, for example, means “excellent,” with her point score indicating how high in this category she was placed by a professional classifier.


Notice the headboard including the name plates from Davis Pride Farm.  These signs featured the full name, sire, dam, and date of birth of each animal.  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016. 

Showmen are also required to provide the names of the sires of their animals as they are walking them in the ring.  During the Purebred Dairy Cattle Association Dairy Judging School at the Farm Show, those who volunteered their animals for the judging competition were asked to provide birth dates and sire names over the microphone to help participants better compare breeding decisions with overall class placings.

The familial lineages of cattle were not the only ones presented at the Farm Show this year.  The lineages of the participants were also displayed in creative – really, beautiful – ways that showcased family participation.  Some families have made the Farm Show a tradition that has lasted over three generations.  This was the case for Justa-Beauty Farm of Rebersburg, Pennsylvania.  The family created a small display next to their cattle showcasing the farm’s animals that have participated in the show since 1937.  The center image of the display featured a family member with their Grand Champion Holstein that had won at the Farm Show in 1956.  Frames around this picture featured studio quality photographs of different cattle, some directly related to the champion.  Other families made similar displays but featured more images of children, parents, and grandparents exhibiting the animals at the Farm Show.  They were looks into history; small museum exhibitions dedicated to both human breeders and their animals – both part of long lineages participating in the show.


Justa-Beauty Farm “Museum Exhibition.”  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016. 

Many spectators of the Farm Show no longer come from farming backgrounds, making some of this pedigree information confusing and unrelatable (perhaps even for you reading this).  The Farm Show made it a point to create various “AgExplorer” stations this year with these spectators in mind.  The stations provided various kinds of generalized information geared toward educating the public about their larger food systems.  I was happy to see one station dedicated to educating families about what cows eat – asking children and adults to identify animal feeds from their appearance and texture.  There were stations about the bird flu, the size of an acre, and the importance of bees.  These probably were not the most important types of exhibitions to develop for the ag-integrated early 20th century audience.  But for the 21st century they offer a needed interaction between consumer and producer that happens so rarely in the agricultural industry today.  I think it was highly commendable for the Pennsylvania Farm Show to take the initiative to expand the knowledge-sharing doctrine of livestock showing to the greater consuming public, making even the most general information about animals in the food system digestible for a larger audience.


Delaware Valley Unitersity’s station on animal feeds.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2016. 


Klaus, Mary.  Hold Your Horses: The Pennsylvania Farm Show at 100.  Intelligencer Printing Company, 2015.

Ritvo, Harriet. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Harvard University Press, 1987.

**Featured image from Hold Your Horses (2015).  It was an image shared by a farm family that has participated in the Pennsylvania Farm Show since the 1940s.

Milk Mustache Misconceptions

Satire can be a fun way to express the contradictions, controversies, and disturbing intricacies of our political culture.  I consider myself to be fan of satire, and The Simpsons one among my favorite cartoons poking fun at contemporary issues.  However, their most recent episode “Teenage Mutant Milk-Caused Hurdles” (aired 1/10/2016) left me uneasy.  Based loosely on the effects of hormones in general, the episode honed in on how “Buzz Milk” affected the lives of the Simpson kids.  Bovine growth hormone and industrial agriculture claimed center stage, and I fear how the satire may have been received in the real world given the already overgeneralized knowledge circulated on these subjects.

simpson 1

Photo Credit: Fox on

To provide a little more context, the episode begins with Homer buying a carton of milk from the Kwik-E-Mart.  Initially he buys what Marge requested: a “healthy” carton of “Top of the Teat” organic milk.  Shocked to find the milk cost $16.00, Apu persuades Homer to buy a cheaper variation based on “Science.”  Insert bovine growth hormone (rbST), and over-exaggerated industrial ag representation here.

