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A version of this piece ran in the New York Times in 2006.
This time of the year, the windows of America are beginning to be dotted with carefully carved jack-o’-lanterns, but in a week or so, the streets will be splotched with pumpkin guts. Orange gourds will fly from car windows, fall from apartment balconies, career like cannon fire from the arms of pranksters craving the odd satisfaction of that dull thud.
There are, to be sure, more productive ways to deploy a Halloween pumpkin. Post-holiday, composting is a noble option. A pumpkin grower in Wisconsin once turned a 500-pound Atlantic Giant into a boat.
But what we almost certainly won’t do is eat it. First cultivated more than 10,000 years ago in Mexico, cucurbitaceae were mainstays of the Native American diet. If for no other reason than its status as one of America’s oldest cultivated crops, an honest pumpkin deserves our reverence.
The current batches that will soon litter the pavement, however, are for the most part irreverent fabrications, cheap replicas inflated for the carving knife. Food in name only, they’re a culinary trick without the treat. For those of us who value America’s culinary past, smashing a generic pumpkin is more of a moral obligation than an act of vandalism.
During the colonial era, the pumpkin was just one squash among dozens, a vine-ripening vegetable unmarked by a distinctive color, size or shape. Native Americans grew it to be boiled, roasted and baked. They routinely prepared pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin porridge, pumpkin stew and even pumpkin jerky.
Europeans readily incorporated the pumpkin into their own diet. Peter Kalm, a Swede visiting colonial America, wrote approvingly about “pumpkins of several kinds, oblong, round, flat or compressed, crook-necked, small, etc.” He noted in his journal — on, coincidentally, Oct. 31, 1749 — how Europeans living in America cut them through the middle, take out the seeds, put the halves together again, and roast them in an oven, adding that “some butter is put in while they are warm.”
Sounds tasty. But one would be ill advised to follow Kalm’s recipe with the pumpkins now grown on commercial farms. The most popular pumpkins today are grown to be porch décor rather than pie filling. They dominate the industry because of their durability, uniform size (about 15 pounds), orange color, wart-less texture and oval shape. Chances are good that the specimen you’re displaying goes by the name of Trick or Treat, Magic Lantern, or Jumpin’ Jack. Chances are equally good that its flesh is bitter and stringy.
In contrast, pumpkins grown in the 19th and early 20th centuries — the hybridized descendants of those cultivated by Native Americans — were soft, rich and buttery. They came in numerous colors, shapes and sizes and were destined for the roasting pan.
The Tennessee Sweet Potato pumpkin looked more like a pear than a modern pumpkin and, as its name implies, was baked and eaten like the sweet potato. The Winter Luxury Pie pumpkin, first introduced in 1893, became so popular for pies that it posed a fresh challenge to the canned stuff. These pumpkin varieties, and scores of others, were once the most flavorful vegetables in the American diet.
Fortunately, the edible pumpkin is not completely lost. While akin to endangered species, heirloom seeds are only a few mouse clicks and a credit card number away. By growing heirloom pumpkins, you can have your jack-o’-lantern and eat it too. More immediately, you can search out heirloom pumpkins at some farmers’ markets.
Of course, advocating a shift in any holiday tradition seems like a futile exercise in a nation that (perhaps because we’re so young) takes its traditions rather seriously. But it’s not as if there’s much of a Halloween tradition to violate. Halloween is relatively new to America. The Irish brought the holiday to the United States in the 1840’s (and used turnips as jack-o-lanterns). But Halloween didn’t become profitable enough for commercial growers to produce decorative pumpkins until the suburbanized 1950’s.
Edible pumpkins were driven near extinction in the early 1970’s when a farmer named Jack Howden started to mass produce a firm, deep orange, rotund pumpkin endowed with thick vines to create a fat handle to hold while carving. The $5 billion a year industry that developed around Howden’s inedible creation is, historically speaking, still in its infancy.
And thus the “tradition” is ripe for improvement. Next year, let’s do something not so different. Let’s replace a fake pumpkin with a real one. The face you carve into it might be more distorted, and it might cost a bit more, but there will finally be a credible reason not to smash the thing at the end of the evening. And most important, as Peter Kalm observed back in 1749, we could once again split it open, roast it, add butter and remind ourselves that some traditions — like cultivating vegetables to eat — should never be destroyed.
Last month the United States Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency agreed to establish the “first ever national food waste reduction goal.” The program is not only notable for its ambition—it aims to reduce food waste 50 percent by 2015—but for the diversity of its participants. An array of churches, corporations, charitable organizations, and local governments has been asked to play a role. The plan, anodyne though it may be, will surely get a lion’s share of (dull) media attention.
But the one relevant group that’s been overlooked has the most to offer when it comes to reducing food waste: freegans. Freegans encourage eating food sourced from various waste streams pouring from the cracks of an excessively abundant food system. They’re scrappy scavengers who frequent grocery store alleyways, restaurant dumpsters, un-cleared food court tables, and anywhere else that yields a free meal and keeps freegan cash out of Big Food coffers—which kind of explains why the USDA and EPA aren’t terribly impressed. Freegans, who root their lifestyle in 1960s Berkeley-ish activism, package themselves as a subversive social movement.
