Author Archives: Joe Eaton

Bacon and its Discontents

Another guest post by Joe Eaton

The Bacon People have finally gone too far. And they’ve done it in a really strange and offensive way.

This is not about bacon per se, and I have not turned vegetarian. Bacon has always been one of life’s great consolations for me. There are times when you really need a BLT. Sometimes a BLAT (BALT?), with avocado. Yes, I know about the supposed intelligence of the domestic pig. A few years ago, Marin Sun Farms, a local meat purveyor, claimed on their web site that their pigs all enjoyed fulfilled lives before becoming pork products, and I have always wondered what the exit interviews were like. I know about the environmental impact of hog farming. In college my historical geology class did a field trip to a Cenozoic marine formation downwind of a pig farm in eastern North Carolina, near the small town of Tar Heel, deep in Jesse Helms country. The stench was impressive, and I wasn’t even thinking about the runoff at the time. I understand it’s become much worse since then. But this is not about that either.

What it’s about is bacon-flavored bourbon.

I’m not sure exactly when the bacon-flavored thing—part of a broader hipster/techie bacon-fetishization trend–took off. It may have started with chocolate. Tried a bacon chocolate bar once; tasty, but it didn’t change my life. I was dimly aware of a bakeshop in Portland that featured bacon-maple doughnuts. These probably inspired the Oregon-based Rogue brewery’s bacon-maple beer, which came in a lurid Pepto-Bismol-pink bottle. It didn’t look like anything I would want to drink. Later came bacon-maple potato chips, another line I have yet to cross, and bacon-flavored soda syrup (Italian) and soda (American.)

The bourbon was on the shelves of my neighborhood BevMo a few months ago, perpetrated by some people in Nashville and labeled “Ol’ Major.” (If that brand name rings a dim literary/political bell for you, as it did for me, see below.) I was not tempted to purchase a bottle. Bacon and bourbon should be separate realms, what the late Stephen Jay Gould, referring to science and religion, called nonoverlapping magisteria. Such a thing had been foreshadowed by another deplorable trend, the vending of maple- and honey- and peach- and cinnamon- and cayenne-flavored bourbon. None of those substances belong in bourbon any more than bacon—or whatever artificial bacon flavoring agent the Ol’ Major folks use—does.

It took me a while to seek out the manufacturers’ web site (google it yourself; I’m not sending them any more traffic). The first thing I encountered there was a screen that said “’murica:1…terrorists:0.” Huh? Another page offers bacon bourbon cocktail recipes, and there alongside the Bacon Sour, the Bacon Bloody Mary, and Babe’s Julep, is a drink called the Commie Crippler. Who says “commie” anymore? The drink, combining Ol’ Major with triple sec and licorice liqueur, might be fatal to a diabetic Marxist. Seems like an odd choice of nomenclature, though. But maybe this stuff is supposed to be a weapon in the Kulturkampf between militant Islam and the Christian West. Are these folks conflating communists and Islamists, and do they really think that patriot ‘muricans can strike back against ISIS by consuming their product? A drink for the Age of Trump? Whatever, I ain’t buying it.

So why did “Ol’ Major” sound familiar? Remember Animal Farm? Remember the porcine Karl Marx figure who lays the ideological foundation for the revolt of the animals, but dies before it comes to pass (and the other pigs display his skull on a pole as a sacred relic)? Old Major, with a terminal “d.”

There is nothing on the web site to suggest that bacon-flavored bourbon’s brand name was a conscious Orwell reference. (If anyone wants to organize a Society To Save George Orwell From His Friends, I’m in. Yes, I’m talking about you, Hitchens, and de mortuis nil nisi bonum my ass.) But maybe they thought they were posthumously recruiting the author of Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, and 1984 into their boozy crusade. I’m sure he’s been spinning in his grave for years, and a little more angular momentum won’t make that much of a difference.

Gators in the Cabinet

Guest post by Joe Eaton, and thanks again for the use of the hall

The headline in last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle read: “Trump filling Cabinet with ‘swamp’ denizens.” And my first thought was “Albert the Alligator for Secretary of Defense!”

Yes, a Pogo reference. Walt Kelly’s “Pogo”—the daily syndicated strip more than the precursor comic books—was a landmark in American cartooning. There’s never been anything quite like it, although George Herrimann’s “Krazy Kat” bears comparison. Herrimann’s strip was more surreal/absurd, though, without “Pogo’s” vein of satire. Kelly used a cast of critters in the Okefenokee Swamp, a real wetland that slops from southeast Georgia into north Florida, to comment on human political and other foibles. (It was pretty much in the funny-animal genre, with occasional appearances by human or humanoid characters: a clan of Cajun satyrs, cave people, centaurs.) When I was growing up in Little Rock, where the strip appeared in the Arkansas Gazette—its editor, Harry Ashmore, was one of that now near-extinct breed of Southern white liberals—“Pogo” was my first exposure to satire. A lot of it went right past me, but what I got, I enjoyed.

