The Art of Food: The Unavoidable Stage…

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Moving along in the Art of Food digital tour, we stop at Sidonie Petetin’s painting “Still Life with Revolver and Plovers.” What’s the first thing you see when you look at this painting? Does one element of the painting influence how you view the rest of it? For me, I noticed the birds hanging upside down first. When I saw the revolver, it all came together. I can relate to this painting a little better than the Apulian fish plate in the last blog entry simply because I grew up in Nebraska where it’s not unusual to drive down the highway behind a truck with a deer hanging off the back. If anything, it’s more unusual to see this scene in a painting on a gallery wall instead of on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. By removing this scene from its outdoor setting and placing it in a museum, a place that inspires contemplation and interpretation, Petetin has made me think about the process of wild animals becoming my dinner and has raised, for me as well as others I’m sure, a dilemma. As Michael Pollan would say, an omnivore’s dilemma.

In his aptly titled book An Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Pollan, a journalism professor at UC-Berkeley, “trace[s] the origins of everything consumed, revealing what we unwittingly ingest and explaining how our taste for particular foods and flavors reflects our evolutionary inheritance.” I first picked up this book a couple years ago but stopped reading somewhere around page 78 when Pollan explains the dangers of a feedlot diet to a cow’s liver. I grew up surrounded by cattle but I intentionally avoided witnessing branding, butchering, and the “gross” stuff. Pollan, however, lays it all bare on the pages of his book. The reality of what it takes to end up with a burger on my plate is no longer avoidable.

Petetin makes a similar move with her painting, exposing the unavoidable stage between what I would like to believe were happy-go-lucky plovers, to whatever happens to plovers after they are killed. Plovers are shorebirds that aren’t used for food the same way as chickens. However, seeing them suspended in the painting reminds me of a chicken farm and what Pollan describes in chapter 12 of his book as “the glass abattoir.”

An abattoir is a slaughterhouse. A glass abattoir is a transparent slaughterhouse, the type that invites the whole world to see what’s happening on the inside. My first thought on this was, why would I ever want to see the inside of a slaughterhouse? After squirming for a few minutes, my second thought was, how could I not? As an omnivore, I risk more by not knowing about the process of slaughtering meat than by pretending that stage doesn’t exist.

Pollan writes in chapter 12 of The Omnivore’s Dilemma about his first-hand experience with this stage while working for a week at Polyface Farm, a “non-industrial food production oasis” in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Joel Salatin, owner of the farm, and his crew guide Pollan through their stages of chicken processing: slaughtering, plucking, eviscerating, selling, and even composting the waste. Is this stage, the killing of animals for meat, ethical? That’s a question we all have to decide for ourselves, but for those of us who do eat meat, Pollan offers this insight: “While we were cleaning up, scrubbing the blood of the tables and hosing down the floor, customers began arriving to pick up their chickens. This was when I began to appreciate what a morally powerful idea an open-air abattoir is. … This transparency is their [the customers’] best assurance that the meat they’re buying has been humanely and cleanly processed.” He continues, “Like fresh air and sunshine, Joel believes transparency is a more powerful disinfectant than any regulation or technology. It is a compelling idea. Imagine if the walls of every slaughterhouse and animal factory were as transparent as Polyface’s—if not open to the air than at least made of glass. So much of what happens behind those walls—the cruelty, the carelessness, the filth—would simply have to stop” (Pollan, 235).

The City of Columbia has already taken steps to help its residents become more educated, involved in, and aware of meat processing. In the summer of 2009, Columbia residents began pushing for a new ordinance that would allow people to keep chickens in their backyards. In February 2010, the ordinance was passed, allowing residents “to keep as many as six hens—but no roosters—in their backyards for noncommercial purposes.” Since the new law was passed, the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture has begun hosting a series of Yard to Skillet workshops that “guide participants through every step necessary to humanely prepare an urban hen for consumption.” To learn more about a recent workshop, check out this article or this photo essay. Disclaimer: the images and/or language of the article may be deemed graphic by some viewers.

Pollan doesn’t take a personal stance on the morality of eating meat. Instead, he advocates for a farm system that is more like an ecosystem—every species, including humans, in symbiosis. In a lecture given at Williams College on October 11, 2007, Pollan explains why Polyface Farm provides a model for what farming in the United States should be, a system “where every relationship between species is modeled roughly on the relationships that similar species would have in nature” (found at 41:33). Grass, chickens, cattle, even humans—all have a right to be treated humanely, not just during processing but throughout their lives. Instead of cloning meat, overworking slaughterhouse employees, and caging chickens in extremely contaminated conditions (a practice that led to the recent egg recall), Pollan argues we should respect the lives of the species and, when the time for processing comes, go about it in the most humane and clean way as possible.

After confronting my personal omnivore’s dilemma with the help of Pollan’s book, Petetin’s painting of dead plovers is not quite as jarring. In fact, I’m glad the museum has its own little window into the glass abattoir to inspire discussion and contemplation. While books like Pollan’s and workshops like those offered at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture give people a chance to either read about others’ experiences or have a hands-on experience, Petetin’s painting offers an internal experience—a chance for each viewer to approach the image cautiously, struggle with the theme represented, and reach a conclusion based on personal beliefs and morals. All this without ever having to leave the museum.

*For a map of where to find grass-fed chicken in Missouri, click here. For more information on how to create a more humane system of chicken farming, check out chapter 7 of Dr. Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals or her webpage.

About the Author: Kim Nochi is a first-year master’s student in the Department of Art History and Archaeology focusing on the art of Medieval Spain. In addition to her scholarly interests, she has a personal interest in food policy and local food systems, a result of growing up in rural Nebraska (yes, she’s a Husker fan!). This blog post is part of the “Art of Food” series.

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