You may know, especially if you’ve heard me speak or read my books Midwest Maize or Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs, that getting corn to market was most commonly handled one of two ways. It could be fed to pigs, which could then walk to market. (This led to pigs being referred to as “cornfields on legs.”) Or it could be converted to whiskey. Of course, in addition to getting the corn to market, albeit in an altered state, the advantage of both of these approaches was that it gave those growing the corn both meat and drink.
For those who might be interested in how corn got converted to whiskey back in the 1700s, here’s a video from Townsends demonstrating the entire process. What was being created on farms of the time would not generally be elegant, aged whiskey, but rather a strong, clear, “white” whiskey. So not necessarily good whiskey, but it got the job done.
I find that advertising is a pretty good barometer of how little most consumers know about some things. Like food.
Of course, advertising rarely does anything to help inform consumers. In fact, the claims being made often contribute to confusion.
One example is the demonizing of by-products. Whether it’s food for our dogs and cats or what is being fed to chickens, by-products are always held up as things you don’t want. Bone meal and fat (by-products) are held up as evil additions to whatever animal food is under discussion. But do you know what these animals eat naturally?
Chickens, for example, are omnivores. That means they eat plants and meat. The only way to have a chicken that has never eaten bone or blood is to make sure you never eat a free-range chicken. There are dozens of examples of chickens catching and eating things on the Internet, but this video has long been a favorite.
So bones, fat, blood, and whatever the mouse ate that day are all part of what that chicken is digesting.
I have no problem with chickens being raised on vegetarian feed—this accomplishes different things than the more natural, free-range omnivore diet, including more consistent taste and, in some cases, a certain degree of safety. Or, in the case of egg-laying chickens, eggs from chickens on vegetarian diets have less cholesterol. So there is a difference—but not the difference implied by the ads.
I do want to emphasize that ads that say by-products are not used in a specific product are true—those products truly do not use by-products. It’s the subtle implication that by-products are evil that is problematic.
Same with dog food and cat food. While we’re not raising these animals for consistency of flavor, we are still urged by advertisers to avoid by-products. The word “by-products” simply refers to things other than meat, such as bone meal and fat. Omnivores and carnivores that live outdoors are eating “by-products” all the time.
The nutrients in such by-products as bone meal (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus) are vital to the animals eating the food and have to be replaced with supplements —which is a major reason that feed without by-products costs more. You can’t just take out the by-products and not add back what they provide.
Ultimately, it is the choice of the consumer which to buy, but do know that using by-products is not some evil plot. It’s just a really good way to reduce waste (because you have to throw out all the by-products if you don’t use them) and to reduce costs (not having to purchase the nutrients elsewhere). But it’s good to make choices from a position of knowledge rather than being led by advertisers.
Just a couple more examples advertising that annoys me.
Ham and pork ads almost always now say “no hormones added.” This is true—but unlike by-products, it does not represent a difference in anything. No pork products have added hormones. Pigs have never been given hormones. A pig grows at a stunning rate of speed without any help. A newborn piglet will put on 150 pounds and reach sexual maturity, ready to breed, in just five months. There is no reason in the world to go to the expense and trouble of trying to speed that up by using hormones. I do understand that advertisers mention hormones because they know that’s a hot-button issue with consumers—but you can relax about pork. None of it has hormones.
And final pet peeve (today): ads that make it look like our food is being raised in industrial complexes of some sort. Today, more than 80% of all crops are grown on family farms (the USDA keeps track of this sort of thing). Some of those are big farms (when so few people are willing to do the hard work of farming, the people who are still doing it have to take up the slack). But they are still family owned and family worked. So if you’re eating, thank a farmer.
No –not pigs that talk — just me talking about pigs, and about my book Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest. A while back, Brian O’Keefe at WDCB radio in Wheaton, IL, talked to me about my corn book. Happily, he thought that went well enough to warrant a discussion of my new book. So here’s the interview.
Being wildly busy these day, I’ve been relying on great videos to keep this blog interesting, rather than writing essays to post about places I’ve traveled in the Midwest (though more of that will be coming). I won’t apologize for this, because these are all really worthwhile videos that I want to share anyway.
I have posted a fair number of videos by or about farmers—because that is where our food comes from. But today, I’m posting a video by a science-oriented chef who talks about how bacon is made, why you might want to try making bacon, how to cook bacon—and why bacon is so tasty. With a book out on pigs, I simply couldn’t resist. Enjoy.
In both Midwest Maize and Pigs, Pork and Heartland Hogs, I wrote about Fair Oaks Farms. This is a remarkable operation where the owners not only focus on safe, sustainable food with a low carbon footprint, but also want to educate the public about where food comes from. While my books look at farms of many different sizes, this is among the largest–and yet, they are so forward thinking that their carbon footprint is half that of smaller farms.
In addition to being splendidly effective farmers, they are also exceptional educators. If you happen to live anywhere near northern Indiana, or if a driving trip will take you through the area, you definitely want to stop here. And know that if you like cheese or ice cream, you can see both being made –and can purchase an abundance of both (though other food is available, as well–but seriously, if you like cheese, this place is amazing).
Here’s a video I found in which the founders talk about their vision for the farm and why they developed it the way they did. Hope you enjoy it. And hope you get to visit.
Having won a James Beard Award for his video series, “Sky Full of Bacon,” it probably isn’t surprising that food writer and videographer Michael Gebert is interested in pigs. Happily, he has also expressed interest in my new book, Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs. Enough interest in fact to want to ask me a few questions for his wonderful Fooditor website. Here is the result of our communication: The Story of How the Midwest Was Won–by Pigs. (I know — you’re never supposed to send people to other sites. But aside from appreciating the honor, I was also delighted with the photos Gebert used for the story. He’s clearly someone who understands the appeal of pork.)
I have for several years followed a British YouTube cooking show called “Sorted.” It’s good fun and offers some imaginative recipes. But every once in a while, they wander off to show us something outside the kitchen — usually around London, but sometimes in the U.S. This video was published on Oct. 14–which was just two days before my newest book was released–Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs — a book that looks at the history of pigs, as well as current trends in raising and consuming pork. The book covers about 12,000 years, but it has a fair bit about the culture of Iowa–and the Iowa State Fair, the destination for the Sorted crew in this video. And I was happy to see that they feature some of the special dishes mentioned in the book, including the Iowa Pork Chop, the Pork Chop on a Stick, and the Iowa Pork Tenderloin Sandwich. (The book even includes a recipe for this last item.) So I was delighted at both the timing and the content of the video, as it makes it possible to share a bit of the noisy joy of a state fair — and a look at Iowa’s pork culture. (And a bit of Iowa’s corn culture, as well — which features in my book Midwest Maize. Iowa is # 1 in both corn production and pig raising.)
So here are the four Sorted lads enjoying a bit of Midwestern hospitality and food at the Iowa State Fair.
This blog will relate discoveries made as I explore and study the Midwest. It will feature places I visited in pursuit of tales for my books but will also follow other threads of history, travel, and culture in the Heartland. For the remarkable tales of corn and its importance in the world and U.S., check out the book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. For the fascinating tale of our earliest domesticated food animal, check out Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Bagonfest. I hope you’ll consider buying them. (And stay tuned for future titles.)
Eric Hoffer Award Winner
Midwest Independent Booksellers Association selection