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!

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: Amazon.com.

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.

DSCN2893 (2)

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: Mycomicshop.com.


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.

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 Hulu.com.

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 Hulu.com, 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 Hulu.com.

            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: Amazon.com.

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: Amazon.com.

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: Amazon.com.

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: Italia.it, 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. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.

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

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: 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.