Thank You, FDA

Dear FDA,

Do you know how delicious Reblochon cheese is? I don’t mean young, firm, white-rinded Reblochon. I mean after it has had time to ripen, and the rind has turned reddish-orange, and when cut the cheese starts to flow out from between the rinds, and the smell — well, the smell gets you your own seat on the train. Lovingly trace your knife through, and spread an unctuous layer on your crust of bread: there may be no better cheese in the world.

Do you know that I might never have found this pleasure if not for you? In the late 1990s, you proposed to ban the sale of raw milk cheese, of which Reblochon is only one outstanding example (you’re still at it, by the way). With the defiant attitude of the native New Yorker, I marched down Third Avenue to Lamazou cheeses, where Nancy and Aziz were extremely helpful in giving me a tour of what might soon be a world closed to me: Morbier, with the trace of smoke in the middle; Appenzeller and Tete de Moine, hard, like the Swiss mountains from which they come; Tomme de Savoie and a whole host of others, all with flavors like those I had never known.

If Reblochon was good, I wondered what it tasted like in its pre-cheese form; yes, raw milk is what I now sought. I recalled seeing certified raw milk in my youth in Greenwich Village health food stores, but could not find any in the late 90s. Seems when I was not paying attention, you took care of that little matter by banning interstate sales of raw milk in 1984. Colleagues from the former Soviet Union extolled the delicious nature of milk fresh from the cow, dismayed that they could not find such in the land of the free.

All this spurred me to locate a source. The Union Square Greenmarket revealed a few suppliers selling their own raw milk cheeses; perhaps they had a pint or two of the real stuff? No, but one supplier, Hawthorne Valley Farm, did sell raw milk at their farmstead, as permitted under New York State law. And so I found myself driving 120 miles north of the city, where unhomogenized raw milk was for sale at the farm; I bought a half-gallon, and took it home to try. Warmed to "cow temperature," it was delightfully sweet and creamy. Why should it be banned?

And here you taught me my first lesson in what used to be called Moral Philosophy, economics. You see, the liquid produce of the cow is generally free of bacteria (one reason for this use among the Masai). However, pasteurized milk was originally developed because bacteria in the milk led to tuberculosis, among other illnesses; nowadays, E. coli might as easily get into the source. How did these bacteria come to be in the milk? From sloppy proprietors who did not take care to exercise precautions like properly cleaning their cows and equipment. Thus all milk had to be pasteurized for safety, driving the careful proprietor into an economically disadvantageous situation relative to the slob, and turning milk into a commodity: Gresham’s law applied, and bad practices drove out good husbandry. The same applies in other areas of cattle ranching.

Do you know how delicious grass-fed beef is? In the early part of this decade, you proposed to ban imports of Argentine beef. My local supermarket sold the stuff, and I figured to buy some before I lacked the chance. What depth of flavor! What exquisite texture! The meat is not marbled with the fat that encumbers and tenderizes American feedlot beef, so it is tougher and juicier, and the fat is healthier, as the cattle have fattened almost entirely on grass. You helped me become a better cook by learning how to tenderize through marinades, a skill that comes in handy now that more expensive cuts of beef are less in reach for us all.

You did eventually ban the importing, but I was able to find American suppliers, including local ones in New York, and a few national suppliers. Happily, these suppliers seem to have grown in number, as their entrepreneurial owners seek to discriminate market segments in the general mass of buyers. Bill Niman proposed to do the same for pigs as the grass-feeders were doing for cattle, and heirloom free-range pork likewise entered my food vocabulary, with a major assist from Joe Sobran.

Sobran’s description of the life of a commodity-pork pig is depressing in its inhumanity. What happens in the slaughterhouse is worse: "’Squealing hogs funnel into an area where they are electrocuted, stabbed in the jugular, then tied, lifted, and carried on a winding journey through the plant. They are dunked in scalding water, their hair is removed, they are run through a fiery furnace (to burn off residual hair), then disemboweled and sliced by an army of young, often immigrant laborers’ who u2018wear earplugs to muffle the screaming.’ Most find the work demoralizing." This is the picture of the modern, post-Upton-Sinclair slaughterhouse you have wrought, the very reason you were brought into being.

I’m reminded of this as I ask you, do you know how delicious Jamon Iberico de Bellota is? The pata negra pigs of southern Spain roam freely through fields and oak forests. When their time is near, they may be served a diet exclusively composed of acorns. The resultant effect is magnificent: the meat has a sweet, sometimes gamy flavor, and the fat, well, "the curing process converts the fat of the ham into a beneficial good-cholesterol fat, much like extra virgin olive oil."

But no slaughterhouse in Spain met your exacting standards, so this fine ham was not sold in the USA. It was in Parma, no slouch in the ham department, that I first tasted this delicacy, and I must thank you: it is the king of hams, and I would never have found it without you. Now, of course, an abattoir that meets your standards has opened in Spain, and Jamon Iberico de Bellota is for sale in the USA, at prices exceeding $100 a pound, and now your friends at the USDA have gone and made it even more expensive. You remind me that the FDA, like all government bureaucracies, is set up to favor the large over the small, the commodity producer over the artisan.

It is not the exquisite foodstuffs that your nannyism has led me to for which I have most to thank you; rather, it is your excellence in teaching moral philosophy. For years I filled my belly with the commodity products that you have brought about through your politically-connected centralization of control over the American food industry. But my mother used to tell me "you are what you eat." And so in eating the undifferentiated food that you foist upon us, I lost more sense of my essential nature and became more of a commodity; your friends in the rest of the government would like that, an enumerated, undifferentiated mass particle for them to push around, wouldn’t they? You have helped me to a visceral understanding of unaccountable hypertrophic government, and this is the most important lesson you took the time to teach me.

You see, the ability to discriminate is the heart of liberty. Charles de Gaulle once asked, "How do you govern a nation that has 246 kinds of cheese?" Since that time, the number has grown to over 500; the microbrew and artisanal cheese industries in the USA, for two examples, have exploded the number of brands and varieties of all kinds of liquid and solid refreshments. A population that can discern differences at a high level (discriminate, that is) cannot be ruled, only led, and this is only one small part of the promise of increased freedom as your centralized control breaks down.

Best, Tom