Q & A with Brad Weiss

Weiss 1Brad Weiss is Professor of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary and the author of The Making and Unmaking of the Haya Lived World: Consumption, Commoditization, and Everyday Practice, also published by Duke University Press, and Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops: Global Fantasy in Urban Tanzania. In his new book, Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork, Brad Weiss traces the desire for creating “authentic” local foods in the Piedmont region of central North Carolina as he follows farmers, butchers, and chefs as they breed, raise, butcher, market, sell, and prepare their pasture-raised hogs for consumption.

real pigsIn Real Pigs, you grapple with the definition of “real food.” In a nutshell, what’s your interpretation of the term?

I approach this question in an ethnographic way. What I mean by that is I’m really interested in how and why various communities use this term – in their writing, in their sales, in their own accounts of why they do what they do. And then I try to understand the patterns – the convergences and the conflicts – that come to define (if loosely) what makes some food “real.”  For people who are interested in “real pigs” (which is, after all, the title of the book) it has something to do with both the pigs themselves – the fact that these animals have characteristics that distinguish them from industrially produced pigs – but probably even more to do with the methods by which they are raised. That is, in the outdoors, reproducing under their own terms (e.g., building nests), and with a concern for their welfare as living creatures.  Somehow, this makes the pork that derives from this encounter between “pigs and the people that love them” (this was the joke title my farmer friends came up with for this book) more “real.”  I should add that I also want to hold the term “real food” up to some scrutiny. It can often lead us to misunderstand how and why people who do not have access to what is deemed “real food” actually eat.  So much of the language of food politics has an unfortunate moralizing tone, and I want to be cognizant of the implications of this kind of discourse.

As part of your research, you spent most of a summer working on a North Carolina farm. How did this experience change your perspective on pig farming?

Well, I’m not sure I had any perspective on pig farming before I did this work. I had done work with farmers in Tanzania for some earlier field research (I’m really an Africanist; I just happened to find the pigs while I lived in North Carolina), some of whom raised animals, though by no means were they engaged in animal husbandry as a livelihood. Many folks had a goat or two, but that was about it.  My very anecdotal understanding of pig farming was that a lot of people I knew talked about how intelligent pigs are, and I thought that this must inform how farmers thought about their work with these animals. Indeed, lots of farmers do talk about this, and adapt their husbandry to their animals’ personalities. On the other hand, there are plenty of farmers that don’t care about this very much at all – they just like having a few pigs around to eat up their garbage, the leavings from their gardens, and turn their soil for them.  And the pigs are happy to oblige.  What I really learned about pig farming was how complicated the entire operation is, and not just the pigs.  What do you do when the price of feed goes up 40% because of a massive drought in Russia? If blight decimates your tomatoes, where are you going to get the money to build the farrowing houses you’ve planned on?  Can you raise the price of your pork if half of the turkeys you decide to breed keel over in a rainstorm? Everything is interconnected in farming, and you are very much at the mercy of natural and cultural forces beyond your control.

In the book, you publish interviews with several figures in the food community: farmers, restaurant owners and chefs, and marketers. Why was it valuable to you to include these interviews?

As I say in the book, I wanted to let some of the most important people – activists, entrepreneurs, scholars – in this food movement in the Piedmont speak for themselves.  I tried to very minimally edit the conversations to allow their views to come through. In part, I wanted readers to recognize how some of the wider themes I address in the book as a whole – about “connection” and other topics – are really very present in these kinds of conversations. I also wanted to present views that are, each in their own way, somewhat different from my own. In this way I hope there is a kind of open-ended quality to the discussions that allows- or maybe requires- the reader to decide for themselves what the important questions are.

In the chapter “Pigs in a Local Place,” you note the strong appeal of local food. Why do you think farmers and consumers have fixated so heavily on locality?

The whole question of “local food” is in some ways an overarching theme of this book, and that is because it is so strongly associated with efforts to create an alternative food system.  Why this is so is a pretty complicated matter, and I’m as interested in how it is put into practice as I am in suggesting reasons why “the local” is so important.  I would say there are different kinds of reasons at different scales of analysis.  For one thing, in Europe there are very specific ideas about how regional foodstuffs and cuisines are threatened by commodity production; but then many of these products are protected as regional products through a legal order of what is called denomination.  So the current scene is, in many ways, overdetermined by this longstanding effort to legally protect culinary products in ways that ties them to specific places of origin.  At the same time, many activists argue that there are strong connections between places and tastes, and it is this sensory relationship that is central to “good” food.  I try, in the book (and this chapter in particular), to ask: what is it that makes places so compelling? What are their sensory, and social, and cultural qualities? How does place become an expression of value? Because, ultimately, a place is not just a geographical location, it is a way of evaluating the relationships that define and inhabit a recognizable locale.

You mention that “the presence of people of color remains notably limited in farmers’ markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and the like” (253). What potential solutions exist for this racial divide?

If I could really answer this question it would be a major accomplishment. It is a challenge, and  – I hasten to add – it is one that almost everyone in the alternative food scene in the Piedmont recognizes, and is trying to address. North Carolina has a long, well-documented history of systematic discrimination against African-American farmers, and not just because of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. US Department of Agriculture policies denied farm loans to qualified African-American farmers through the 1990s. The courts are just beginning to address these claims, which entails the largest civil rights settlement in US history.  So it’s perfectly predictable, in many ways, that African-American farmers would have a hard time bringing their products to market, and African-American consumers would be wary of, even progressive, “alternatives” that seem to want to include them in North Carolina.  How do we overcome this history and its ongoing effects? As I’ve said, many very talented activists, market managers, and others are sincerely working to do better outreach, make Electronic Benefit Transfers (EBT, or Food Stamps) viable for use at farmers markets, recruit farmers of color, etc.  There is some limited change that can be seen on these fronts. I also think the efforts to pull more African-American farmers into marketing relationships that do not require them to go to farmers’ markets (which can be incredibly time consuming, and might just not be worth it at all for farmers raising only a few animals, or growing limited quantities of produce) are promising.  The North Carolina Natural Hog Growers Association has made efforts to include a diverse group of farmers, as have aggregators like the company First Hand Foods that I discuss at length in the book.  These efforts are certainly not free of racial conflict. But they are aware of the challenges, and they are definitely creating more opportunities.

Ultimately, what do you hope readers take away from this book?

I have to say that I have a diverse readership in mind, and so I would expect different people to get different things out of the work.  In part, of course, this is a work of anthropology and I would like to think that I am making some contribution to the anthropology of food, of value, and of space.  But, I have also really tried to write this book in a way that almost anyone who has ever been to a farmers market, or eaten grass-fed beef at a restaurant – or even wondered what that was – might find something interesting and engaging in the work. I hope that these readers come to understand how complex the relationships between farmers, chefs, markets, and consumers are. They can see that every market has its contradictions and its challenges.  I do also want avid participants in these alternative practices- folks who already buy pasture-raised pork chops, and go on farm tours – to recognize that just buying local food, or cooking for your family really is not sufficient as a political action to overcome the effects of industrialized production. These are nice, even fun things to do; I do them myself. But they can also reinforce some of the very problems of exclusion and stratification that American society is not very good at recognizing, let alone confronting.

You can order Real Pigs from your favorite local or online bookstore (print and e-editions available), or order directly from Duke University Press. Use coupon code E16PIGS to save 30%!

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