               The representation is uncanny to the “Down of the Farm” Video by PETA, which illustrates over-exaggerated industrial agriculture imagery.  PETA’s video is meant to be informational, not satire. Photo credits: Fox on, PETA Videos.

              Much of the animation in the episode focuses on the Simpson family consuming said milk.  There is careful attention to Bart sipping the milk from his glass, Lisa pouring it into her bowl, and Maggie swishing it around in her sippie-cup.  Throughout the episode the audience witnesses that the milk comes with various side effects.  Bart grows a mustache, Lisa inherits pimples, and Maggie dons a pair of shaggy eyebrows and super strength.  Though it is suggested in the episode that the regular hormones associated with puberty are partially to blame for these effects, Marge concludes that these changes are because of the milk.  The animators take time to frame Marge frantically taking the milk away from her children to pour it down the drain.  Meanwhile, Homer calls the number on the “Buzz Milk” carton for a “refund,” with the audience shown that the call is transferred to a prison cell.

            Photo credits: Fox on

            The use of synthetic bovine growth hormone to increase milk production in cattle has been controversial since trial testing of the product in the early 1980s.  I have been reading about this topic closely for the past three years, as well as talking with farmers, veterinarians, and promoters of the product, known as Posilac and now marketed by Eli Lilly and Company (formerly, Monsanto).  To me, the product continues to be controversial because scientifically it is complicated to describe how it works.  It doesn’t help that publicly in the past certain hormones were shown to have negative side-effects on humans.  This is most apparent in the case of DES, the synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol.  After its synthesis in the 1930s, DES was pushed politically during the second World War for FDA approval to use in livestock and poultry.  The hormone was suspected to be harmful for humans when consumed, which was shown to be true in Canadian research showing changes in vaginal smears of women consuming it, and the case of a man who grew breasts after ingesting the pellets.  DES created public outrage by the 60s and 70s in its use by industrial agriculture, but remained approved and regulated by the FDA (it is now used solely for veterinary use) on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to present a case in its complete ban (see Langston 2011).

toxic bodies

Photo credit:

Residues of the DES controversy certainly affected public morale of “Science” during the rbST experimental trails and later approval hearings.  But the difference in both bovine growth hormone and its synthetic variation from DES is that it has been proven again and again that it does not affect humans in any way.  This was even confirmed by Health Canada during their debates on rbST, the same group that found disparities in their research during the DES controversies.  The biggest issue with rbST was actually how the hormone seemed to affect the cows themselves.  Animals given it were more susceptible to mastitis, an infection that can occur in the mammary system causing swelling and pus** in the milk.

When rbST was up for approval by the FDA, the majority of the debate against the product was the possibility that pus from mastitis and the antibiotics used to treat the condition would leach into the milk and into the larger milk food system.  These worries formed the basis of Canada’s ban of the product – which was on the grounds of animal welfare.  The document explaining the decision reiterated that rbST was shown not to effect humans.  The United States differed in their decision from Canada as the hearing members believed their animals and food system would not be at risk.  With the management of America’s “good” farmers, mastitis was not a significant risk for cattle, with pus and antibiotics not a significant risk to the food system.  Considering how milk is collected, diluted, and processed from farm to table – this decision made sense in 1993, and continues to make sense for politicians, scientists, and farmers now.

However, to some public figures this explanation and the science behind it remain unconvincing. Samuel Epstein is one of a few academics who has published books on the dangers of rbST as a carcinogen, fearing the possibility of elevated IGF-I production in human bodies through ingesting milk produced with the hormone.  Companies like Ben and Jerry’s made pledges since the 1993 rbST approval to only source milk for their products from non-rbST treated animals.  And politicians like Bernie Sanders have advocated against rbST on the grounds of protecting small farmers economically (though, from my research in 2013, I found most of the farmers using the product were in fact small farmers – including Amish – at least on the East Coast).


