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.

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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.