Strawberries are cheap just now. Blueberries even cheaper, four punnets for $7. So cheap it’s almost sinister. I buy them with mixed delectation and mistrust, knowing the pleasure of the eating will be blemished by doubts over provenance. There’s the packaging mountain and the food miles, of course, and the monoculture thing. There’s also the surface pesticides (are they really as water soluble as it’s said?) and doubts about whether anything so cheap, so perfectly formed and so mind-numbingly mass-produced can actually have food content.
This production hinterland behind the consumption surface is what my favourite mad-farmer Joel Salatin might call the foodness of food. Behind our narcissistic obsessions with the aesthetics and morality of food lies a vast and surprising lake of ignorance. This lacuna is the core subject of a fascinating new book, The Ethical Omnivore, by Marrickville-based providores, Feather and Bone’s Laura Dalrymple and Grant Hilliard.
The lacuna is this. We think nothing of halting a glorious feast in order to Instagram before eating, or of arguing over dietary preference with enough heat to melt a friendship. But that’s all front-story, and it’s really about us. Regarding the backstory – we’re ignorant.
It' not that we can’t do backstory. With wine, we fetishise a nuanced concern with year, grape, vintage and (oh lordy) terroir. Yet with food, which is altogether more critical, more personal and more world-shaping, we’re surprisingly happy to relinquish insight and control to an industrial production system of sustained and deliberate opacity. The Ethical Omnivore unpacks this incongruence in all its intimate immensity.
Part autobiography, part farm-narrative, part eco-analysis, part recipe omnibus, this is a book that should not work. Yet its curious hybrid genre is unified and exalted by the engaging, intelligent prose, evocative images and the fact that it’s really a book about relationships.
There are the personal relationships, of course – between the two of them, with their cumulative community of loyal customers (“we’ve seen their children born, and the second children,” says Dalrymple), their committed team of artisan-butchers and their holistic and regenerative farmers. The book also illuminates the farmer-animal relationship: the respect, and the slaughter.
“Looking the Animal in the Eye” is the killing chapter. It’s confronting but it’s important. You know the saying, “you shouldn’t eat anything you wouldn’t be prepared to kill.” For most of us, including most farmers, that’s impossible. Indeed, the industrialisation of animal slaughter and the shrinkage and consolidation of that industry is one of the issues examined here because it renders the act opaque.
This chapter offers an accessible equivalent. On one couple’s on-farm abattoir, we step through the porcine progress from happy pig life to stress-free pig death. It’s something every meat-eater should read, unflinchingly real at a time when reality threatens to drift entirely from our grasp.
Underlying all that, though, and woven throughout the book, are the bigger, deeper relationships – between food and dirt, bugs and soil, soil health and gut health, meat and human, and between efficiency, capitalism and disease.
It’s interesting that although farmers and ag-vets have for years understood the relationship between nutrition and disease – South Australian vet Pat Coleby wrote, decades ago, about curing certain goat cancers with nutritional supplements – we presume, regarding the nutritional value of our own food, that meat is meat, strawberries are strawberries.
Not so. A factor here is deliciousness. “Genuine deliciousness is predetermined,” argue Dalrymple and Hilliard. “If you’re eating meat from a healthy animal you’ll find yourself satiated with less.” Recent studies have linked the degree of food intervention with obesity, and perhaps this is why. Satiation is about nutritional content.
As industrial farming reduces both soil microbes and crop diversity, and industrial food processes replace genuine nutrients with e-numbers, there’s not enough to push your stop button. This suits the industry, which profits from our over-consumption. But it burdens our bodies and our health system with the diseases and scleroses of excess.
Hence, the slightly counterintuitive return of clean animal fats to the good food side – and hence the book’s mouthwatering recipe for rosemary pork-fat butter. Other surprises include the fact that methane, although more warming-inducive than CO2, is hugely less enduring – breaking down naturally after 12 years, says a recent Oxford-based study, as opposed to the millennia for which CO2 accumulates. Also, who knew rice was a big producer of methane?
Plus there’s this. Everyone thinks hard hoofs have destroyed Australian soils. But that’s a management thing. What hoofed herbivores beautifully do is return nutrients to soil as poo and wee and trample it in. Lentils don’t do that. Cropped soil, therefore, slowly depletes, becoming dependent on (usually chemical) fertilisers. The ruminant, turning grass into protein and back into soil, is one of nature’s miracles.
Fifteen years ago, Dalrymple was a graphic artist and Hilliard was an aspiring filmmaker-cum- sommelier. Acting on intuition as much as anything, they leapt into the unknown of conscious carnivory, seeking out soil-regenerative farmers, visiting each farm, meeting the beasts, encouraging total transparency, sidestepping the food-labelling fiasco and committing to use every animal part, nose to tail. “In nature there’s no waste,” says Dalrymple. Hence the chapter, “The Whole Animal and Nothing But the Animal”. They’re a bit the same with truth.
“Every time we buy something,” the authors note, “we vote for the system that produced it.” My advice? Buy this book. Vote. Anyone who eats anything, ever – including breatharians - should buy it, read it and shove it in every Christmas stocking you can find.
Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. She is a former editor and Sydney City Councilor. Her books include 'Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, 'Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).