Several years ago I moved to North Central Florida, where nearly every highway exit ramp terminates at a Waffle House. The horrific realities of factory farming were not unknown to me—electric cattle prods, growth hormones, monstrous genetic modifications, high-dose antibiotics, and torturous slaughtering practices—so I avoided eating Waffle House’s bacon, sausage, and ham. However, I always ordered eggs alongside my hash browns and waffles. Undoubtedly those eggs were laid by miserable hens crammed into feces-filled coops, pumped with drugs, their beaks clipped off to curtail their tendency to peck each other to death due to overcrowding. I cultivated a willful denial that separated the chicken from the egg—the former a living creature, the latter a life null and void. Protein. Salt and pepper. Hot sauce. The “Fun Facts” page on Waffle House’s website states that, since the restaurant’s founding in 1955, they have dished out over 2.5 billion eggs. What’s a couple more?
My first Waffle House meal took place somewhere in South Carolina at around 2 AM while I was on a road-trip during college. The server took my order and then cooked my meal in an open kitchen with a lit cigarette dangling from her lips. My over-medium fried eggs were bland and rubbery, serving strictly as vehicles for the salt, pepper, and hot sauce with which I doused them. But my pecan waffle was delicious, I dug the old-school fast food décor, and the server-cum-chef called me “angel-face” and “sweet pea.” I left vibrating with sugar and caffeine, a Waffle House devotee from that day forth. I am not alone in my enthusiasm. Waffle House’s over 2,100 locations sell enough bacon each year to wrap around the Earth’s equator. All franchises are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In the event of a natural disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gauges damage using something called “The Waffle House Index”: if franchises in a particular area are closed, officials can assume that the event’s impact has been catastrophic. The chain’s broad appeal has even been used as a model for boosting membership at evangelical Christian churches. In his book The Gospel According to Waffle House, pastor and syndicated columnist Ronnie McBrayer writes: “We don’t need more straight-laced, behavior-management obsessed, bottom-line focused, boundary-drawing corporations calling themselves the Body of Christ. We need these things we call churches to look more like Waffle House restaurants.”
During my time in Florida, Waffle House’s eggs started to disturb me; their blandness began to register less like neutrality to my palate, and more like menace. There was something creepy about the flavorlessness and pallor of their yolks, which were the color of washed-out lemonade rather than the rich, saffron hue displayed by the farmer’s market eggs I cooked at home. The watery, salty whites were like tears, I thought—the tears of hens so deranged by their living conditions that they cackled until they cried. My disassociation from the mass farming of eggs was gradually replaced by morbid curiosity. Where exactly were Waffle House eggs being laid? And what was life really like there, both for the hens and those who tended them? I devised a plan to visit the facility that supplied “farm fresh eggs,” as they were called on the menu, to my local Waffle House.
One afternoon, after finishing my meal, I flagged down my server. “I’m a huge Waffle House fan,” I said. “Where do you all get your eggs?” She stared at me blankly. “Like, what farm do they come from?” I asked. The server laughed. “I have no idea,” she said. “I’ve never thought about it. Hold on, precious.” She dashed into the back of the restaurant, and then returned to my booth. “The boxes say Glenview Farms.” I returned home eager to search the Internet, determine Glenview Farms’ address, and go there. Gaining entry would be the hard part, I figured. Surely factory farms wouldn’t allow access to the general public, so I would need a disguise. Perhaps I could pose as an employee or some kind of inspector. What would I wear? I imagined it might involve galoshes, maybe dungarees. Some kind of badge. Well, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
The bridge turned out to be nonexistent. My Internet search revealed that Glenview Farms is a subsidiary of the massive conglomerate US Foods, and the proud producer of crumbled cheeses, flavored cheese slices, horseradish and chive white cheddar cheese, and an assortment of other dairy-ish foodstuffs—“Straight from the farm to you.” Oddly, Glenview’s website contains no mention of eggs. More searching uncovered a few US Foods webpages, inaccessible from Glenview’s main page, which confirmed that Glenview does indeed offer eggs, as well as “egg mixes.” Only twice have I eaten the microwaved egg-pucks in fast-food breakfast sandwiches borne of mixes—puffy and gummy. The Pre-Cooked Egg Product™ used for McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches includes an alarming 21 ingredients, and that does not include the mélange of others huddling under the umbrella terms “flavors” and “artificial flavors.” I wondered how Glenview’s egg mixes compared to McDonald’s. What were their ingredients? And more pressingly, where could I find an actual Glenview Farm? I searched the Internet long and hard for answers to both questions. I’m not really sure what the Deep Web is, but surely I must have penetrated its obsidian depths. I was unable to uncover a single Glenview Farm location. As for the egg mixes, all I could find was a downloadable advertisement for Savory Egg Mix™ in which Glenview’s original slogan, “Straight from the farm to you,” is revised to read: “Tastes like straight from the farm.”
