“You realize that our mistrust of the future makes it hard to give up the past.”
― Chuck Palahniuk,
We need to go back to the way things used to be!
This idea that the past was somehow more noble, virtuous, godly, insert adjective here, is something I’ve come across in people of all types. In more conservative groups, it shows up in terms of values. We have lost religion, the family, societal order, and if we could just bring it back, the world would be a better place.
On the liberal end, it shows up in terms of the land. The earth was once a pristine and perfect place with healthy, nutritious food and a symbiotic balance between man and nature. If we could just live the way man once did, a great healing would occur, and we’d live in a world without hunger or illness.
So are they right? Should we go back to the way things used to be?
Hell no! Both of these ideas are misguided and misinformed, if not well-intentioned. If you believe medieval times were more moral, read my article on Medieval Prostitution. If you’re of the more liberal persuasion, read on.
Allow me to explain by introducing: the not-so-humble pig.
If you lived in the Middle Ages, there was a good chance you owned a pig. A 1301 Colchester tax assessment reveals that about 40% of the people owned at least one pig (Rawcliffe, 157). That puts pig ownership on par with dog ownership in the United States today. That’s a lot of bacon, people!
The problem with these pigs was that they got loose, or sometimes were let loose to forage in the streets. As a medieval person, this was problematic. For one thing, pigs crap…a lot. Stepping in a steaming pile of pig excrement is enough to ruin anybody’s day. But it gets worse. A hungry pig will eat anything, including your children. There are plenty of documented cases of cradled infants becoming a pig’s dinner. And for dessert–dead people. That’s right. Medieval cemeteries were crowded, and people weren’t necessarily given that requisite eight feet of burial space. This made it easy for hungry pigs to come along and eat up your dearly departed Uncle Albert.
But pigs weren’t the only animal threat that plagued the medieval village. Vicious dogs were also a huge problem. There were strays that hunted in packs. Shop and home owners often owned guard dogs that got loose. Worst of all, though, were the butchers’ dogs that roamed the streets at night.
A vicious dog was a necessity for butchers. Why? Because the medieval world had some disturbing ideas about how to make beef taste good.
Ain’t no Kobe beef in the medieval era
Forget massages and feeding cows beer. If you wanted a tasty cut of meat in the Middle Ages, you had to torture the cow in the form of baiting. Baiting was the medieval practice of sicking vicious dogs on animals. People baited all kinds of animals for entertainment value. Bears were a particular favorite. But bull baiting was seen not only as entertaining, but essential for quality meat. In fact a butcher could be fined if he failed to bait a bull before slaughtering (Rawcliffe, 153).
So should we return to the ways of the past?
Like I said before–hell no! Obviously we don’t want to return to a time when our children and dead are threatened by marauding pigs, and we torture animals for a tastier cut of meat. What we do want and need is food that is natural and nutritious and cared for in a responsible way. This means feeding our animals a natural diet, providing them space to roam, and keeping them free of hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals that have no place in the human diet.
But is it practical?
Some would say no. I argue that it is. It just takes a reevaluation of our priorities.
Over the weekend my family and I took a tour of Canal Junction Farm in Defiance, Ohio. There was a large group in attendance–families with small children, Weston A. Price devotees, and the odd hipster or two. We followed Ralph Schlatter, the farm’s owner, around his property while he explained his particular method of farming.
“I don’t want to get caught in the commodity business,” he explained.
And he definitely doesn’t treat his animals like commodities. He keeps 85 cows, small by today’s farming standards, but an amount that allows him to treat these animals with respect. His cows are grass-fed and spend their days as they should–out in nature. He showed us the extensive sanitary measures he undertakes (something you wouldn’t have found in “the good old days.”), which makes me feel very comfortable buying the raw milk cheese he sells in his store.
As we ride along his property, sitting on hay-bales being pulled by a tractor, I see that all of his animals are living the good life. 350 pound pigs lounge on acres of grass instead of muck-filled pens. Electric fences keep them (and babies and the dearly departed) safe. Chickens and turkeys forage in movable pens, and several calfs are being babied in their own little dens.
At the end of the tour, we are treated to a free meal. Though I don’t eat meat, I see nods of appreciation from those who do as they try some of the farmer’s ground beef. My husband smiles at me after his first mouthful. “That’s some good meat,” he says with obvious appreciation.
The meat and dairy products sold on the farm are a little pricier than what you’ll find in the grocery store. This is where that “reevaluation of priorities” I spoke of earlier come into play. People don’t bat an eye when it comes to buying designer clothes, or spending $5 on a single cup of coffee. But for some reason, an extra dollar per pound of beef is unfathomable. What we need to remember is that we are buying more than Sunday dinner with the few extra buck–we are buying nutrition and humanity and community. Forget looking back to the past and assuming it was better–it wasn’t. Look forward instead. There are farmers here and now who are getting it right. So shop responsibly and support farms like Canal Junction!