Chicago is a remarkable city that would, I suspect, be far more prominent in our collective imagination were it not for the scene-stealing glamour of its rival New York. I have just returned from my first trip there, and I have to say that for energy, audacity, beautiful buildings and sheer jaw-dropping scale, the Windy City is a pretty good match for the Big Apple.
To most people, Chicago is probably best known for its prohibition-era gangsters, but for food buffs like me, it is synonymous with a similarly violent yet colourful trade: meatpacking. Chicago was once the capital of the global livestock trade; a legacy as potent as it is problematic. In its early twentieth-century heyday, the city’s Union Stockyards were a square mile city within a city employing 75,000 people (mostly low-paid migrants) and processing 17 million cows, sheep and pigs a year. Today, there is hardly a trace of this extraordinary history: the meatpacking revolution that made Chicago’s fortune feels like a legacy that the city would rather forget. The Union Stockyards themselves have all but disappeared and the only reference to them in the City Museum is a modest five-metre long display board. Yet Chicago’s meatpacking history is worth telling, because it effectively represents the birth of the modern food industry.
Strolling around Chicago’s gleaming downtown today, it is hard to imagine that until as late as 1971, a vast swathe of land just to the southwest was heaving with brute life. Yet, as William Cronon points out in his fascinating book Nature’s Metropolis, Chicago owes its fortune to geography. Situated at the base of Lake Michigan and close to the top of the Mississippi watershed, it was a natural trading post and in an ideal position to profit from the vast natural riches of the American Midwest when they were opened up for the first time by the railroads.
One only has to look at an image of Chicago before the arrival of the ‘iron horse’ to realise how radically the railroads changed Chicago’s fortunes: in 1820, it really was a one-horse town (of the hay-eating variety). Just half a century later, it was feeding half the world.
Rarely has a landscape been transformed as rapidly and ruthlessly as was the Midwest after the arrival of the railroads. In the space of less than a decade, swathes of prairie once grazed by tens of millions of bison and inhabited by Native Americans were swept away, to be replaced by monocultural grain production – leaving only piles of bison skulls behind.
In contrast to the catastrophe that this represented for its native inhabitants, the prairies’ conversion brought its usurpers an unprecedented boon, in the form of the world’s first grain glut.
Steam trains and steam-driven grain elevators made it possible for the first time to transport thousands of tonnes of grain to the city rapidly and efficiently, replacing Farmer Jones with his wagonload of wheat into a golden stream of edible commodified profit. The Chicago Board of Trade, founded in 1848, became the world’s first ‘futures’ market, inventing the contracts in 1864 in order to buffer farmers and buyers from the extreme price fluctuations caused by bumper crops and the Civil War.
The real turn in Chicago’s fortunes, however, came when someone had the bright idea of feeding some of the corn surplus flowing into the city to cattle. Texan Longhorns had long been driven to market in Chicago, but now a whole new way of raising the livestock presented itself: starting them out on the prairie but finishing them on grain in urban feedlots before slaughter. Although the idea of meatpacking wasn’t new – Cincinnati had long been known as ‘Porkopolis’ due to the number of hogs slaughtered there and ‘packed’ in salted grain for onward transport – the scale of the Chicago meatpacking trade was entirely new. It marked the birth of ‘cheap’ meat and the start of one of the most ecologically damaging and iniquitous of all human activities.
Back in 1870, however, the thrill of a new source of cheap and plentiful meat blurred out all other considerations, not least the appalling conditions for man and beast alike in the slaughterhouses themselves. Exposed by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 book The Jungle, the revelations put people off eating industrial meat for a bit, but rather like the ‘Horsegate’ scandal in the UK, it didn’t put them off for long.
With more fresh meat than the city could eat, however, Chicago meatpackers had a problem: how to get their produce in an edible state to the cities of the East Coast, some 1000 miles away. Gustavus F. Swift, one of the city’s biggest packers, solved the problem by mounting blocks of salted lake ice at both ends of his railway trucks, so that chilled air flowed over the beef and kept it fresh. What Swift had invented was what we now call the ‘chill-chain’: the last piece of the logistical food delivery puzzle.
With their ruthless business practices, efficiencies of scale and logistical mastery, Chicago meatpackers were the de facto founding fathers of the modern food industry. By controlling the entire supply chain, the packers gained unprecedented power, which they used relentlessly to undercut rivals with special sales stalls like the one below and drive them out of business. By 1889, just four companies controlled 90 per cent of the Chicago beef trade and today, a similar oligopoly controls the global market, including the familiar name of JBS-Swift, now the world’s largest meat processor.
Personally, I think Chicago should make more of its meatpacking legacy, especially in the light of increasing awareness of the ecological and ethical downsides of industrial meat. As the birthplace of the modern food industry and pioneer of many of the techniques and processes that still feed us today, Chicago’s history has much to teach us – not least in exposing the dangers of expecting our food to be cheap.