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.

COMPANION SPECIES CLIMATE CHANGE AND OUR FOOD ANIMAL FUTURES

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_thumbnail-web

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

RE-FRAMING OUR CLIMATE CONVERSATIONS: TAKING A “BIRD’S EYE VIEW” OF OUR COMPLEX HUMAN FOOD SYSTEMS

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!

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.

mintz

Photo credit: Amazon.com.

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.