Portrait of a Burger As a Young Calf: The Story of One Man, Two Cows, and the Feeding of a Nation

Portrait of a Burger As a Young Calf: The Story of One Man, Two Cows, and the Feeding of a Nation

by Peter Lovenheim

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Four years ago, journalist Peter Lovenheim was standing in a long line at McDonald’s to buy a Happy Meal for his little daughter, which would come with a much-desired Teenie Beanie Baby—either a black-and-white cow named “Daisy” or an adorable red bull named “Snort.” Finding it rather strange that young children were being offered


Four years ago, journalist Peter Lovenheim was standing in a long line at McDonald’s to buy a Happy Meal for his little daughter, which would come with a much-desired Teenie Beanie Baby—either a black-and-white cow named “Daisy” or an adorable red bull named “Snort.” Finding it rather strange that young children were being offered cuddly toy cows one minute and eating the grilled remains of real ones the next, Lovenheim suddenly saw clearly the great disconnect between what we eat and our knowledge of where it comes from. Determined to understand the process by which living animals become food, Lovenheim did the only thing he could think of: He bought a calf—make that twin calves, number 7 and number 8—from the dairy farm where they were born and asked for permission to spend as much time as necessary hanging around and observing everything that happened in the lives of these farm animals.

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A more generous view of the beef industry than Eric Schlosser's recent Fast Food Nation, this anecdotal account follows a cow's life from conception to consumption. Lovenheim (Mediate, Don't Litigate), a professional mediator, was buying his daughter a McDonald's Happy Meal with a coveted Beanie Baby cow when he was struck by how little most beef-eaters know about the process that turns cute calves into juicy burgers. He found an operating dairy farm near his upstate New York home that agreed to sell him two calves, and to allow him 24-hour access to all aspects of the farm's operation. Tracing the progress of his holstein calves as they are raised for "dairy meat" (middling quality beef that ends up at mid-priced restaurants), Lovenheim offers an absorbing firsthand look at cattle-raising. How bull semen is collected, why cows are made to ingest magnets, how bulls are de-horned and castrated, how dairy cows are chosen for slaughter, why antibiotics and additives are used, how a cattle auction is conducted these are just some of the daily operations that Lovenheim illuminates while introducing readers to the men and women who work these farms. He ultimately never sets foot in a slaughterhouse, and the book is more a neutral, matter-of-fact exploration than a muckraking expos , as much about Lovenheim's own education as it is about the beef that ends up on our tables. (July) Forecast: If it can feed off the audience for last year's bestselling Fast Food Nation, recently out in paper, this low-key look at the world of cattle could realize good sales within a niche market of readers drawn to narratives rooted in getting back to nature's basics. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Journalist Lovenheim's curiosity over how living things are turned into food inspired him to buy two calves and follow them from infancy to the slaughterhouse. His account of this process is a mix of agricultural science, insights into the meat business, and human-interest journalism. At its core are the personal stories of some of the people who raise beef and dairy cattle and those who slaughter them for human consumption. Along with the author, the reader discovers that much of the meat for fast-food hamburgers comes from dairy animals, either from cows whose production has slowed or from bull calves. The facts and story of beef production are presented well (and described in vivid detail with no apologies or call for reform), but the mix of science, farming, and irrelevant personal details is at times disconcerting. Recommended for public libraries. Tim McKimmie, New Mexico State Univ. Lib., Las Cruces Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Contemplative examination of contemporary dairy farming and the hidden support systems for our carnivorous habits. Journalist and professional mediator Lovenheim purchased three dairy calves and observed their lives from birth onward. He got the idea after watching his children play with cow-shaped Beanie Babies while cheerfully eating grilled beef in their McDonald’s Happy Meals, and this sort of picaresque irony pervades his project as he examines the disconnect in American culture about where food comes from and his own assumptions about the dairy industry. Lovenheim acquired the calves from Lawnel Farms in the Genessee River valley town of York, home to a large concentration of New York State’s dairy farms, and boarded them with a nearby farmer, Peter Vongolis. Closely watching Lawnel’s 500-cow dairy operation and Vongolis’s animal husbandry, Lovenheim achieves a detailed understanding of contemporary dairy farming, demystifying for the reader everything from the artificial insemination of cows with genetically desirable semen to high-tech approaches towards feed and milk production. He ultimately discerns less cruelty and dark ambiguity than he’d initially feared. The narrative’s most successful passages are its strong, nuanced portraits of the York farming community and the people raising his calves. Lovenheim develops paternal feelings and curiosity about the animals, which clouds his resolve to not interfere; he overplays this angle with constant meditation on his project’s ramifications, leading to some repetitious and spacey prose on the order of, say, “If my calf is thinking, what is he thinking on this cold day?” That said, this is a thorough, evenhanded view of a malignedindustry. Lovenheim offsets the grim realities of the slaughterhouse with the technical achievement, skill, and effort of dairy farmers and other workers in the enormous infrastructure that feeds America. He offers a restrained endorsement of dairy farming’s current state, yet donates his own calves to an animal sanctuary. So fair-minded it might actually appeal to both sides in the contentious meat-eating debate.

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
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6.46(w) x 9.41(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt


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.

Meet the Author

Peter Lovenheim’s articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, and other publications. A graduate of Boston University School of Journalism and Cornell Law School, he is the author of four previous books, including Becoming a Mediator: An Insider’s Guide to Exploring Careers in Mediation. He lives in Rochester, New York.

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