Time to Make the PestoOctober 17, 2011
A Winemaker to WatchNovember 3, 2011
Joel Salatin is a cheeky man. At least that’s the impression I get from reading his latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. Filled with chapter titles like “A Cat is a Cow is a Chicken is My Aunt” and “The Poop, the Whole Poop, and Nothing but the Poop,” this farmer and advocate for local food is not afraid to bring his incisive wit, along with some righteous indignation, to the discussion of our country’s royally-screwed-up food system—and his approach is extremely welcome.
By now, anyone who’s been paying attention to the issues surrounding factory feedlots, the obesity epidemic, and the disappearance of the small American farmer knows how serious things have gotten. The time for making polite, academic arguments is surely over, and the time for shaking things up has arrived.
Reading Salatin’s book was both a joyful and depressing affair. Joyful, for the descriptions of life on his Virginia farm (of which you can catch a glimpse in the awesome 2008 documentary Food, Inc.). Joyful, too, in its practical suggestions for how to restore sanity to our food world and solve other thorny yet interconnected problems—such as our illogical energy policy, climate change and our dysfunctional reality-TV-culture. But I also found the book depressing at times, because his blueprint requires that people make real changes in their daily habits and that entrenched bureaucracies be dismantled, and I fear that those things won’t happen. In these times we are living in, when there are people who still insist with a straight face that President Obama was born in Kenya or argue about red states vs. blue states, and when the anchors of Good Morning America can speak breathlessly about the imminent return of the McRib sandwich as if it were a magical golden ingot, how on earth will we ever get people to agree to tear out their precious lawns and plant vegetables? Throughout the book, Salatin repeats the title phrase “folks, this ain’t normal” when he refers to the current state of affairs, but the pessimist in me worries that our toxic (in every sense of the word) reality has become the new normal.
Salatin seems to believe otherwise, and thankfully, his enthusiasm is contagious. Lord knows, I would love for him to be right. The lifestyle he describes recalls wonderful memories of the summers I spent on my grandmother’s farm in Spain. Flipping hay to dry in the sun and helping my uncles, aunts, and cousins pile it into haystacks…Helping them load that hay onto wooden carts to be pulled home by the family’s cows so that these same animals would have something to eat during the cold Galician winters when they couldn’t be taken out to graze…Collecting fruit peels, vegetable scraps and leftover food waste to make the slop that nourished the pigs. Those summer holidays were magical for a child. There was always something new to learn about the world outside of my urban home in New York and about life as it’s been lived for centuries (at least, until recently).
Though I don’t agree with everything Salatin has written, he makes many powerful, common-sense arguments, and you can tell that they spring directly from his life. You can disagree with a few of the conclusions he draws, but you cannot dispute the facts of his experience, and you and I can (and should) try to learn from him and others by paying attention.
I’m a lifelong environmentalist, and I’ve worked directly with ecologists and researchers in the conservation field. As a result, I like to think I know a fair amount about things like climate change and sustainable agriculture—not anywhere close to what a scientist or farmer would know, but more than the average man-on-the-street. And yet this book taught me a lot and helped me view these issues through a new prism. For that alone, Folks, This Ain’t Normal should be required reading for every American. Beyond that, it’s a bonus for passages like this one:
“The average person is still under the aberrant delusion that food should be someone else’s responsibility until I’m ready to eat it. Most farmers’ market buyers can only buy enough to fill one hand because the other is holding the leash for Fifi, the upscale, perfectly manicured poodle, or other canine of equal pampering. I like little ribboned bottles of condiments and cute bow-tied mini-breads. But I want to see people really buying their food, displacing their supermarket patronage, period.
Or this one:
“I’ve concentrated so far on airline food because it probably epitomizes modern society’s fixation with encasing every morsel of food in plastic. Even bite-sized morsels. Not only was this not done a century ago, it was impossible. Mass production of customized wrapping material had not progressed to allow economical individual wrapping. Add to that our fixation on individual choice and noncommunal dipping, and we have a veritable daily mountain of waste exhausting from our food system.”
I wish I could paste here all of the “hell, yes!” lines from the book and share them with you—I bent the corners of at least 30 pages to mark passages I wanted to scream out from the rooftops—but instead, I encourage you to go out and get your own copy. Read it, talk about it with others, and consider how you can make at least a few changes in your lives. NOT because you feel obligated to do so by guilt or because some government entity is forcing you to, but because these changes are very likely to make you happier. Maybe it’s possible to create a new normal, after all.
Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World, by Joel Salatin [Published by Center Street/Hachette Book Group, October 2011].