Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf: The Story of One Man, Two Cows, and the Feeding of a Nationby Peter Lovenheim
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When Peter Lovenheim stood in line at McDonald's to buy a Happy Meal for his daughter, which would come with a Teenie Beanie Baby—either a cow named "Daisy" or a bull named "Snort," he found it strange that young children would be expected to play with cuddly toy cows one minute and eat the grilled remains of real ones the next. Lovenheim suddenly saw the disconnect between what we eat and our knowledge of where our food comes from. Determined to understand the process by which living animals become food, Lovenheim bought two calves from the dairy farm where they were born and asked permission to spend as much time as necessary hanging around and observing everything that happened in their lives.
Portrait of a Burger is the true story of Lovenheim's hands-on journey into the diary and beef industries as he follows his calves from "conception to consumption." In the process, he gets to know the hard-working people who raise our cattle and make milk products and beef. He supplies us with a "fly on the wall" view of the animals we use to put food on America's tables.
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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 TeenieBeanie 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.
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