Photo credit:

rbST was thought to benefit cows, farmers, and the environment with its production and use.  With higher lactation rates, promoters described farms with fewer animals, meaning less feed waste and methane gas emissions.  They also described longer lactation cycles and less stress on the animal overall.  I have even heard of farmers using rbST to treat different ailments in their cattle.  It is used with close consideration to overall animal performance and potential, with very few animals in relation to the entire milking barn being treated with it at the same time.


Monsanto Posilac advertisement from 1998.  The main header reads, “The equipment gets more sophisticated, the methods become more scientific, but the reasons for doing it will always remain the same.”  Photo credit: Mark Arnold Freelance.

As of this past year, bovine growth hormone on the East Coast has been phased out with pledges made by larger dairy distributors not to sell milk sourced by animals treated with rbST.  This new shift has been largely consumer driven – a great triumph for those who were left uneasy about the product, but a great set-back for scientists promoting solutions to larger, agricultural problems.  Though The Simpsons’ work touches on the issue satirically, it perpetuates a monolithic view of milk production using rbST – one that is a great misunderstanding of the product and its controversy.  It wouldn’t produce the mutations illustrated in the cartoon, and this was never a factor to consider during its debate.    One could argue these fears were the very ideas the episode was trying to poke fun at on Sunday, but an everyday consumer separated from agricultural production and the initial controversies of rbST may view this as the “truth” about cheap dairy products.  But in fact, there is a lot to the story of bovine growth hormone that is overlooked, forgotten, or ignored based on preconceptions.

**I use the word “pus” to describe the concentration of white blood cells in milk that occurs with infection.  It should be noted that this was how mastitis was described during the approval hearings in 1993 mainly by groups against bST approval.  It continues to be a word of contention between dairy producers as they feel it does not adequately reflect the condition of mastitis.  It also can produce unnecessary disgust, for even if this milk was processed this material would not be consumed by the public.


Bauman, D. E. “Bovine Somatotropin and Lactation: From Basic Science to Commercial Application.” Domestic Animal Endocrinology 17, no. 2–3 (October 1999): 101–16. doi:10.1016/S0739-7240(99)00028-4.

Collier, R. J., and D. E. Bauman. “Update on Human Health Concerns of Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin Use in Dairy Cows.” Journal of Animal Science 92, no. 4 (April 2014): 1800–1807. doi:10.2527/jas.2013-7383.

Langston, Nancy. Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011.

Pizza Pollution

What if your dietary habits were negatively affecting the environment?  Would you change what you ate on a day to day basis for the sake of climate change?  To combat deforestation?  Reduce energy use as well as air and water pollution?  This is certainly the rationale for many of my friends who have chosen to take the vegan dietary path.

The upkeep for cattle is considered environmentally detrimental.  According to various studies, the greenhouse gasses emitted from the livestock and dairy production systems are numerically higher than emissions from larger transportation systems (thinking planes, trains, and automobiles).  And methane gas flatulence from animals is just one part of this food system that is of concern.  The energy and gasses exhausted in animal feed production is considered just as much a culprit of the environmental problems caused by food-animals.


Photo credit:  Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

These issues have been pressed upon the public for at least 10 years now – really since the 2006 publication of a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).  Titled Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options, the report provides information about the impact the world livestock food system has on the environment – including air, land, and water pollution.  The report, along with other studies, was shocking enough for former meat eaters to reconsider their dietary preferences.  However others, including Dr. Frank Mitloehner of UC Davis, found the report extremely misleading because of its faulty, out-of-date data.  For others yet, it wasn’t a matter of eating meat itself that was the issue.  For some readers the report was a larger critical comment on how meat was being globally produced.  These environmental impacts were considered a cultural problem rather than a dietary problem, and advocates of certain sustainability, organics, and raw debates continue to use the report (and the rapport around it) to advocate for changes in the industrial food complex.