Kelly, formerly a Disney animator (he worked on “Dumbo” and “Fantasia”), editorial cartoonist (for the short-lived leftist New York Star and later for the Herald Tribune), and comic-book artist (where Pogo Possum was originally second banana to an African-American boy named Bumbazine and the swamp dwellers spoke a cringeworthy minstrel-show patois), launched the comic strip in 1949. It had a good long run, eventually done in by the cartoonist’s failing health and the format constraints that cramped the crowded word balloons and elaborate swampscapes, counterparts to the buttes and mesas of “Krazy Kat”’s Coconino County. (Herriman drew from personal experience of the Southwest; Kelly hailed from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and first laid eyes on the Okefenokee in 1955.)

Kelly didn’t adapt well to the Sixties; his attempts to include hippie and feminist characters were unfortunate, although to his credit he never veered as far right as “Li’l Abner”’s Al Capp. And he was very much a Cold War liberal, with recurring characters like the Cowbirds, mostly semi-covert Communist Party members (but sometimes professional ex-Communists in the Whittaker Chambers mold.) All through, though, Kelly had no use for bigots or bullies. After his death in 1973, other cartoonists, a couple of decades later, tried to revive the strip. The resuscitation was unsuccessful.

The daily strips were repackaged in a series of trade paperbacks, all long out of print. Fortunately, Fantagraphics Books has been republishing the dailies (and Sundays, in full color) in classy hardcover editions, a couple of years’ worth at a time. They’ve gotten through the vintage years of 1953-54, but there had been a long hiatus and I was afraid the project had been abandoned. Not so: the Fantagraphics web site says 1955-56 will be out in February.

That Chronicle headline was, of course, a reference to President-elect Trump’s (my fingers almost refused to type that phrase) choice of Washington insiders for key administrative positions, despite his avowed intention of “draining the swamp.” Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown had commented: “This isn’t draining the swamp. It’s stocking it with alligators.”

Albert the Alligator was a fine exemplar of his species, a big green cigar-chomping crocodilian, not too bright but good-hearted, with an awkward habit of unintentionally swallowing smaller characters. Why Defense? Because he had a uniform, with a vaguely Masonic hat, and thought he looked great in it. And a cannon, in which he once got his leg stuck. (Graphically, Jeff Smith’s Smiley Bone is Albert without the tail.)

Other potential nominees come to mind. The eponymous Pogo, the strip’s Charlie Brown figure, was a peacemaker but too modest to accept the State Department portfolio. More than one character would be a good fit for Education: Barnstable Bear, who could write but not read, or Miss Sis Boombah, the Rhode Island Red hen, co-founder of Okefenokee University and coach of its intervarsity beanbag team. Howland Owl, a crackpot scientist forever trying to split the atom or shoot his friends into space, would be a natural for NASA. “Pogo” had a large cast, so hundreds of mice, birds, frogs, and bugs would be available for subcabinet appointments.

But who am I kidding? Trump would more likely draw from a pool of unsavory characters like the Mole (originally an avatar of the anti-immigration Senator Pat McCarran, a Nevada Democrat; xenophobia can be bipartisan) who wanted to police the travels of the migratory birds that cross our borders willy-nilly. Maybe Seminole Sam, the con-artist fox (Undersecretary of Poultry Housing?), or Sarcophagus MacAbre, the buzzard? The sanctimonious Deacon Mushrat, a member of the Jack Acid Society, would almost certainly be in the running.

I can’t help speculating what kind of “Pogo” character Trump himself would have been. Kelly included unflattering caricatures of many politicians, domestic and foreign: Joe McCarthy as a rifle-toting wildcat, Nixon as a badger (later a spider), LBJ as a Texas longhorn, Spiro Agnew as a hyena, J. Edgar Hoover as a bulldog, Fidel Castro as a goat. The cartoonist didn’t appear overly fond of pigs (although the Dixieland jazz musician Solid MacHogany was basically a good guy. )William Randolph Hearst, whose papers ran “Krazy Kat” but not “Pogo,” turned up in the strip as a shady pig, as did Nikita Khrushchev. A porcine Trump would be almost too easy.

Anyway, I miss Walt Kelly, just as I miss others—Molly Ivins, Hunter Thompson—whose willingness not just to speak truth to power, but to ridicule the living daylights out of it, would do us all a lot of good just now.

