Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Cattle: an Informal Social History
© 2001 Laurie Winn Carlson
321 pages

Consider...the cow. A humble creature, its dopey expression reveals no vast intelligence, and its barrel of a body gives it virtually no athletic ability, but it is remarkable if nothing else for its extensive influence on the human race. Throughout our long history with cattle, we have used them for much more than food -- and they have used us, in turn. Laurie Winn Carlson holds cattle in high esteem, and her history of cows and people is rich and wide-ranging, if sometimes romanticized.

Although most people would associate cows with beef, or food in general (dairy milk being the source of cheese and butter), the various kinds of domesticated cattle have also served as labor and medical factories; the first vaccines were taken from the lymph of cows, and are named in tribute of the cow, the Latin for which is vacca. Although it's nice of the cows to give us a cure for smallpox, it's the least they could do considering the disease migrated from them in the first place.  The story of cows and people is one of give and take, each side contributing to and detracting from the other's well-being,  but until recently it has been a mutually advantageous alliance. Since the industrial era, however, the relationship has become decidedly exploitative, with cattle being reduced from beings that we related to into machines that we create, use, and discard at our own convenience.  People have become detached in general from the sources of  our food, but Carlson is especially concerned about the marginalization of cattle.

  Although Carlson sometimes gets carried away in her devotion to cows , as in early on when she attributes the development of law to the complexities of life arising from keeping cattle, Cattle is a fascinating book in part because of how much ground it covers, addressing anthropology, evolution, economics, medicine, and food just for starters, with  the main course being history.   There are definite weaknesses (repeating "facts" that should have been scrutinized more) and some curious omissions (nothing is mentioned of CAFO feedlots), but this is a unique book. Other books I’ve looked at cover only the food aspect of cattle culture, not their role in the everyday life of pre-industrial people.  Cattle isn't a beefsteak of a book, but it's a good burger at least.

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