How culturally inherent is our industrial food system?  Very, if you consider when industrialization took place in the United States.  The growth correlates with the World Wars and the “race” for scientific progress, and many scholars have taken up this time period as a substantial cultural shift in America and around the world.  Milk – as you may have guessed – provides a fine example of this shift.  Though considered a “dangerous” product in the early 20th century, milk was re-marketed as America’s drink in the mid-20th century.  During World War II, images encouraging young men to drink milk and young women to continue to produce it while their troops were out to war became emblems of American culture.  The machines, the mass production, and the science behind these systems promoted the country in a very specific way –still widely considered the “American” way.

re-imagining milk

A comprehensive but short book that covers this re-marketing of milk is Andrea Wiley’s Re-Imagining Milk (2010).  Photo credit:

There is no denying that there are aspects of the industrial food system that need some work.  Politicians, scientists, and even farmers themselves have not always considered the consequences of “improved efficiency” in agriculture.  But what about those cultural food systems that have lasted much longer than industrialization?  Should they be critiqued in the same way?  Should the problems associated with them ultimately change how we produce, eat, and prepare our food?

A recent example lies in the case of San Vitaliano, a comune that is considered a part of the Metropolitan City of Naples.  Naples is considered the pizza capital of the world, and has been for a long time.  Travel writers have commented on the “flat dough circles” eaten by the lazzarone (poor city residents) since the early 19th century.  A native of Switzerland, Francis de Bourcard, wrote about pizza and drew Neapolitans preparing and eating it within the two volumes of his “Traditions and Customs of Naples” series – written between 1847 and 1866.  Famed author Alexandre Dumas also wrote about pizza Napoli contemporaneously, with his 1843 Oeuvres featuring the dish in detail.  Pizza captured the hearts of travelers, and has since spread globally as a universally desireable dish.  But the traditional way to prepare pizza may prove to be more harmful to environmental and human health  than previously realized.


The pizza maker, by Bourcard (circa 1850s).  Photo Credit: Omid, 2012.

In a BBC article published December 22nd this past month, the mayor of San Vitaliano placed a temporary ban on the use of wood stove ovens – used primarily by pizzerias in the making of traditional brick-oven pizza (using masonry ovens).  The reason?: air pollution.  San Vitaliano has been considered one of the most polluted cities in the world, with smog comparable (if not worse) to Beijing.  The edict is meant as a step to improving air quality, but the ban has not been well received.  Protests launched by local residents reiterating that the smog cannot be from pizza making – that other factors were contributing to it.  The ban, according to the article, will remain in effect until March 31st, when filtering systems can be reevaluated.


Photo credit:, 2016.

This decision by city officials of San Vitaliano has some substantial environmental science behind it.  Concerning air pollution in the United States, the EPA has the “Burn Wise” partnership which encourages producers and owners of wood stoves and ovens to consider safer and better wood burning practices.  Wood particles are considered nasty culprits of human health issues when breathed into the lungs – and they are major contributors to “reduced visibility (haze)” that create “environmental and aesthetic damage.”  Solutions to excessive burned wood particles include using special filters as well as burning in particular ways.  These include using wood that has been dried outside for at least six months, burning hot fires, and burning non-treated wood.

But just as too much pizza (vegan or otherwise) cannot be good for your health, are too many pizza ovens not good for the environment?  The San Vitaliano ordinance seems to demonstrate that this may be the case.  Reducing pizza oven pollution may have various consequences to it – economically and socially affecting residents as well as visitors of the area.  It may even create a different dietary shift, depending on the impact of the ban and further research on pollution created through food preparation.  Would you give up an inherently traditional dish for the sake of the environment?  You may need to be prepared to answer this question wisely sooner than you may realize…


Bourcard, Francesco de. Usi e costumi di Napoli e contorni descritti e dipinti. Stab. tip. di G. Nobile, 1853.

Dumas, Alexandre. Oeuvres. Meline, Cans et cie, 1843.

Steinfeld, Henning, Pierre Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, Mauricio Rosales, and C. de Haan. “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” 2006.