Forging on, I emailed US Foods and asked for the address of the Glenview Farms that supplied eggs to my local Waffle House. Their response was evasive:
Thank you for inquiring with US Foods. I'm sorry but we would not be able to supply this information. You would need to get that from Waffle House. For reasons of confidentiality, we would not be able to give out addresses of our suppliers or our customer's suppliers.
When I emailed Waffle House’s customer relations department with the same question, they never replied. US Foods’ use of the word “confidentiality” was jarring, and together with Waffle House’s silence I had a vague sense of wrongdoing on my part. But don’t we have a right to know where our food comes from? Surely that is a natural impulse, to want to have some familiarity with what we put into our bodies. Certain professions justifiably abide by codes of confidentiality—clinical psychology, law, and medicine, for example—and it would be inappropriate to ask practitioners in those fields for identifying information regarding their clientele. That those in the egg industry are secretive about their manufacturing practices in the same manner that a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon would decline to comment on the overnight disappearance of wrinkles from a celebrity’s brow is astonishing. Essentially, I was told that the eggs I purchase and eat, which become part of my physical being, are none of my business.
Clearly, the situation of corporate egg farms as clandestine operations is ominous. One imagines barbed-wire fences, retina scans, Hazmat suits. Filth and mayhem. Laborers working for pennies an hour. Should we be disturbed? Yes, deeply. But here is a thought: with these kinds of nightmares lurking in the back of our collective consciousness, lining the refrigerated isle of our grocery stores, and dished up at our favorite restaurants, isn’t the desire to not know about our eggs virtually inevitable? Denial is part of the human character—and not least of all when it allows us to save money. Factory farm eggs are far cheaper and more accessible than eggs laid by healthy, arguably happy, chickens at small, local farms. The average egg in the United States now costs around $1.60 per dozen, whereas my own local farmers market eggs cost nearly four times more. Eggs are a staple of the American diet. For those without the financial means to routinely purchase free-range, antibiotic-free, local eggs, dwelling on the ugliness of factory farming may seem like pointless self-flagellation; and for many of us who are trying to minimize spending, “fancy” eggs are not where we would choose to splurge.
However, not everyone has acquiesced to the idea that the sources of our eggs are a secret best kept. Legions of activists have gone to great lengths to sneak into factory farms and record the horrors that take place there. These activists’ findings are disseminated to the public, easily accessible via the Internet. In response, intensive farming corporations like US Foods are continually pushing for the implementation and expansion of legislation—so-called agricultural gag laws, or “Ag gag laws,” that allow them to operate behind a veil. More than half of all U.S. states have passed bills that make those who make or distribute film footage, audio recordings, or photographs of the inside of a factory farm vulnerable to serious criminal prosecution, and which allow factory farms to demand that job applicants disclose whether they have ever worked as investigative journalists. Of course, the lobbying powers of the agricultural industry are the forces behind such defensive mandates—but this is only part of the story. What is fascinating is that while “Ag gag” laws began passing through state legislatures in the early 1990’s, the circumstances that precipitated those laws began decades earlier at the height of the Cold War.
Egg farming experienced a boom during the 1930s due to several agricultural innovations, including the invention of cost-effective egg incubators. But it was in the 1950s, at the height of the Red Scare, that factory farming really took off. This enabled the skyrocketing popularity of fast food chains, and their proliferation was a source of national pride. Fast food companies’ advertising strategies played on both this pride and Americans’ emphatic identification with virtue and abundance—a very intentional contrast to the corruption and malice of our enemy, the Communists, who surely wouldn’t offer us so much as a crust of moldy bread as a last meal before bombing us out of existence. Signaling America’s prosperity, McDonald’s commercials prompted potential customers to “Look for the golden arches.” White Castle boasted that, by using a high-tech machine to punch five holes in their beef patties, their burgers cooked “faster and more evenly.” KFC designated their fried chicken “North America’s hospitality dish,” and their first slogan was “We fix Sunday dinner seven nights a week"—both indications of our nation’s commitment to wholesomeness.
