Thursday, February 17, 2011

Eating Ursula: Pardon me while I take a strange interlude

[As I indicated in my first post, I'm a cultural anthropologist who's working on pastured pork production and consumption here in North Carolina.  And occasionally I'd like to include some moderately anthropological ruminations on this work - so here's one - in THREE PARTS!   I'd be delighted to read your comments]

Eating Ursula (Part 1)
            Just about a year ago,  I met two friends of mine for lunch at the Saxapahaw General Store, a wonderful little "5 Star Gas Station."  One was Ross, an aspiring farmer, and the other Sam, a young chef on the verge of opening his restaurant, The Pig. On the menu for the day was barbecued pulled pork belly, which we all sampled.  Ross, who works at Cane Creek Farm, said to me, you know this belly comes from Ursula. I said, I know, we sold her other belly at the market on Saturday. It was a HUGE belly, much bigger than the 4-5 lb bellies we normally sell.  Yeah, you know she was that bitch. What? That weird looking pig, she looked like a Martian, like some kind of demonic pig.  So I tried to remember which pig she was from my time working at the farm, and asked what breed she was.  Was she an Old Spot?  Or some Berkshire mix? Surely not an Ossabaw because she was way too big.  Ross wasn't sure, but he was pretty sure she was a Farmer's Hybrid cross.  So I said, wait a minute, was she the pig in the garden pen, who was really ornery- to the point of regularly attacking the staff?  He said, yeah she's the one who was impossible.

            Of course, I now remember Ursula, because Ursula was one of the first sows I met when I started working at Cane Creek Farm. I had showed up in December of 2008, mostly to do chores – feeding and watering every animal in sight – and offering two hands to do whatever else needs doing.  You couldn't help but notice the piglets – called "pigs" on a farm – that are more or less free to roam wherever they like on the farm. (as in this video).  The wooden fences that enclose sows and boars on pasture aren't deep enough to hold in little pigs, who like to hang out together, and investigate anything and everything at Cane Creek. But they're not interested in running off and getting lost, so they always come back to their mothers. In the course of feeding sows in the garden pen, I, in my utter inexperience and frank stupidity, grabbed a small mottled, calico-colored pig as it snuck under a fence in front of me, picked it up by its hind leg, and held it up to look at it while it squealed and screamed bloody murder in my face. Who could resist such a cute pig. Well, what happened within a few milliseconds, was that the sow who was this pig's mother, barreled towards me, and had I not leapt out of the way up the fence, she easily would have gotten her jaws around my knee and snapped my leg in half.  I didn't make it back into that pen again for several weeks, and every time I did walk past the pen the sow - Ursula herself – would take a good long look at me, and often rush towards me to back me off.
            When I had asked if Ursula were part Berkshire, Sam said, aren't Berkshires bad mothers? Ross wasn't sure about that – most of the pigs at Cane Creek are not purebred anything anyway  - but he did say that part of what makes any sow a really good mother is what makes her really lousy to raise and handle on the farm.  It became increasingly impossible, with Ursula, to try to get her pigs away from her, to "grow them out," or castrate them (as all market boars are), or otherwise make them independent of her so that they could be raised up for the market. And so, Ursula was taken off to slaughter - not, as was the case with other sows I knew, because she proved incapable of further "farrowing" (that is, of reproducing), but rather because she was SUCH a good mother that she was far too ornery to keep on the farm without doing damage to the staff, and the farm as a whole.
            This indicates a number of things to me. First, it shows the extent to which pigs contribute to their own domestication. That is, pigs' abilities to be "good mothers" are not just "natural attributes" of a particular breed, they are part of the behavior that pigs can exhibit RELATIVE TO the kind of farm work and labor that's needed to see the sow through the processes of reproducing, and raising her offspring up for market.  "Maternal qualities" are the outcome of a "natural-cultural" process, whereby pigs are selected and bred for attributes that contribute to their husbandry.  Being a good mother means being well-suited to raising pigs for slaughter.
            So what did it mean to EAT a pig that did this TOO well?  How were we treating a sow who protected her pigs with such skill and alacrity that she was penalized for it?  Ursula was caught in a double-bind – the very qualities that had made her so valuable, also made her vulnerable.
            Moreover, what did it mean to eat a pig with whom many of us had a history? Certainly I didn't feel any sense of vengeance in eating the pig who had tried to assault me. She was well within her rights to try to do so for having done such a stupid thing.  It does raise questions, though, about our obligations to animals, the extent to which those obligations require us, not only to make sure these animals have a good life (and a "good death" if such is possible), but also to think about whether there can ever be reciprocity in a relationship with another creature who one ultimately eats. What can it mean to provide animals such a "good life" when the purpose of caring for them is to bring them to slaughter so they can be effectively, successfully, and delectably eaten?  Ursula's pursuit of her "good life," the  particular attributes she had, the interests she defended, we might even call it her personality – raise these questions.
[More to come . . .]


  1. Sure is an interesting question.

    Defining the good life for an animal, vs defining the good life for the system of animals and farms and people. What's good for the system isn't necessarily the same as what's good for each part of the system individually.

    I still think it's possible to show respect for the animals we use without pretending we're giving them what they would consider a better life than they'd have in the wild (we can acknowledge that we provide for them in certain ways, if we also acknowledge that we take away things from them as well).

    And I still think the best thing for the whole system is to weight our considerations towards the animal's good life -- the more the animal is allowed to live like it would in the wild, likely the better for our health in eating it or its products, as well as the better for the ecosystem it lives in. Factory pig is a bad life for the animal as well as bad eating for us and bad inputs for the land.

  2. Fantastic post, Brad. I liked it for three specific reasons: the good questions you raise (especially about the possible nature of reciprocal relationships with animals we eat); the analysis of how, for example through intense maternal behavior, pigs may contribute to their own domestication; and best of all, the fact that you convey such an excellent sense of Ursula as a distinct individual pig.

  3. Ursula -loved in life. appreciated in bacon? But seriously, I'm thrilled to see these sort of thoughts sharing space with the bacon making posts from Charcutepalooza. If we are going to take a year to discover this age old craft, it would seem appropriate to spend that year contemplating our carnivorous selves, hopefully encouraging compassion in our choice to eat meat.

  4. Thanks, oh Czar of the Charcutepalooza. There are two more installments of this saga, now posted, as well.