ABOUT MY EASTER HAM
Our Easter dinner has always included a bulky baked ham. I often slash the top into diamond shapes, mix apricot jam with hot mustard and a bit of honey, and spread that layer on top, then stud every intersection with a clove. Sometimes for old times’ sake, I add those passé pineapple rings with their bullseye Maraschino cherries. They get basted with the drippings, and when the ham comes out of the oven, it glistens, its aroma carries into every room, and the slices, cut thin and thick, are the pink color I associate with celebration. On holidays, trans fats get a pass.
I was born in Prague, and could rhapsodize about bologna and knockwurst, bloodwurst and the headcheese from Schaller and Weber, the meat I grew up eating. My aunt’s fresh pork roast had no equal, baked with its surround of red sauerkraut, and swimming in its own juices. My mouth waters as I write this, but–
Last October the front page of the Arizona Republic featured a photo of a sow confined in a narrow cage. The picture was used to illustrate Proposition 204, passed by Arizonians in a landslide victory. This farming initiative goes into effect December 31, 2012, and will free her and other pregnant pigs–sows are repeatedly artificially impregnated–from intense confinement in stalls that measure a mere two by seven feet, narrower than a twin mattress. These stalls are so small that the animals literally can not turn around. An overwhelming sixty-two percent of Arizona voters spoke out for the humane treatment of these farm animals.
So much for Arizona. What about the rest of the American pig-farming industry? The use of these “gestation crates,” has also been banned in Florida, but not in the other forty-eight states. No law bans “farrowing crates,” anywhere in this country, either. This is the enclosure to which a sow is moved during the process of giving birth, in which she is similarly confined and immobilized while she is nursing, and separates her from her piglets when not. Europe has banned both of these practices. Isn’t it time to follow the compassionate lead of our friends across the Atlantic, to outlaw the sordid treatment of food animals in every state of the union?
Most recently, one of America’s foremost restaurateurs, Wolfgang Puck, announced that his menus will feature dishes that come only from farms at which animals are allowed to roam free. “We have always looked for products from cage-free animals,” Puck said, taking a stand against factory-farming cruelty, and one hopes that a greater awareness, and other restaurateurs, will follow.
The days of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to animal farming are over. It’s all there on the Internet. If you have the stomach for it, learn about pig slaughter. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act decrees that animals are rendered “insensitive to pain” before they are shackled and slaughtered, but there is insuffient compliance or enforcement. As they reach market weight pigs raised for meat are put in overcrowded barren pens with concrete, wire mesh, or wood-slatted floors, without bedding materials or thermal protection. When young, piglets endure physical mutilations, often have their tails cut off to prevent tail biting (caused by stress in overcrowded batch pens) teeth clipped or pulled to prevent injuring a mother’s nipples, ears notched for identification, and castration–procedures performed without anesthetic. Now imagine the stench from decaying fecal matter, ammonia and other noxious fumes in these hellish environments.
It’s a paradox, this “it’s only a pig” mentality. We will go to any lengths to save a kitty trapped behind a wall, or a baby bird fallen from its nest. We obsess about the most humane way to put to death people who have been convicted of rape, kidnapping, serial killing, child murder, and some might say that these are the real animals who live among us. Yet, when we come to treating with humanity and compassion the sentient creatures who will be placed on our dinner plates, we shrug. We don’t want to know. I ask myself, when did this change come so furtively about? When did it happen that the pig which went to market had been abused its whole life?
Only a pig? They are considered third or fifth in intelligence after humans, depending on the study. They have been trained to discern images on a computer screen, taught to use a joy stick with their teeth to target icons, and of course, to sniff out truffles. Clearly complex, they are, like Wilbur, capable of feeling pain and frustration, joy and excitement. Considered as smart or smarter than dogs and by some to have the intelligence of a three-year old child, they are kind-natured, social animals capable of becoming domesticated and affectionate. Owners of the pot-bellied kind can attest to their wiles, if not necessarily their success as pets. As we do, they need company, and keeping them immobilized and in solitary from birth to death is barbaric.
This information is what is facing me this Easter Sunday. Fortunately, there is some progress being made. Smithfield Foods now will require its participating farms to raise pigs without gestation crates, in pens where the sows would be housed in groups. Others we hope will follow. Three cheers, but there are forty eight other states producing pork without oversight or farm animal welfare laws. We have to do better than this!
Forget the serious and similar plight of calves for the moment, put aside the cruelty of foie gras; many of us gave up eating those long ago. As far as cows, chickens and turkeys go, of course we care, and living lobsters piled with claws tied in tanks need their advocates too. But, this season, it’s about the pig. Nobler people than I am eat only things that do not try to get away, and I profoundly admire and respect them. But living without bacon, salami, spare ribs, and my traditional Easter ham, is as hard for me as giving up music, or holidays, or nature. I will be careful where I buy that ham, to be sure. On the other hand, glaze and pineapple notwithstanding, until all pigs roam free on every farm in America, and the methods of slaughter become universally humane, our family’s traditional dish may still leave us a profoundly unpleasant aftertaste.