Wiley, Andrea.  Re-Imagining Milk: Cultural and Biological Perspectives. 1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Managing Microbes

New year, new resolutions.  If weight loss is on your list – scholars are encouraging humans to think more about the microscopic creatures living inside them.  This is particularly the case with an audiobook I have been running to for the past few days by Tim Spector, titled The Diet Myth (2015).  Published this past May, Spector’s book encourages his readers to think differently about the New Year’s diet strategies of old.  Atkins, Mediterranean, Paleo… whatever the new fad is, it may on the surface seem logical to try one or another.  But in the end it may not be good for us on an individual basis.  More specifically, these diets may not be good for our microbes.

diet myth

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The Diet Myth is a hodgepodge book filled with a mixture of personal anecdotes and scientific literature.  Bottom line: scientists time and again find inconsistent results when studying diet and nutrition.  Spector cites a myriad of studies, many showing even people with the same genetic make-up (Spector is a specialist in twin studies) do not always react to the same foods in the same ways.  One’s genetic background makes up only one component of weight loss/gain – and Spector reiterates this throughout the book.  Cultural, environmental, and psychological factors are considered by Spector tangentially, but he argues we get the most answers from our microbes with microbial-based studies.  These include the current American Gut, a continuation of the Human Microbiome Project by Jeff Leach.  Interested in what lives in you?  Leach’s project will test your gut for a fee – which is logged into a database for better understanding microbes. Even famed food author Michael Pollan has tested his microbes through this crowd-sourced study.


Photo credit:  Human Food Project, 2014.

For Spector, the answer you would get from such a test may surprise you.  According to the author – microbes can adapt, they respond to physical activity, as well as to stress.  This is what makes microbes unique to think about when considering changing a diet: they are tailored to you and your lifestyle.  I especially liked Spector’s example of “Pizza Dan,” a man residing in Maryland whose entire diet consists of cheese pizza.  Dan has diabetes he has managed since childhood, according to Spector, but otherwise, measuring his cholesterol, blood pressure, and the usual vitals linked to good health – he’s perfectly average.  Spector asks his readers: have Dan’s microbes adapted positively to this diet?  The healthy people like Dan are the ones we need to be studying, he advocates, and it seems the studies he has conducted so far show microbial diversity is the key to managing a healthy human body.

Spector didn’t start the microbe diet discussion.  Many books have been published over the past five years addressing the microbiome and the positive outcomes that could come with focusing on it for dieting.  But popular knowledge of microbes affecting health through overall diet has arguably existed in the agricultural sector long before this human-centric movement.  “Rumen bugs,” or the microbes living in ruminant animals, have been seriously considered in animal nutrition research since at least the 1970s.*  Ruminants like sheep and cattle are known to have special stomachs – and this has been fairly common knowledge for centuries.  It continues to be understood that ruminants have a delayed process of digestion in comparison to other stomachs because nutrients are extracted through fermentation.  This fermentation process can be tricky for farmers, as it can be easily altered through what the animals eat.

There are interesting debates about feeding and diagnosing ailments in cattle based on fermentation in the mid-19th century.  One lovely debate between veterinarians can be found in The Farmer’s Magazine of London from 1840.  The writer, named R. Read from Devon, writes that the former periodical (November 1840) was incorrect in describing “hoose” vs. “hoove” (I’m not entirely sure if he refers to a spelling error or an error in diagnosis).  According to this writer, “hoose” is a cough in young calves caused by lungworm, while hoove is an ailment of a cow’s stomach after having eaten, “young vetches, or after grass or clover, or lucerne while wet with dew.”  This diet causes excess gasses that can be trapped in the rumen causing serious internal damage.  The writer offers two suggestions to farmers when encountering severe hoove – to puncture the stomach with a knife and insert a “flexible tube”, or to feed the cow egg-sized pellets of lard, flour and salt.   Though microbes are not considered explicitly in such discussions, the process of fermentation and its variability through diet is addressed at length – particularly in this antacid-like procedure which is considered by this writer as “of real value” when the more invasive procedure cannot be performed.

