The Modern Farmer and The (Very) Fresh Chicken

» November 6th, 2014

There’s a moment in The New Yorker’s recent feature on Modern Farmer, the magazine dedicated to small-scale farming by a younger and hipper demographic, that’s equally telling and moving. It’s sort of the like the foodie’s Drover’s magazine. In it, the author and the magazine’s founder Ann Marie Gardner, visit a local farm to pick up fresh chicken. But there is no fresh chicken so the farmer asks his customers to hang on a sec so he can kill a few right quick. Here’s what follows:

[Gardner] walked out to the parking lot and called the chef who was to grill the chickens. “I’m having a crisis, because they haven’t killed the chickens, and he’s going to kill them for me,” she said. “I’m really seriously thinking, Couldn’t we just do pasta?” She walked in a tight circle. “It’s true, it’s very fresh chicken,” she said, nodding. “That’s one way to look at it.” When she walked back inside, the man said, “Next ones coming through the window are yours.” Gardner took out her checkbook. “I love the chef’s attitude,” she said uncertainly. “ ‘It’s very fresh.’ They’re not sentimental about it.” Another bird squawked, and Gardner put her hands to her cheeks, then pressed her fingers to her eyes. “People who raise chickens say that if you saw the individual personalities they have you’d never want to eat chicken again, so I guess my next up is to get some animals, huh?” Sniffling, she wrote a check for $84.93, and took the chickens, which I had to carry, because when she touched them she discovered that they were still warm.

The scene is poignant. The recognition of life, the apparent suffering at the prospect of death, the admission that the birds have personalities and interests, the inability to handle (literally) the consequences —all by the head of a magazine about farming! Rather than condemn or judge Gardner here, my inclination is to appreciate the honesty of her reaction, her refusal to plaster over the experience with stupid terms such as “meat chickens” or “harvest,” and her willingness to spill our her emotions in front of the writer whom she must have known would document them for readers to witness and, naturally, judge.

The easy part, from the animal advocate’s perspective, would be to focus on the fact that, as the next scene confirms, she and her dinner party guests ate the birds, and then deliver a stern admonishment. Lord knows I’ve done my share of that. The harder part, though, is to grapple with the implications of the emotional reaction that preceded the meal. I’m not sure exactly what, but something tells me there are truths being expressed in that moment that animal activists are not fully appreciating or exploiting to the benefit of farm animals.

11 Responses to The Modern Farmer and The (Very) Fresh Chicken

  1. John T. Maher says:

    Oh dear, we verge into affect theory.

    McW is so right that humans are swayed by their self-indulgent emotions when he praises Gardner’s “willingness to spill our her emotions in front of the writer whom she must have known would document them for readers to witness and, naturally, judge” rather than reason or calls to understand consciousness other human constructs.

    Then again it is hard to believe that any of the narcissistic former inhabitants of the NYT actually feel anything concerning the alterity of others unless it is possibly Schadenfreude over a killed piece or a magazine closing. How to we know Gardner ‘felt’ anything or felt as reported? How do know her affect was genuine and not media friendly? It certainly was not reported or analyzed in much detail by Conde Nast and seemed a bit flippant “I love the chef’s attitude” and ultimately mattered not in her decision as the culmination of her agency was to do nothing and passively listen to other voices and pick up her still warm order. Perhaps the New Yorker confuses moral uncertainty with the manque of moral uncertainty. My point is the only genuine uncertainty is whether this piece tells us anything about how vegan advocates might persuade meat eaters to stop eating chickens at all if feeling is modified and packaged for its audience.

    The giveaway rag ‘Edible Hudson Valley’ is better in terms of service pieces for you chicken eaters out there. Richard Twine recently wrote a great piece on the killjoy and the vegan at the same table which discusses affect at the dinner table and persuasion in a more insightful manner than NYer. Finally the East bank of the Hudson River Valley has become a bastion of hipsters, especially Ancramdale, Hudson, etc. and I would not trust what are essentially media savvy hobbyists in any format on the ethics of instrumentality and killing,especially when it has all been said before.

  2. Mary Finelli says:

    I don’t think there’s a lot to work with there. If she is the founder of Modern Farmer I find it hard to believe that she hasn’t confronted such reality before. I suspect she realized that the New Yorker audience would have reservations about the birds being killed, and she was doing a bit of posing for them. She didn’t seem very put out about the killing, and it didn’t seem to take much to get her to accept it. Not impressed.

    • James says:

      I hear you. But do you think it’s more productive to dismiss the reaction as calculating (without evidence) than to assume the reaction was genuine and see where an analysis of that might go?

    • Karen Harris says:

      I agree with Mary. Nothing new here. No different really from zillions of stories of people who slaughter and hunt animals, recognize that they have taken a life, pay homage of sorts, and eat them without much of a problem.
      I think, in fact, that there is more than a little self congratulation in Gardner’s rendition of her feelings and behavior.

    • Mountain says:

      Time will tell. If her life is unchanged two years from now, then it was just an emotional pose, even if it felt real to her at the time. If, in two years time, she has made changes in her life to cause less harm to the lives around her, then her reaction was real and meaningful. There’s no way for us to know right now.

      • James says:

        Good. Nice to have you back in the fold here. Are you still having trouble posting comments?

        • Mountain says:

          After we e-mailed, I still wasn’t able to post for a while– a few days, maybe a week. This the second thread I’ve been able to comment on. So, it looks like the technical problems have cleared up. Thanks.

  3. Denial is a tough nut to crack. I remember as a carnist going to see an art show by the animal activist/artist Sue Coe. The paintings were graphic depictions of slaughterhouses and factory farms. I was sincerely horrified, but I made no connection at the time between my own behavior and what I saw. Years later, it was almost as if I made a decision at the semi-conscious level to face up to what? I wasn’t sure. I went to see Food Inc, with the suspicion that I might see something awful, but I couldn’t even formulate what that might be. How weird is that? Finally I allowed myself to fully take in reality and I never knowingly ate animal food after that. Give that woman time. She’ll probably come around — when she’s ready.

  4. Also I just want to say, coming to grips with this stuff takes a certain amount of emotional strength. Maybe even a lot of emotional strength.
    Once you allow yourself to feel it — it really hurts!

  5. I suppose I should have said, “when I ate animal products,” but I do think there’s a mindset (stereotype?) that goes with using animals for whatever. Just like I think there’s a mindset that goes with avoiding using animals. I’m not going to say “bad” vs. “good.” It’s more like “irresponsible” versus “responsible.” And I define “responsible” as the ability to respond….Or maybe I’m taking your comment too seriously. Were you kidding about a “vegan cult?” With email misunderstandings run wild!

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