Righteous Porkchop by Nicolette Hahn Niman [book review]

Picking up Nicolette Hahn Niman's Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (buy on Amazon), one can’t help feel a vague sense of foreboding and dismay. Like all great love stories – The Red and the Black, War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice – Righteous Porkchop, at first glance, offers up a bill of fare that appears to be significantly less than light.

At first glance, the book (with its earnest foreword from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) seems like yet another scholarly, impeccably researched, faultlessly sourced, stomach-turning philosophical tract on the sorry state of the animal husbandry industry in America. Well, brace yourselves, because it is. Niman, the vegetarian animal activist environmentalist wife of a meat-eating rancher (maybe you've heard of him? Yes, that Bill Niman), dishes out out bone-chilling facts about industrial farming that will undoubtedly chill the likes of Alice Waters in her very bones. But the book takes the issue far past standard-issue condemnation of factory farming, personalizing the concern by illustrating it alongside Niman's own life story.

More than a grim soapbox

The real firepower behind Righteous Porkchop is the manner in which Niman gracefully weaves the story of her own life into the bleak narrative. The story of her transformation from city-slicker lawyer to rancher's wife adds humanity and levity to what could otherwise be a tough slog, ultimately producing a memoir-cum-treatise that is by turns gripping and enchanting, difficult to put down and impossible to forget.

Two unlikely, life-changing love stories emerge, both starring Niman as the reluctant, and initially vaguely repulsed, object of affection. In the first, RFK Jr., head of the Waterkeeper charity, assigns new staff attorney Niman (who had just sold her house in Michigan and given away most of her worldly possessions to move to New York for the job) with taking charge of his brand-new campaign to sue polluting industrial hog farming operations. A longtime vegetarian, Niman was less than thrilled with her new assignment, which she envisioned as “an immersion in poop.”

Niman quickly discovered that hog confinement ops were, yes, largely poop-related. The farms illegally polluted local rivers with manure, which contained a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals and toxins that were sickening fish and fisherman. The factories also polluted the air with noxious fumes containing hydrogen sulfide, exposure to which has been linked to everything from lung disease to brain damage. Niman soon found herself picking an epic fight with the industry’s biggest baddy, Smithfield, and launching a war against industrial farming that would play out in courtrooms and newspapers, as well as pig pens and grocery aisles.

Red tape and deceit

As a counterpoint to her behind-the-scenes look at the ugly ins and outs of the legal battle, Niman gives us a detailed analysis of the devolution of the animal husbandry industry in America. From family farms brimming with healthy, free-range chicken, cattle and hogs, we steadily marched toward a Dickensian, standardized, faceless system in which animals are caged from birth to death in sunless buildings with minimal human contact, no room to move, deprived of their ability to nurse their young, forced to wallow in their own waste and fed a steady stream of drug, animal byproduct and hormone-loaded feed.

While much of the march forward has been driven by an attempt to modernize farming and save money, Niman convincingly argues that industrial farming, if the health, waste management and environmental costs are factored in, is prohibitively more expensive than traditional farming methods. The odious moral implications are obvious, but actually dealing with fallout issues of disease, pollution, manure allocation, and the inferior quality of industrially farmed meat are more complicated. Armed with reams of data, studies and interviews with experts, Niman unflinchingly and unerringly tries to untangle the web of red tape and deceit the government and Big Agriculture has weaved around industrial animal husbandry.

Enter the love story

After fighting the good fight for a few years, working around the clock and inheriting a stunningly evil new boss, Niman found herself rundown and sick of it all. It was quitting time. Cue the soaring music: Bill Niman, the godfather of sustainable ranching, had fallen in love with her at first sight. Never mind that in the course of her getting to know oodles of ranchers, farmers and legal hotshots during her days as an eco warrior she was too busy to buy an organic egg, never mind think about dating. Bill Niman was willing to bide his time – and picked a particularly auspicious moment to make his first move.

Two weeks after she left Waterkeeper he swept in, and somehow overcame her quite lengthy list of reservations: his unswerving allegiance to denim; his moustache; his hairdo; his age (Bill has 22 years on her); his job (she’s a vegetarian, she reminds the reader for the umpteenth time). But much like her overnight conversion from a pork party pooper into a full-time pig patron, one day she simply decided that he was the love of her life. Approximately 2.2 seconds later, they were hitched and living on his ranch in Bolinas, CA.

Coming soon to a theater near you?

The love story, the vegetarian-fights-the-good-fight-against-the-hog-farmers — hell, pretty much all of Niman's life is so reader-friendly that the whole thing is squealing for an Erin Brockovich-style silver-screen treatment. It was hard to read without casting the movie in my mind (I’m thinking Jennifer Connelly as Niman; George Clooney as Bill Niman and Ed Harris as RFK, Jr.). It's a manifesto and a love story; it’s packed with hard truths, interesting factoids, philosophical digressions, heroes, villains, sweet victories and depressing defeats. Tonal extremes of thrill, romance, disgust, and exhilaration make reading Righteous Porkchop something of an exercise in emotional volatility, but it’s well worth the alternating waves of nausea and quickening pulse.

Niman's case will, of course, appeal to the usual suspects — environmentalists, health nuts, responsibly sourced meat-eaters, and vegans — but it will also engage indiscriminate carnivores, soccer moms, evangelists, Buddhists, urban aesthetes and penny-pinching members of the animal husbandry industry who just want to keep their farm afloat. Because part of the reason Righteous Porkchop is such a towering achievement is that its assertions carry so many far-reaching implications. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s ready to take a step toward a more righteous life – for themselves, future generations and our furry little farm friends.

– Kathleen Willcox

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