Today, animal nutritionists are encouraging farmers to think about the microbes in the rumen in more creative ways.  During my ethnographic work with nutritionists and Amish farmers, the experts would encourage relationships with “happy bugs,” which could be facilitated through specific feeding regiments.  According to these experts, “waking bugs up” in the morning with dry hay and “keeping bugs active and happy” with fresh silage in front of the animal to consume throughout the day makes for more efficient milk production.  We are beginning to hear such language incorporated into conversations about our own stomachs – which probiotics in yogurt advertised as making “happy tummies.”  Anthropologist Heather Paxson (2008) has even documented “happy bug” language being used by raw milk advocates in describing their own stomachs.  Spector does not describe making microbes happy for healthier results in his book, but anthropomorphizing these invisible creatures arguably creates better emotive connections and commitments for non-scientists and non-experts.


Photo credit: The Bullvine, 2014.

Diverse bugs.  Active bugs.  Happy bugs.  Microbes, though rarely seen with the naked eye, are making their way into human health conversations.  Conversations about the relationships between microbial behavior and nutrition have been explicit for much longer in cows and sheep – but that doesn’t mean microbes have had a voice in these matters until the last few years.  Microbes are taking center stage: and their health and their happiness are being considered intrinsically linked to our health and happiness.  Eating for them (or feeding for them in the farmer’s case) shifts our perspective about nutrition – perhaps for the better.



M, Durand, and Komisarczuk S. “Influence of Major Minerals on Rumen Microbiota.” The Journal of Nutrition 118, no. 2 (February 1988): 249–60.

Paxson, Heather. “POST-PASTEURIAN CULTURES: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States.” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 1 (February 1, 2008): 15–47. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1360.2008.00002.x.

Spector, Tim. The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat. Orion, 2015.

The Farmer’s Magazine. Rogerson and Tuxford, 1840.


*This is considering a few articles published in the 1988 Journal of Nutrition which was a symposium on rumen productivity.  The studies cited by these articles were completed in the 1970s. See Durand and Komisarczuk 1988.

Pondering New Years Pork

Sauerkraut un Schpeck

dreibt alle Sarje weck.”

Sauerkraut and pork

drive all cares away.

– Folk Saying, Sauerkraut Yankees, William Woys Weaver, p 147 (2002)

Ringing in the New Year holds different meaning for people around the world.  It is also accompanied by different traditions and rituals.  In Pennsylvania German culture, New Years Day is celebrated with a pork and sauerkraut dinner – believed to bring good luck through the coming year.  The sauerkraut is considered a symbol of bounty, but it was also an important staple dish during the cold months for Pennsylvania Dutch/Germans in nineteenth century America.  This is written about in more detail by Willian Woys Weaver, a food scholar who writes extensively about this culture – one that includes Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren religious sects now not only in Pennsylvania, but across the United States.  I recommend reading Weaver’s Sauerkraut Yankees (2002) for some interesting, old-timey recipes for sauerkraut, a section on its origins in Eastern Europe, and its cultural significance for these cultural groups in the past and today.  His most recent book, As American As Shoofly Pie (2013) is especially thought-provoking, as it addresses how new many of the “folk foods” really are for Pennsylvania German culture today (considering not only shoofly pie, but whoopie pies and pot pie).

sauerkraut yankees

Photo credit:

The pig has additional symbolism that continues to reign in Mutterland Germany.  Eating pork in the new year celebrated the pig’s behavior in “rooting forward” – encouraging the consumer to “root forward into the new year” (Weaver 2002: 172).  In Germany today for the New Year, some areas continue the pork and sauerkraut tradition much like their American counterparts.  Those who pass on eating the pig are welcome to pig-sculpted marzipan called “Glücksschweine” or “lucky pigs.”

