Anthropologies #22: Some thoughts on food, animals, and anthropology

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the Anthropologies #22 series.

Here it is: the long-awaited first installment of the anthropologies issue on food. We kick off the issue with a short essay by James Babbitt, who is a graduate student in cultural anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. Babbitt’s main research interests are animal agriculture and affect in the United States. He is currently confused by the complexities of human-livestock worldings. –R.A.

Right now, I am on a farm in rural New England where hundreds of meat chickens and turkeys are being raised. About a mile down the road is a dairy where a couple dozen cows are milked twice daily. I study animal agriculture in the United States. This summer I am conducting preliminary fieldwork. Animal agriculture is not new to Anthropology. Steven Striffler’s Chicken, Timothy Patchirat’s Every Twelve Seconds, and Alex Blanchette’s article, “Herding Species”, in a recent issue of Cultural Anthropology, are all worth checking out if one is interested in how the majority of meat in America is industrially produced. However, these studies do not look at small-scale production. It is the smaller scale operations that I am most familiar with, having worked as a killer on a small organic chicken farm. But before I discuss, that I will provide a bit of background to flesh out where I am coming from. A good place to begin is vegetarianism.

As a teenager, I was introduced to vegetarianism through punk bands like Propagandi, and was an on and off again vegetarian throughout my twenties. Without punk I probably would have never seriously thought about what I put on my plate and in my mouth. In this I am not alone, for punk seems at least partially responsible for the diets, politics and worldviews of many of my peers. At DIY punk shows there would occasionally be food and it was always vegetarian. To do otherwise would be taboo or heretical. There are a number of great songs about animal rights, animal liberation and vegetarianism/veganism by punk and hardcore bands. My personal favorites are Mob 47’s “Animal Liberation” and “Stop the Slaughter”.

My first serious leap into fully fledged foodie-ism was with Food Not Bombs (FNB), an organization that highlights the connections between war and hunger by serving free vegetarian meals in public. In the late 2000s, FNB in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, was over ten years old and consisted of whoever showed up to cook, eat or grab groceries: mostly punks, anarchists, university students and senior citizens living on social assistance. Meals were served twice a week outside local libraries: once in the North End and once downtown. Extra meals were often held at anti-war demonstrations and other activist events. We cooked and ate a lot of root vegetables, kale, tofu sandwiches and apple crisp. This was around the same time I also threw myself into dumpster diving.

The idea that I could eat for free and save money for booze was a profound revelation. I lived down the street from a Lebanese bakery that threw out bags of pita bread. Slices of pizza and donuts could be found in compost bins and the local organic grocery had good trash a few times a week. And, if you were feeling particularly adventurous, you could always grab bolt cutters and break into a bigger grocery store’s trash compactor and wade through a noxious swamp of rotten vegetables and cold cuts looking for edibles. Free food can and will be found.

Eating, and thinking about eating, wanting to meet my meat, eventually lead to two years working on an organic farm in Maine. My first year farming I worked mostly with poultry, thousands of Cornish Cross broilers (meat chickens), pigs, and vegetables. My second season, I milked. I found raising thousands of chickens in a ramshackle system nauseating. Thousands of birds living together means thousands of pissing and shitting bodies. It smells terrible and feels overwhelming. No amount of bedding seemed to soak up the stench. The indoor phase of raising broilers was a sensory overload. However, I am currently raising hundreds of chickens and this experience is much more reasonable. The difference between raising three hundred birds in a brooder and a thousand is tremendous.

Scale and infrastructure are key in shaping the agricultural production of animal life. The number of birds and the particular materiality of the housing situation can produce a number of different multi-species encounters. Some set ups seem to collapse before they even take off and you find yourself constantly chasing escaped chicks into corners and the clutter of cobwebby contraptions. Others are stable almost static in comparison. There are no escapees and all you have to do is supply grain, grit, and water.

Once the birds were big enough, at approximately four weeks, batches of ninety were put into chicken-tractors and moved to new grass daily. A chicken tractor is a wood and corrugated tin box that the chickens live in and that is dragged onto new grass once or twice a day. This ensures the chickens get some sun, some fresh air, and that pasture is fertilized. When the chickens hit four or five pounds, and before they died of a heart attack or were eaten by foxes or raptors, they were captured and taken to slaughter. This was done by crawling around in a chicken-tractor the morning of a killing day with a hook, snaring the birds by the legs, and putting them into plastic crates. This was a chaotic process that terrified the birds. It is easier and calmer to catch birds at night when they are asleep. Particular human practices such as how birds are caught can either amplify or dampen the affective intensity of the multi-species encounter.

