Bookshelf: The Compassionate Carnivore

In Bookshelf on September 28, 2008 at 1:01 am

    Catherine Friend’s The Compassionate Carnivore has been sitting, neglected, in my reading pile since it was first published in April. After a visit with my doctor and nutritionist in January, I spent most of the first few months of the year immersed in Michael Pollan, Brian Wansink and Marion Nestle. We had made the big change in the way we ate and I felt like I was up to my ears in statistics and data about corporate food creation, so another book on the world of meat felt like overkill. However, I learned this past week when I finally picked it up again that Friend’s book is more of a narrative about how hard it is to make some of those big diet transitions and how to approach it realistically. She shed her own ignorance of the origins of meat when she moved to the source; a small farm in Minnesota.

     Friend briefly catalogs her education on the production of meat, much of it taking place as a result of her new role in the human food chain as a sheep farmer (she admits that her partner, Melissa, does the vast majority of the actual farm work, but she does seem to lend a hand with just about everything). There are a few chapters of data about factory farming and the processes by which a baby animal is eventually transformed into portions on styrofoam trays. If you don’t think you can stomach other books that get into factory farming for several hundred pages, but want to know more so you can make informed decisions,  Friend has written this book with you in mind. After the toughest pages detailing how different animals are prepared and slaughtered, she injects a vignette meant to clear your mind and give you happy thoughts of pastures and sweet grass. From there, she moves to how to find meat that you can live with, now that you have all this newfound knowledge. She advises a gradual approach and a critical eye towards labels like organic and cage-free.

     The feature that sets Compassionate Carnivore apart from other books on modern meat production are the back stories of Friend’s own transition to farm life. Her stories of how cuddly and soft the lambs can be share equal space with her family’s techniques for making sure they don’t get too emotionally attached to the animals they raise lovingly for meat. When taken as a whole, the stories of chasing down ewes, and tragically cute steer illustrate a pragmatism grounded in compassion. Friend is unapologetic about loving meat (and convenience food) and the costs of running a truly sustainable farm filled with humanely raised animals. But she also shows compassion for that other animal, the harried American consumer, overrun with choices and not always able to afford organic, pasture-fed, cage-free and the like. The personal stories in Compassionate Carnivore teach that it’s not important to get it right every single time and with every single purchase, but that the small efforts eventually yield a benefit larger than the sum of their parts. For us, and for the cuddly sheep.


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