The location this week is my very little tribute to Bob Frank and John Murry, who had the CD release party for their swell new record, Brinkley, Ark. and Other Assorted Love Songs this weekend. Brady played on it, and co-wrote a couple of songs with John, a dear friend of ours for many years now, but I’d love this record even if I didn’t love the both of them. I had a week where I woke up every morning with Bob’s song, “No Reason to Cry” stuck in my head, which I found to be a very pleasant way to greet the day.
Though the title track is “Brinkley, Arkansas is a Quiet Town,” I found I would have to make do with the Junior League of Pine Bluff’s Southern Accent, as Brinkley, Arkansas is apparently too quiet a town to have a Junior League. But Pine Bluff is just 70 miles away, so close enough.
Published in 1976, Southern Accent is another Junior League classic, one of only 60 books inducted into the Walter S. McIlhenny Hall of Fame for community cookbooks, and named “Best in Show” among southern Junior League cookbooks by Publishers Weekly. It includes a local history, brief accounts of notable historic buildings, and of course, a great deal of Arkansas food.
If you’ve never given much thought to Arkansas food, it’s catfish, game, pecans, and lots of produce, but if you had to sum it up in a word, well then, it’s poultry.
I’ve had poultry very much on the brain today, for a number of reasons. Ralph’s was having a buy one, get one free special on Foster Farms chickens today, and I not only jumped on it, I decided to dispatch both of them today. The first I hacked up, and made into a chicken dinner, which I’ll be writing about later this week. And as we speak, I’m making stock with the other one (infinitely better than the chicken-flavored salt water that comes in a can, and it freezes well, too).
So, I’ve been up to my elbows in raw chicken parts all day, trimming neck skin, twisting wings and thighs out of joint, sticking my hand into cavities, and coming out with fistfuls of guts and organs (let’s not call them cute names like giblets… they are guts and organs). It’s visceral and a little gross, but it also forces you to think about where your food comes from in a way that unwrapping a boneless, skinless chicken breast does not.
And this got me thinking about poultry processing plants. I recently read Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human, in which she discusses the conditions faced by pets, livestock, and zoo animals, and how we should improve it (it’s a terrific book – I reviewed it on my other blog). Grandin has spent most of her career working to improve the Dickensian conditions in cattle slaughterhouses, but compared to chickens, cattle are lucky. Compared to chickens, cattle are living in penthouse hotel suites with fresh grass placed daily on their pillows by attentive staff.
You’ve probably heard the stories… egg-laying chickens crammed into tiny cages and unable to move freely or even turn around, broilers bred to have such large breasts and such rapid growth that they can’t actually walk, animals milling around in their own feces, hopped up on growth hormones and antibiotics. It’s pretty grim stuff.
I decided to find out what big poultry producers had to say about the issue of animal welfare at their plants. Tyson Foods (headquartered in Springdale, AR, with dozens of plants around the country, including Pine Bluff, AR) has the least to say about its processing practices and commitment to animal welfare. They have a mission statement, but it’s so vague as to say practically nothing. Perdue’s is also brief, but better. And then I came to Foster Farms, which includes a reasonably well-detailed description of exactly how they raise their chickens – information about barn conditions, auditing, what’s in the feed, how antibiotics are used, and which kinds.
For a moment, I felt good about my dinner.
Until I went on to read about Foster Farms’s violations of the Clean Water Act, their insistence on making the company an open shop, their cavalier trashing of the Merced River, and the possibility that the idyllic conditions for poultry described on their website might not actually reflect reality.*
Of course, they’re not the worst offenders. Tyson Foods has been convicted of many more environmental crimes, indicted for smuggling undocumented workers, was sued for labeling chicken as “antibiotic-free,” when it wasn’t, and manages to kill a shocking number of its employees, including a 15-year-old in 1998.
And yet, here I sit, typing away as my chicken stock simmers on the stove. What kind of monster am I anyway?
And I guess I don’t really have a good answer for that, other than, I’m just not cut out for vegetarianism (did it for three years, for all the reasons detailed above, and it didn’t take). When it comes to sustainable, environmentally-friendly, non-cruel, non-exploitative, non-mutated food, raised and processed by people who earn a living wage, have health insurance, and a good union, I do the best I can, which given all those variables, is still not very good.
I’d like to do better, but I’m also not entirely convinced that it’s me who should be doing better. Sure, I’ll keep shopping at the farmers’ markets and buying my perhaps dubiously-labeled organic dairy products and holding the meat consumption to a reasonable level, but maybe it’s a little more important that the big guys do better, too.
That’s all, the soapbox is set aside for now… it’s just been hard to be spending so much concerted time with food lately without thinking about stuff like this. And now, go buy Bob Frank and John Murry’s record (which should be available on iTunes, eMusic, and the like within a couple of weeks).