I have killed around 1,500 chickens, maybe 40 turkeys, and a handful of ducks. I really dislike killing ducks. There is something about the way their long necks move as they bleed out that I find distressing. Killing turkeys is not particularly enjoyable either. Chasing down a bird that weighs up to thirty pounds in a livestock trailer, give it a bear hug, flip it upside down, shove it into a cone and saw through its thick scaly neck is different than quickly pulling a four or five pound chicken out of a crate. I have never been hurt killing chickens, but I have been kicked in the face by a turkey in the midst of the death shakes. Killing is messy business: lots of blood and shit. Once a chicken was placed in a cone it was quickly dispatched with one or two strokes from a very sharp knife.

The killing knife was always sharpened before killing and occasionally during a lull in the slaughter. After eight birds have been killed the first four are decapitated with a quick tug or two. These four are then placed into a scalder where they are rotated in hot water, which makes them easier to pluck. I would then kill four more birds, remove the birds from the scalder and put them into the plucker—a spinning cylinder with rubber fingers. The birds bounce about in the plucker for a few minutes and are fished out when featherless. If all is going well there are always birds in the cones, scalder and plucker. After the birds are plucked they are processed in a retrofitted trailer that was initially used for clam processing. I almost always just killed. The evisceration, cooling and bagging process is largely unknown to me. After all the birds were killed, their wet feathers, heads, guts, feet and congealed jelly-like blood were collected in the bucket of a skidsteer and taken to a compost pile where they were mixed with sawdust and manure. This process is very different than the kind of animal slaughter explored in recent ethnographies of industrialized meat production.

Over the last few years, a number of ethnographies have taken us inside slaughterhouses and factory farms (confined animal feeding operations, CAFOs), paragons of rationalization and mechanization. In this agricultural world farmers are often drowning in debt, while slaughterhouses employ illegal immigrants, taking advantage of their socio-economic and legal vulnerabilities. It is a dystopian world of backbreaking labor, blood, brutality, biopower, and biocapitalism. Here human and non-human life is reduced to an industrial input. It is a world where Marx, Foucault, and Agamben are our guides. However, this world is not completely hegemonic. For example, I have taken pigs and cattle to a local abattoir where cows are not killed every twelve seconds. They probably kill about twelve cows a day. They are a small mom-and-pop shop. Animal slaughter on a non-industrial scale still occurs in the United States, and it is worth examining ethnographically. However, this research cannot simply mimic accounts of industrial killing, to do so would erase them multiple forms of multi-species entanglement found in American agriculture.

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Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

One thought on “Anthropologies #22: Some thoughts on food, animals, and anthropology

  1. Thanks James! Finally a multi-species project that does not romanticize the relationship between humans and animals. That has become a disconcerting trend in environmental anthropology of late. I look forward to hearing more of you work that is slightly less autobiographical. I am quite curious to know more about how other people perceive and interact with you and other killers once they become aware of your job. Were you still well received within the vegetarian punk community? I also imagine there are different affective relations between the animals and each killer. If one killer finds enjoyment from their job how does that impact the way the other killers interact with that person? Or is there a level of shared emotion related to taking the life of an animal that comes to form a bond between this unique group of laborers?

    I imagine the affective element would play out quite differently in various cultural situations. For instance, in a Nuosu village in Western China, a single individual was considered to be the killer whenever the village had to fell an ox. However, I am convinced it is impossible for a single person to kill an ox in the manner practiced by the Nuosu (which usually involves a sledgehammer and then a knife). In all the cases I have witnessed/participated multiple male villagers would rope the legs of the ox to prevent them from struggling, while another rope would be tied around the ox’s neck and then drawn tight around a tree so that the head remains fairly stable for the killer to come in with the sledgehammer and then, after many blows, he would cut open the jugular to drain the blood into empty basins. What struck me, though, is that despite the help from others, only one individual was considered the killer; no one else was allowed to handle the sledgehammer and other knives only came out after the blood of the ox had been completely drained. I think this killer should not be considered similar to an untouchable, meaning that it does not appear to be hereditary. In other words no one expected his son to become a killer, nor was his father previously. The villagers all described him as “slow”, referring to his mental capabilities, and often commented on his alcoholism. The question that I wondered, and, sadly, was never able to uncover, was how he became a killer for the village if it was not hereditary (the Nuosu were a slave society if I remember correctly he was from a slave clan, so this could be one important sociological element). It could be because he was considered slow as a child, but in my interaction with him I did not perceive him to be much different than other villagers, except that he was perhaps more shy than others…until he drank. On that note, though, alcoholism would not be strange for a killer in such a village because each time a killer would be asked to fell an ox, he would be gifted a great deal of high-proof liquor (usually moonshine, sometimes Chinese baijiu). And drinking was very much part of the killing process. Those who helped would drink a little, but the killer would drink nearly a pint to himself. So there certainly was a shared emotional element within the process, but it was primarily centered upon the killer.

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