Ted Genoways: American Slaughterhouse
“The work of all great literature,” Ted Genoways wrote in the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) in 2012, is “to transport us to worlds we never knew existed while also forcing us to look at our familiar surroundings anew, to reexamine what we thought we already knew.” Genoways undertakes this double task in his own work, chronicling with precision and empathy the human stories behind such fraught subjects as the American meatpacking industry and the Keystone XL pipeline. When examining the social implications of policy, he maintains, “My sympathies are universally with whoever is at the bottom and getting screwed the most.”
Genoways began his literary career as a teenager in Nebraska, where he co-founded Muse, a magazine the Columbia School of Journalism would declare the best high school publication in the country. Later, in 1998, while pursuing his MFA at the University of Virginia, he founded Meridian, the literary journal of UVA’s creative writing program. In 2001, he published his first poetry collection, Bullroarer: A Sequence, about his grandfather’s work in the Omaha stockyards. He won a 2002 Pushcart Prize, a 2002 Natalie Ornish Poetry Award, and several other literary accolades by the age of thirty.
As a result of his work at Meridian and his achievements in poetry, the selection committee at VQR appointed Genoways their new editor, to succeed Staige Blackford, who had long been in the role. Genoways helmed the quarterly for nearly a decade, from 2003 on, expanding its global coverage and helping to earn twenty-five National Magazine Award nominations. But in 2012, controversy arose over workplace stresses at VQR. Genoways disavowed any responsibility and resigned to devote more time to his writing.
He turned to a familiar topic. Genoways had published an investigative article in Mother Jones in 2011 on the proliferation of a strange disease called progressive inflammatory neuropathy (PIN), which afflicted several Hormel Foods slaughterhouse workers in Austin, Minnesota. The symptoms included “numbness and tingling in their extremities, chronic fatigue, searing skin pain,” which, in some cases, culminated in paralysis. He says he began to see how various forms of slaughterhouse worker exploitation were “all part of the same story.”
He ultimately expanded that narrative into a book, The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food, released in October 2014. In it, Genoways explores the ways increased line speeds on slaughterhouse kill floors result in a host of physical and social ills, focusing on Hormel Foods and the labor and immigration status abuses that impact much of the Spam-producing company’s workforce. In the interview that follows, he grants that a change in consumer habits can move the needle, but argues that government regulation is a more apt means when it comes to addressing these injustices swiftly and sustainably.
Several critics have remarked that The Chain, recently nominated for a 2015 James Beard Award, evokes Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking 1906 novel, The Jungle. The Associated Press deemed The Chain “a searing indictment” of the American meatpacking industry, and in the New York Times, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser praised the book as a necessary corrective for a food movement that “has thus far shown greater interest in animal rights than in the human rights of the workers who produce America’s food.” Says Genoways, “I wish that it wasn’t still so difficult to get people to factor in worker safety. I wish that Upton Sinclair’s mission from more than a century ago were more fully realized.”
I spoke with Genoways at his home in southeast Lincoln, Nebraska. Our conversation took place in his walk-out basement, where bookshelves lined the walls and a nearby golf course unfurled like a dull-green carpet outside the window. He poured us each a shot of organic tequila, which he’s currently researching for his next book project, and took one quiet sip before beginning our interview, as if bracing himself for the brutality he was about to describe.