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The compassionate carnivore

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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Blame the pork chop on a stick — marinated, grilled, skewered, and succulent. Farmer Catherine Friend ate one at the Minnesota State Fair and enjoyed every bite. On the way home, however, she realized that the chances of her tasty chop coming from a humanely raised pig were zilch. As the earthy, pragmatic Friend writes in The Compassionate Carnivore: Or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat: “Damn it.”

Friend is a refreshing voice in the eat-better movement. From a demographic perspective, she’s a double rarity: a small-scale farmer and a lesbian. But from a sociological perspective, she’s the voice of mainstream, middle-class America. (She even lives smack in the upper Midwest, right in the middle of the heartland.) She depicts herself as an average Jane, a gal who grew up on the industrialized packaged foodstuffs that feed most of America, a housewife who, frankly, isn’t that great a cook and doesn’t like to spend much time in the kitchen. She avoids vegetables and loves meat. This, folks, is Miss America.

But, like a lot of other Americans in recent years, Friend doesn’t like the fact that her tasty pork chop might as well be Mystery Meat. At the state fair, she goes to the Miracle of Birth barn, where farm animals give birth in front of gawking spectators. Friend and her partner, Melissa, raise sheep on their farm, so they’re not exactly ignorant of the facts of farming life. But the sow and piglets Friend encounters give her pause:

bq. Stretched out on her side in a raised pen was a massive white sow, her two rows of swollen teats exposed so that the piglets could easily feed. Days-old piglets either slept in piles alongside the sow or nursed energetically. I wondered why the sow was so still. She must have been sleeping. Then I realized there were three more pens just like this one, and none of the sows were moving, not a twitch. Good lord, were they dead?

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="Do you know how your pork chops were raised?"]

No, just immobilized, as Friend realizes, by pens designed to keep the sows perfectly still so they could be “nothing more than a milk machine for piglets.” And thus began Friend’s quest not only to eat better but to provide a manual — her book — for people interested in eating meat more responsibly.

A city gal, Friend came to farming later in life, at Melissa’s behest. Her attempt to go rural matches her attempt to be a compassionate carnivore: fumbling but goodhearted. Change is tough, she admits up front. “My path to becoming a compassionate carnivore has been paved with good intentions, but littered with the bones of pork-chop-on-a-stick,” she writes.

Even at the end of her book, Friend confesses, she still eats anonymous packaged foods on a semi-regular basis. But the fact that she’s not perfect makes her book both human and accessible: “This will not be one of those cheerful self-help books that makes change sound so ridiculously easy — ‘Become a Compassionate Carnivore in Just Ten Days!’ — that you feel like a total loser when you’re not able to pull it off.” 


h1.What carnivores can do

Catherine Friend's quick list of things a compassionate carnivore should do:

# Pay attention — in the store, at the table
# Waste less meat
# Replace factory meat with meat from animals raised humanely
# Choose meatless meals over meat from animals raised in factories


Instead, The Compassionate Carnivore is both an entertaining memoir and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of how America raises its meat, why industrial meat production is so very bad, and how the system should be changed. Or, as Friend writes, why we should all pay more attention “to farms — how they work and don’t work — and farm animals — how they live and how they die.”

Friend also devotes chapters to the twin American habits of overeating and throwing excess food in the trash. But mostly her book is about the history of the modern American farm: how it went from small to big and then to enormous, with a few renegade small-scalers (such as Friend herself) either hanging on or reinventing the farm-wagon wheel. Yes, much of this is as grim as it is familiar — but Friend manages to make it lively and even funny without burying her essential moral seriousness. 

The final two sections of The Compassionate Carnivore offer practical suggestions for meat reform, based on Friend’s belief that a lot of small changes will eventually add up to far more than just one drastic change:

bq. If you believe organic meat is the only way to go, and you can find a local source, excellent. But if you can’t, should you really be eating organic meat transported from a thousand miles away, or should you be eating meat from a sustainable farmer 60 miles away, and encourage that farmer to eventually go organic? As a compassionate carnivore, any move you make away from factory meat is a huge step in the right direction.

Which — especially on the Fourth of July, when we grill a lot of meat — is an eminently reasonable point to keep in mind.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor.

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