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Joseph LeDoux

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Guns, Germs, and Squeals

Posted: 05/12/09 07:11 PM ET

I learned what a brain was by digging bullets out of them as a kid in my father's meat market in Eunice, Louisiana, deep in the heart of Cajun country. In those days, cows and pigs were killed by a 0.22 caliber right between the eyes. Sounds barbaric, but was probably pretty quick and painless in the end. Since customers didn't like chomping down on lead while enjoying their sautéed sweetbreads (brains and visceral organs), my job was to trace the bullet holes with my small fingers and pry the lead out. That was before mad cow disease, when most people thought cow brains were a tasty delight rather than a source of a horrible medical condition that rots your brain (karmic isn't it that eating brains kills brains). It was also before the USDA started, in the 1970s, enforcing stricter standards to protect people from eating tainted meet.

It's true that the conditions at the slaughter house, located at our farm three miles out of town, were not super-sanitary. It was a cinder block building with no air conditioning, but the high ceilings seemed to keep it from being too hot, even those blistering summer months. After being processed (gutted, skinned, and hosed down), the sides of beef and pork would hang in the cooler (this had proper chilling) until it was time to bring the meat into town. Today, most people are aghast to find out that the meat was shipped in the back of a pickup truck with nothing but a tarp draped over it, the country air and dust whipping underneath the tarp as the truck zipped down Highway 190. In spite of those conditions, I never heard of any complaints of people getting sick from the meat.

If anyone did get sick, the problem would have stayed local because the meat was processed, sold, and consumed in town. Nothing that my father or any other small butcher could have done could have affected more than a small number of people. Today, there are hardly any small butchers left. My parents used to complain about being driven out of business by the big meat packing companies and the supermarkets that were being supplied by the packers. It was hard to compete with the efficiency and economies of scale that the big companies had. And only they were really able to afford the new kinds of facilities being required by the USDA. But it all seemed part of the natural progression of things. Big business should mean fresh, safe food on a mass scale.

I remember my parents beings relieved when they decided to retire. My father, Boo, was in his early 60s, and was pretty much ready. He had his horses out at the farm to occupy him full-time. My mother, Pris, was younger but was happy to have the time to fish. It was clear by then that I was not destined to follow in my father's steps and take over the meat business the way he had done. So rather than convert their cinder block slaughter house into a stainless steel palace at great expense, they sold the store and turned the old building into a saddle repair shop.

It was the best move they ever made. It was 1975 or so, and the next year they took off on a wagon train adventure as part of the Bi-Centennial celebration. Afterwards, they thrived on the fame. Boo became a local legend, traveling around to rodeos and crafts shows telling stories of having been a bull rider in Madison Square Garden in the depression, a wagon master for the Bi-Centennial, and a saddle craftsman and horseman forever after that.

Back to meat. Big business is organized and efficient, and indeed much less should go wrong. But about the time my folks sold their business, the Peter Principle was becoming a popular concept. If something can go wrong it will. Indeed, each year we hear about the discovery of harmful pathogens in meat. If e. coli gets into the hamburger meat of a major meat packer that ships their product to the far reaches of the country, and perhaps internationally, people all over the world can be affected.

Epidemiologists have been talking about the problems created by raising lots of animals in small confined places, as is done by major meat producers. In a recent article in the Huffiington Post, "Swine Flu Outbreak -- Nature Biting Back at Industrial Animal Production?," David Kirby notes that US companies set up farms of this type in Mexico, where the labor is cheap and access to Latina American markets easier. He goes on to say that "scientists around the world have worried that large-scale, indoor swine 'factories' would become breeding grounds for new pathogens that could more easily infect humans and then spread out rapidly in the general population -- threatening to become a global pandemic." There is indeed a swine factory, presumably with squealing pigs packed in tight quarters, near the suspected source of the recent swine flu outbreak. Whether this factory was the origin of the outbreak is not known at this point.

I'm currently in Cambridge, England, where they are far ahead of the US in thinking about living lean, green and clean. Sometimes I think they go overboard, as when they have a knee-jerk response to any kind of genetic manipulation of crops. But for the most part the British commitment to recycling and awareness of the importance of keeping small producers of food in business is impressive. I try to shop as much as I can from the farmer's market store on the corner of Lensfield Road, near where I live. It features fresh products from small local producers. When I go back to New York I'm going to take much more advantage of the outdoor farmer's market at Union Square. Sometimes you have to go away to appreciate things you have at home.

That brings us to the song of the day: "The Green Green Grass of Home" by Tom Jones. Just kidding. Way too cheezy. The song of the day is actually "Green Onions" by Booker T and the MG's. Green onions, or scallions, are an integral part of any Cajun meal. I actually never ate brains, but I imagine that they would have been garnished with green onions had I eaten them.

 
 
 

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