Precisely what kind of movement—anarchist?, socialist?, punk?—is difficult to say. The freegan manifesto, as it were, reads as if it was written by a precocious if rant-prone high-schooler. It describes freeganism as a “withdrawal from the consumer death culture,” observes that “working sucks!,” condemns “the all oppressive dollar,” and implores us not to sacrifice “humanity to the evil demon of wage slavery.” Couching the generic dumpster dive in this rhetorically shrill language, a “stick-it-to-the-man” posture that supports an “anti-consumeristic ethic of eating,” the freegan manifesto might inspire angrier souls to thrust a fist skyward. But, for the sober-minded reformer, it threatens to condemn the movement to a kind of self-imposed solipsism. This is, after all, America.
Still, we cannot afford to dismiss freegans. . .
My last three columns have explored philosophical defenses for eating animals. I’ve done this from the perspectives of utilitarianism, animal rights, and contractualism. My intention with this series has been, in part, to reiterate how difficult it can be to justify eating animals, but also to defuse the off-putting “total abstinence” dictum inherent in the vegan ideology. There is, after all, almost certainly moral space for consuming animals.
But it’s not necessarily an easy space to find. It’s often neither consistent with the way we currently source meat nor tolerant of a business-as-usual approach to agriculture. It may require radical behavioral changes as well as structural shifts that are pragmatically beyond our control. Ironically, given the current configuration of our food system, these changes may be so difficult to achieve that choosing veganism by default could prove to be the easier option.
That said, there appear to be legitimate ways to eat meat, ways that are consistent with the ethical principles that we rely on to guide us through life, and ways that the future’s food architects might consider accommodating.
Wendell Berry has famously declared eating to be “an agricultural act.” This phrase has become a rallying cry for an agrarian reform movement that seeks to know the sources of our food supply. But, perhaps even more so, eating is also an ecological act, an elemental behavior that extends beyond the local farm and the farmers’ market to the endlessly interrelated biotic community. It is from this latter perspective—deep ecology—that I want to suggest a fourth philosophical defense for eating meat.
Read about it here.
The fact that commercial airlines are preparing to use beef fat to help fuel aircraft is the kind of news that sends the eco-razzi into celebratory whirligigs.
It hardly matters that we’re looking at yet another meaningless example of “reduce, reuse, recycle” pomp to mask deeper problems that demand more systemic and radical solutions. It hardly matters that using beef fat (beef being one of the most ecologically damaging products on earth) to subsidize flying (flying being one of the most ecologically damaging services on earth) is like robbing Paul to pay Peter; at the end of the day it’s just another lovely, feel-good case of reducing waste, an act whose evidently inherent virtue makes the media go all loopy while obscuring the underlying, scolding question of why we rely so heavily on these goods and services (beef, flying) in the first place.
But that’s all high horse talk. Down in the streets vegans have a new and difficult question to ask themselves: will vegans fly in planes fueled by the animals we claim to do everything in our power not to exploit? I couldn’t help but notice an ominous dearth of commentary on this heavily covered media issue in the vegan blogosphere. Although I can certainly understand the reticence. The prospect of every major airline supplementing fossil fuel with beefy bio-diesel is a real one, and if that possibility comes to fruition, vegans face yet another case of a terribly convenient aspect of first-world life—flying—that, while hardly necessary to existence, is something we’ll most likely never give up. Vegans, in other words, will routinely participate in yet another activity that harms animals when, realistically albeit very inconveniently, they could avoid but won’t.
As a result, they will further gut the meaning of vegan from within.
In 2013-2014 I flew 35 times to locations where I preached (in part) the ecological virtues of not eating meat. Absurd, of course, that I was flying hither and yon to do this, but what if my mile-high experience had been powered by beef? Well, I’d have to be the first person to laugh my ass off at myself.
Readers, pipe up. What to do about beef-powered planes?
Matt Ball’s speech at the National Animal Rights conference:
Welcome and thanks for coming.
If I say anything that seems like a criticism or judgment, it isn’t meant that way. I’ve made many mistakes in my life – mistakes that have actively hurt our efforts on behalf of animals. We are all fortunate there has been so much research of late that can guide our efforts to help animals as much as possible.
Yesterday a reporter asked me why so many athletes who went vegan found themselves feeling weak and sick. It’s a narrative that, as a runner, I hear a lot. My first–and I think the most sensible–reaction is to explain that many vegans simply do it wrong. They replace calories once obtained from animal products with processed junk food rather than nutrient dense plants. And they feel like shit.
I tell them about my vegan friend Yetik, with whom I’m currently training for a 50-mile race that we’re doing at the end of September. At 80+ miles a week in hot/humid conditions, our physical and nutritional needs are especially intense. I’m adding a lot of legumes, peanut butter, root veggies, and quinoa to my diet–and feeling great. Yetik, though, was flagging for several weeks. But when I suggested adding some more B-12 and quinoa, and he did, he had a noticeable rebound and is feeling strong. Fact is, he’s a running demon.