Glücksfiguren aus Marzipan

Glücksschweine. Photo credit: German Missions in the United States, 2013.  Foto: Patrick Seeger/dpa

To my knowledge, pigs themselves do not recognize New Years.  But if they did, their menu for today would most likely consist of their usual pelleted pig feed.  Pellet feed can include a variety of different supplemental vitamins, but is made up mainly of corn, oats, or soybeans (if not a combination of the three).  Pelleted feed is understood to increase feed efficiency, as it allows the pig to eat more and consume more of the valuable nutrients needed for growing or finishing than if he was served loose batches of the raw material piled together (Miller 2012).  Organic pigs have similar diets, but are restricted to organic-maintained crops in the pellets.  Some farmers may choose to feed their pigs waste products (including cabbage and sauerkraut if available!), and others choose to pasture-raise pigs for a combination of scavenger-based food, grass, and grains.

Pigs were primarily pasture-raised food animals in the past, similar to many of the others we consume today (cows, chickens, etc.).  We can see a shift occurring with the development of experiment stations in the United States – where farmers, veterinarians, and researchers become obsessed with nutrients, calories, and “efficiency.”  This is clearly seen in turn of the century experiment station reports – including those from Kansas State Agricultural College (1904), Montana Agricultural College (1904), and the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station (1899).  Experiments in removing pigs from pasture and placing them into “hog houses” were important for the Maryland and Kansas State reports.  In a comparison between different feeding and living conditions with body weight and meat production, their reports concluded that there were great benefits in weight gain through the partial confinement of pigs.  Montana argued that pasture was more important as it indicated, “when running on pasture, hogs will keep in good condition and even gain in live weight on a light grain ration” (Linfield 1904: 54).

pig 3

Photo credit: Patterson 1899.

Researchers were not only concerned with what pigs were eating and how, but also what was potentially eating them before reaching the New Years meal.  The creation of hog dipping methods was also gaining momentum during this time period, with the use of a special hog dipping tank mentioned by the Kansas State College as an important part of the experiment.  The station was concerned, as people who dip today are, with “germ diseases” – more pointedly lice.  The researchers wanted to use a means of getting disinfectants onto the pigs’ bodies without chasing and causing harm to the animals.  The use of a chute – encouraging the animal to move into a dipping tank freely and move out of it with the coaxing of food using a ramp – “kept [hogs] moving steadily without injury” (Otis 1904: 37).  Dipping is still done today when necessary, but spraying for lice has also become a popular solution to discouraging the disease carrying pest from eating hogs.

pig 2

Photo credit: Otis 1904.

Before the efficiency of pig meat production was questioned, pigs overall were symbols of status, wealth and fertility in Germany among other countries.  To provide a pig as a gift to someone during the holidays was extremely significant.  Though pigs are interacted with in much more limited ways today, in part through industrialization, urbanization, and the development of niche food production science, they still carry significant meaning through both pork and sauerkraut meals and marzipan candies.  And much is still invested in maintaining the breeding, rearing, and health of these animals for humans to later consume. Happy New Year!


Linfield, Frederick Bloomfield. Feeding Pigs: For the Years 1903 and 1904. Montana Agricultural College Experiment Station, 1905.

Miller, Tom G. “Swine Feed Efficiency: Influence of Pelleting.” USDA Ag and Food Research Initiative Grant Handout, 2012.

Otis, Daniel Henry. Experiments in Feeding Steers and in Breeding and Feeding Pigs. Experiment Station, Kansas State Agricultural College, 1904.

Patterson, Harry Jacob. Experiments with Feeding Pigs. Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station, 1899.

Weaver, William Woys. As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

———. Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods & Foodways. Stackpole Books, 2002.






Following Food

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.


Photo credit:

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.

got milk

Photo credit: Cornell University “Got Milk?” Campaign, featuring Dean Boor for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, 2011.

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.