Joe Eaton calls “Fowl!” A Review

I know it’s a lost cause, but the sloppiness of the publishing industry continues to sadden me. Editing is a lost art, like scrimshaw. Likewise copyreading and factchecking. Latest case in point: Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler, from Atria Books. Lawler is a science journalist with impressive credentials, including contributing-writer status with Science. His acknowledgements mention an editor, Leslie Meredith, but I find it hard to believe he or she did any actual editing. This book, which, as an admirer of the domestic chicken, I opened with some degree of anticipation, is so riddled with major and minor errors that I refrained from throwing it across the room only because it was a library copy and I did not want to pay for its replacement.

Where do I start with this mess? What a squandered opportunity! Lawler refers in passing to the pecking order in domestic chickens but doesn’t mention Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, the Norwegian biologist/psychologist who introduced the concept. Fascinating recent research on chicken cognition and behavior, much of it in Australia, is ignored. Having spent considerable time in the company of chickens in the last few years, I can tell you that their social life is more complex than you might think. Complex, hell: it’s a soap opera, with a strong tincture of Game of Thrones. I’ve witnessed chicken coups; it wasn’t pretty. You wouldn’t know that from this book, though.

The discussion of pre-Columbian chicken remains in South America and the Polynesian role in their introduction is confusingly written, and I suspect not just because the data is confusing. And there’s no mention of the wild chickens of the Kaua’i highlands, descendants of birds that came to Hawai’i in the great voyaging canoes and still close to the original red jungle fowl stock.

Chapter 8, “The Little King,” is a particular treasury of howlers. Lawler is talking about the shifting image of the rooster in medieval Europe: “Magical amulets displaying fierce creatures with snake legs and a cock’s head date back to Greco-Roman times, and were popular among ancient Jews and Persians as well as medieval Christians.” Snake legs? How can you write “snake legs” and not immediately think, “Wait a minute”? How could “snake legs” make it through any kind of editorial process? I don’t think he’s referring to the vestigial hind limbs of some boas and pythons, or the legs of ancestral snakes. Did he just mean “reptilian?” Or “scaly?” All bird legs are scaly, more or less.

But let’s move on. Then there’s this: “Scientists have been struggling since Aristotle to understand the mechanisms that determine whether an animal is male or female. The Greek philosopher believed that the hotter the sex a man had with a woman, then the greater likelihood that a resulting fetus would be male. This is not as absurd as it sounds, since temperatures can play a role in sex differentiation among some animals. The hotter the nest during incubation of alligator eggs, for example, the more likely than males will result.” Lawler may be right about what Aristotle believed, based on my recollection of Armand Marie Leroi’s recent (and excellent) book The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science. And he’s right about nest temperature and the sex of hatchlings in alligators, an effect also documented in turtles and some lizards. But not in birds! Not even the megapodes, whose eggs are kept warm by rotting vegetation or geothermal heat. Besides, doesn’t he get the, um, metaphorical nature of “hot sex?” Ancient joke: “Do you smoke after intercourse?” “I don’t know; I’ve never looked.”

Still in Chapter 8, he mangles the names of a couple of dinosaur taxa and says Triceratops had feathers on its tail. Nope. That was Psittacosaurus, a basal relative of the giant horned dinosaurs, and the tail ornaments in question were bristles, not the true feathers of some theropod dinosaurs and their modern avian descendants.

Lawler recounts the rise of the American poultry industry in some detail, but inexplicably omits the saga of the Jewish chicken farmers of Petaluma. California enters the book obliquely, in a reference to how the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II deprived the industry of most of its skilled chick-sexers. If true, this is remarkable, and I’d love to know more about this professional specialization.

I was shaking my head and muttering as early as page 10, on which we learn that all but two of the world’s 49 pheasant species inhabit the jungles of South Asia. Leaving aside the Congo peacock, a biogeographical outlier, it’s true that all other living pheasant species are Asian. But from the range maps in the definitive Pheasants, Partridges & Grouse by Steve Madge and Phil McGowan, the distribution seems as much East Asian as South Asian. A couple of species are endemic to Japan, not a notably jungly country; others restricted to scrubland in the Himalayas. I’m not even sure Lawler got the number of species right.

I could go on, but that would be beating a dead chicken. All right, just one more, in the context of poultry-raising among slaves in the antebellum South: “Since black women often did the cooking in plantation kitchens, West African foods like okra and kale crept onto plantation menus.” Kale? This man doesn’t know the difference between kale and collards! (Collards, of course, are only West African by adoption, but that’s another story.)

Joe Eaton is a science and natural history writer based in Berkeley, California.