But still, there are cases in which athletes eat a smart vegan diet and still feel like something is missing, that some level of energy has been lost. And it is also very likely true that a piece of lean meat or a bowl of yogurt would ameliorate the situation for that runner, even if the affect was more placebo than real. In these situations, I find myself less able to offer advice that will be realistically accepted.
Going vegan is a wonderfully pragmatic way to respond to the myriad ecological and ethical problems endemic to the American way of eating. Do it. But it’s also a radically counter-cultural thing to do. Those who make the transition, and see the benefits, as I have, are far more likely to embrace and stick with veganism than those who are asked to not only make a socially-ostracizing counter-cultural shift but, at the same time, suffer a physical consequence, however seemingly minor, as a result.
This scenario raises many interesting questions. To what extent is an individual obligated to sacrifice a personal sense of physical health in order to stick to the moral ideals of veganism? Is there a point at which an individual’s sense of physical well being becomes so compromised that the morality of eating meat changes, whereby eating a piece of lean salmon once a week becomes more justifiable than it would be for a non-compromised person?
I have no answers, but I’m in an inquisitive mood as I contemplate a return to daily blogging here at the Pitchfork. Looking forward to your thoughts.
From the look of things, you’d be correct in thinking that a revolution in food production was underway. Calls for local, sustainable, slow, humane, organic, non-genetically modified, fair-wage, “real” food are not only ubiquitous, they’ve inspired a farm-to-table movement that seeks to end industrialized agriculture, empower small farmers, and replace Walmart with farmers markets. Hundreds if not thousands of books, articles, foundations, academic conferences, and documentaries have joined the cause, rallying around the idea that industrial agriculture should—and can—and will be stopped.
These efforts have spawned a unique public discourse, one ubiquitously re-iterating the message that industrial agriculture wreaks ecological havoc, endangers human health, and exploits workers in order to produce food that’s overly processed, overly cheap, and overly globalized. Given the intensity of this culinary zeitgeist (not to mention the fact it gets very little critical inquiry from an adoring media), there’s every reason to think that food-reform-minded Americans, voting with their forks, are finally changing how Americans eat.
It is always difficult to get beyond the rhetoric and quantify such trends, but one metric seems safe to assume: If the movement were working, factory farms would be in decline. But, as a report just released by Food and Water Watch reveals, the exact opposite is happening. While muckrakers have been exposing every hint of corruption in corporate agriculture, and while reformers have been busy creating programs to combat industrial agriculture with localized, “real food” alternatives, factory farms have been proliferating like superweeds in a field of Monsanto corn.
Last February the Waste and Resources Action Program—a British anti-waste organization—reported that one-third of the food produced globally is never eaten. That’s roughly two billion metric tons of edible waste that ends up in landfills, where it emits about seven percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists have taken notice and the problem—food waste—is now a serious environmental concern. “If more and more people recognize their own food waste,” writes Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, “we can take a bite out of this problem.”
As Bloom suggests, reformers have largely placed responsibility for reducing food waste in the hands of consumers. More often than not we are rightfully admonished to eat the whole metaphorical hog as an act of ecological redemption.
“Leftovers can be turned into completely different meals,” writes one reader of Bloom’s blog, Wasted Food. “To better utilize food,” writes another, “use the whole animal” (the reader suggests bone broth). “STIR-FRY,” says a third, who claims to “live in a forest.” Throw in the prevailing advocacy for eating “ugly fruit” and the intrepid dumpster divers and you have a landscape of waste warriors crusading to achieve meaningful reform by piling our plates with food items we’d normally toss (or have already tossed).
The most conspicuous example of this eat-the-leftovers approach to reducing food waste recently came from celebrity chef Dan Barber. For a stretch of time in March, Barber cleared out his famous Blue Hill restaurant and replaced it with a “pop-up” creation—called WastED—that served food scraps salvaged from commercial kitchens. For $85 a meal, patrons could sample an array of dishes cooked with recycled culinary debris, including pickle butts, carrot tops, offal, and skate-wing cartilage. Exchanging spare ribs for kale ribs, diners were able to experience a culinary novelty while doing a good deed for the environment. It was the American way of reform epitomized: Fix the problem by buying something that makes you happy.
Read more here.
“We had no idea that we were going to see what we saw.” These are never words you want to hear about a slaughterhouse. But they’re exactly what Adam Wilson, the director of investigations at Last Chance for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal advocacy group, said about his organization’s recent investigation of Pel-Freez, the nation’s largest rabbit processing plant, located in Rogers, Arkansas.
The details, obtained by an undercover agent who worked at Pel-Freez as a “blood catcher” for six weeks last fall, are, even by abattoir standards, morbid. Slaughterhouse workers were filmed improperly stunning rabbits by whacking them in the face with the dull side of a knife (electrical stunning is the norm); they broke the legs of conscious rabbits to better fit them onto J-hooks designed for poultry; they decapitated fully conscious rabbits; and they ignored grievous rabbit injuries. Wilson noted how, in one instance, a worker encountered an abscessed wound on a rabbit so filled with pus that he wretched.