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Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf is the provocative true story of Peter Lovenheim’s hands-on journey into the dairy and beef industries as he follows his calves from conception to possible consumption. In the process, he gets to know the good, hard-working people who raise our cattle and make milk products, beef, and veal available to consumers like you and me. He supplies us with a “fly on the wall” view of how these animals are used to put food on America’s very abundant tables.
Constantly vigilant about wanting to be an observer who never interferes, Lovenheim allows the reader to see every aspect of a cow’s life, without passing judgment. Reading this book will forever change the way you think about food and the people and animals who provide it for us.
From the Hardcover edition.
In 1960, for summer vacation, my family drove from our suburban home in Rochester, New York, to California and back. I was seven years old. On the fourth day of our trip, somewhere in Iowa, I noticed from the back seat of my father’s blue Buick Roadmaster a large herd of grazing cattle. I asked my older sister Jane, who sat next to me, why there were so many “cows,” as I called them.
“That’s where our hamburgers come from,” she said.
My mother twisted around from the front seat. “Jane, shush!”
I asked my sister how cows become hamburgers.
“Oh, the farmers feed them,” she said, vaguely.
“Then what do they do to them?”
“They take them for a train ride.”
“Then what do they do?”
“Peter,” said my mother, “let’s play license-plate bingo.”
In the forty years since that trip, I have eaten my share of steaks, roast beef, and hamburgers, but I have never quite gotten over either my curiosity about how we turn living things into food or my wonder and uneasiness at so many animals taking so many “train rides” to satisfy our appetites. At times, over the years, I ate less meat, taking what seemed the moral high ground. At other times I simply pushed the matter from my thoughts. Today my two older children’s eating habits reflect my own ambivalence: one eats meat, the other doesn’t.
In the spring of 1997, while standing in line at McDonald’s with the daughter who eats meat, I was reminded of that long-ago road trip. McDonald’s was giving away Teenie Beanie Babies with every purchase of a Happy Meal, and my daughter was hoping to get one. Despite having ordered 100 million of the stuffed toy animals, McDonald’s couldn’t keep up with the demand. The line in which we stood extended out the front door; at the drive-through, cars were backed up to the street.
As we waited, I glanced at a countertop display of Beanie Babies. Among them I was surprised to see a bright red bull named “Snort” and a black-and-white cow named “Daisy.” It struck me as odd that a company selling ground beef would offer toys in the shape of cattle. Were children really expected to hug and play with a toy cow while eating the grilled remains of a real one? It seemed to me the McDonald’s–Beanie Baby promotion revealed a deep disconnect between what we eat and where it comes from.
This was not always the case. Until recent generations, every human culture knew intimately the source of its food. Today, however, fewer than 2 percent of Americans are engaged in farming. As a result, most of us know little about where our food comes from, and we are invested in keeping it that way because some aspects of animal agriculture make us uncomfortable. Collectively, we follow my Mom’s advice: while the cattle graze around us, we play license-plate bingo.
But I began to wonder: What might happen if I could connect the dots and actually observe up close the process by which living animals become food? Could I meet the people who raise and care for these animals, watch them as they work, learn their thoughts as they labor to feed the rest of us? How would it affect me to understand deeply a process that has both fascinated and, frankly, scared me since childhood?
But how to begin? The numbers overwhelm: we eat more than 5 billion hamburgers annually, and to produce them we slaughter nearly 45 million cattle, almost 125,000 a day, 5,000 an hour, more than one each second.
I decided to simplify the task: to see if it was possible to move backward from “billions and billions served” to just one—one live animal, and to follow that one animal all the way from birth to burger, or—as an agriculture professor I later spoke with put it—“from conception to consumption.”
My first thought was to catch a plane and head for Iowa, Kansas, or Texas to observe the vast cattle herds of the Midwest. This turned out to be unnecessary. As I soon learned, fast-food hamburger is a blend of fatty meat from cattle raised on pasture and feedlot in the South and Midwest, and lean meat from “cull” dairy cows—cows sent to slaughter when their milk production declines. Most fast-food hamburgers are at least one-half dairy cow, sometimes as much as 70 percent.
And then I learned something else I hadn’t known: not only is the state I live in, New York, the third-largest dairy state in the nation (after Wisconsin and California), but the westernmost counties that border my home in Rochester are the heart of the state’s dairy industry. In other words, within a fifty-mile radius of my suburban home, I could observe firsthand the births, lives, and deaths of the cows whose meat comprises half or more of fast-food hamburgers. I could do all my research without taking another road trip through Iowa.
Who knows why particular images from childhood have the power to shape our lives? Or why, at midlife, we may feel compelled—if we are to remain vital—to confront those images and understand their power? For some, the confrontation may require a physical challenge, like climbing a mountain, hiking the desert, or sailing the ocean. For me, it required pulling on a pair of black rubber boots, climbing into a cow barn, and coming face to face with the reality of life and death.
To begin my journey, I bought a calf.
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted May 8, 2008
While waiting in a backed up line at McDonalds in 1997, Peter Lovenheim and his daughter hoped to receive a Teenie Beanie Baby, which were given away for free with the purchase of any Happy Meal. The choices are a bull named Snort and a black and white cow named Daisy. This instantly struck him as ironic that a company selling beef would promote these toys and unfortunately revealed to him the deep disconnection between what we eat and where it comes from. This led Peter to the idea of what it would be like to raise one out of the `billions and billions served¿ from `birth to burger¿ or `conception to consumption.¿ This book displays the `behind the scenes¿ lives of the dairy farm industry, the people that make dairy and beef available to us, and the detailed lives of two calves. It is an extremely valuable book for anyone interested in where the meat we buy so readily actually comes from and the work, choices, and culture put into it. It shows an outside and realistic view of not only the day in the life of two calves, but the farmers, staff, families, and various stakeholders involved. He steps into the lives that the farming industry entails and develops a deep relationship and feeling of satisfaction and `home¿ that many people not familiar with farming life usually ignore while maintaining a straight forward, realistic, and a far from judgmental view of the diary farm industry and culture. It leaves you in suspense of what he will decide to do, follow with his original plan or let his calves live past their beef bred years.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 5, 2003