The “Scape Pig” And Other Fairy Tales
Pity the hog. Observant Jews won’t eat pork because it’s unclean. Neither will Muslims. Christians love pork, but when Jesus of Nazareth wanted to tell the story of the prodigal son he illustrated how the young man hit rock bottom by making him a swine herd before sending him home to the forgiveness of a loving father who slaughtered a fatted calf to welcome him back. The pig gets no respect, which is why, when the press decided that “Once upon a time” a dirty swine was voted the most likely vector for the E. coli O157: H7 contamination in bagged spinach and spring mix salad greens that killed three people and sickened at least 200 others last year I smelled the feces of the “scape pig.” Recent developments in the story reaffirm my convictions.
Here in Watsonville there is a VERY LARGE strawberry farm, whose fields entirely surround a very small feedlot and slaughterhouse facility. The fellow who runs the feedlot/slaughterhouse brings in goats from Texas to slaughter for sale to local Watsonville customers who want authentic birria for quinceaneras, bodas, and general pachangas. He also has a number cattle for people who want fresh beef. Recently the strawberry company found out that the cattle feces at the feedlot in the middle of their fields tested positive for the pathogenic E. coli strain that killed people last year. Because the strawberry corporation is a socially responsible BIG corporation with BIG money to lose if they are the cause of illness or death they naturally enough want the small feedlot operator to go out of business or (and this is the interesting part) put BIRD NETTING over the feedlot!
Do Pigs fly? Of course not. Rumors fly. Fear takes flight. Emotions and pigs run wild. The point is that the VERY LARGE STRAWBERRY GROWER doesn’t have the right to run the feedlot out of business just because there is a chance that a bird might stop to eat the seeds out of a cow turd and then fly across the fence and sit on a strawberry. They’re not going to talk about this in their advertisements because fears and rumors fly farther than birds, but nobody, apart from the press and the public, believe that keeping pigs away from the fields is going to solve America’s food insecurity issues. I have farmed the land where the VERY LARGE STRAWBERRY GROWER is farming, and I’ve had goats slaughtered at the slaughterhouse before I learned how to do it myself, so I’m watching the story unfold with much interest. I’m especially watching to see what happen when the press gets hold of this story .
I don’t want to make light of the dangers posed by contaminated food. Far from it. I’m a food producer. But it seems to me that the biggest threat to America’s food security is not posed by any particular strain of bacteria but the immense concentration of production and distribution in a few hands. As I pointed out in a previous article, where a single company controls production for a few gargantuan distributors one dirty blade on one harvesting machine can contaminate the salads consumed by hundreds of thousands of consumers. When most of the greens are for a vast nation are handled by one company out of one facility it seems to me as though the danger of infecting a whole nation are higher than if many smaller producers are handling local business out of scattered facilities. Maybe with diffuse food production by many smaller producers there is a greater risk that any individual producer may fail at their task and sell infected food, but at least the whole nation isn’t stricken at once.
Obviously we have to learn how to purify the food chain at every level, and no effort is wasted that goes to making the food supply more secure. But it shouldn’t be taboo to talk about the devastating implications of having a few large producers handle the food supply for a vast nation. We should be talking about how we can recreate a diffuse food net with lots of local suppliers over the whole nation. Food security is about more than prevention. There ought to be a pro-active element to any security that involves a lot of people. Reinvigoration of local food sheds, a greater acquaintance by consumers with the sources of their food and the practices of production, and a greater openness on the part of producers are all part of the overall strategy for success. If the public doesn’t play it’s part in the ongoing debate about food security they are going to get politicians who offer to solve the problem by having cowboys fix diapers on cattle while contractors cover the skies with bird netting. And everyone lived happily ever after.
My patience with this issue is over for the evening. Just for fun, so I don’t end on a sour note here’s a piece I wrote about a real fairy tale.
Everybody knows the prince says “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” but do they know what Rapunzel means?.
The pregnant mother in the fairy tale wants to eat an herb called rampion so badly that she thinks she’ll die without it. Her obedient husband scales the wall that surrounds the witch’s garden and steals some leaves. The name for rampion in botanical Latinis Campanula rapunculus— which translates to ramponzolo or raponzo in medieval Italian, and raiponce in French. Rapunzel is the German name for the plant.
When he’s caught by the witch, the husband trades away his yet unborn child to the witch in return for a steady supply of rapunzel for his wife. The witch names the infant Rapunzel after the herb.
The medieval appetite for rapunzel was not usually for its leaves, but the plant’s thick, fleshy roots. Before the potato came to Europe, the foot long roots of Campanula rapunculus were cooked as a starchy food. In the spring, when rapunzel’s leaves were tender and fresh they were used in salads, too. Once potato production became common, rapunzel moved from the kitchen into history.
It’s our ignorance of botany that lets the bowdlerizers, Disneyfiers, and other agents of mediocrity reduce any disturbing content in the Rapunzel tale to fit the limits of their fears. Not only have editors bled the fairy tales of much of the sex, violence, and adult content that made them so interesting to children in the first place but, they are making the world a stupider place to be. In reviewing contemporary versions of Rapunzel I find the father trading his fetal daughter away for ramps, lettuce, parsley, and even apples.
Ramps are an Allium native to the Americas, and could not have been any more known to the craving mother or the wicked witch that the potato. The editors who substitute rapunzel for apples are probably from New York, where consumers can imagine that everything is in season all the time. But in the middle ages, before apples ripen in the fall. As the father’s theft of tender leaves of rapunzel indicates, this fairy tale is a springtime tale.
Having the pregnant mother crave rapunzel, rather than lettuce, is important to the meaning of the story, because rapunzel means something. Rampion flowers in the spring, just as Rapunzel begins to bloom in her twelfth year. Lettuce has an ugly flower and it is a soporific, which means it has natural chemical in it that put you to sleep. Rapunzel gets pregnant in the earliest version of the tale.
The thick roots of the rampion plant suggest Rapunzel’s long braids. Campanula means bellflower, and the plant has a lovely flower. When Rapunzel turns twelve, the witch locks her up high in a tower with no stairs – a tower like a campanili, or bell tower. The Prince is attracted by this wild flower and he doesn’t think he can live without her. He doesn’t climb Rapunzel’s braids to eat lettuce! Fairytales are bedtime stories, and the best ones awaken dreams.
The wind blows all the time. It’s not clear to me that the cattle in San Benito County on the rangeland surrounding the Natural Selections Ranch in Cienega Valley implicated in the spinach contamination were eating anything other than pasture grass. I don’t have much faith that the E. coli problem can be treated at the source very often, especially once testing reveals how many sources there are. In the end, the most secure way to grow leafy greens might be in greenhouses, a la the Netherlands. In this way there could be centers of vegetable production in or near urban centers all around the U.S. with the added advantages of proving diffuse, non-seasonal employment for all kinds of people. The technology exists. One of the biggest problems is that for a lot of people who profess to be environmentalists greenhouses are an “eyesore.” I grew in greenhouses for five years and it was the most satisfying growing experience of my career. The ability in a greenhouse setting to avoid pesticides with beneficial insects makes clean farming easier than in an outdoor setting. If I owned the greenhouses I’d still be in them.
Andy, do you grow rampion? If not, do you know anyone who does? As you know, I’ve a great interest in medieval foodstuffs.