It was commonly understood that the more information the USSR gathered about the United States, the more vulnerable we became to Soviet espionage and nuclear assault. Both the CIA and the NSA were founded in the wake of World War II, two agencies whose functionality were—and still are—contingent upon the confidentiality of their operations. It was widely believed that vast numbers of Communist spies lurked among us. By the mid-1950’s, we had embraced a culture of secrecy, deeming it necessary for our survival. And so, when—at the invitation of an Iowan newspaper editor in 1955 (incidentally the same year that the first Waffle House opened)—Nikita Krushchev sent members of the Soviet Foreign Office to check out Iowa’s farms, the Red Scare gained yet another dimension. Top US intelligence officials warned that Communist access to our farming technology would enable the Soviets to overcome their shortcomings in that arena. We feared this would help them gain muscle internationally as suppliers of agricultural produce to other countries as foreign aid. After the Iowa visit, further agricultural exchanges between the feuding nations resulted in American newspaper headlines such as “Soviets View US Tall Corn” and “Iowa Farmer Sees Moscow, Finds Hogs are Huge.” Perhaps our deepest fear regarding the appropriation of our agricultural technology was that it threatened to diminish our claim to a superior way of life.
One of essential innovations that enabled the boom of factory farming, and which therefore fueled the rise of fast food, was the widespread use of new chemical pesticides following World War II. In particular, farmers were harnessing the toxic effects of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT, to maximize crop outputs, including the cereal grains used for chicken feed. The widespread use of DDT quickly inspired concern about the safety of its use. Scientific data accumulated proving that DDT was a potent poison—not only to the insects that were its intended targets, but also to virtually every living thing. Even as the consequences of DDT were being documented and available to the public, Americans were none too interested in hearing about it. In our quest to beat out the Soviets, we were willing to spur the agricultural industry’s growth at any cost. In addition, America’s sense of imminent nuclear disaster may also have contributed to our willingness to forgive the accumulating pollution of pesticides; our perception was that deadly toxins already lurked around and within us in the form of Communism itself, and that little (if anything) could be done to decontaminate us.
As DDT use expanded, avian populations dwindled—especially birds of prey, including the bald eagle (interestingly, fowl, e.g. chickens, were less affected). Aquatic life suffered, too. Cancers affecting humans and other species became more prevalent and deadly. Incidences of human male infertility increased, as did miscarriages suffered by pregnant women. More children experienced developmental delays. Eventually, in 1972, the use of DDT as a pesticide for US crops was largely banned. But by then we were at the dawn of another era anyway: an age of new and improved pesticides, a sharper understanding of genetics, cheap and accessible antibiotics, and a populace more eager than ever to consume the output of these advances—especially at our favorite fast-food restaurants.
With a small leap of the imagination, one might argue that, had the arms race between America and the USSR never occurred, and had the race to agricultural superiority that sprung out of our competitive engagement with the Soviets not followed, intensive farming practices may have at least taken a less violent and aggressive form. If not for the Cold War, perhaps we would have banned DDT much sooner and forgone other abuses that enabled factory farming to thrive. Without the life-or-death urgency and the panicky fervor driving our competitive edge, it is possible—yes, possible—that our farms would be smaller, our produce less chemically and genetically altered, and our eggs heartier, richer, and tastier, with yolks that actually look as advertised on industry websites: the same brilliant orangey-yellow as setting suns.
By the time our Cold War fears began to recede, our eyes—so accustomed to scanning the horizon for incoming threats—turned back toward our own country. We began scrutinizing American farms, and we didn’t like what we saw. Through the Civil Rights Movement, and also the second wave of feminism, we had tuned into the transformative power of organized protest and challenging authority. Although awareness of environmental issues and opposition to animal cruelty had gained some steam in the 1970s, our attention to factory farming sharpened as the Red Scare faded away, as did activists’ condemnation of agricultural corporations’ modus operandi. We began exposing the abuses of human beings and animals that occurred inside intensive farming facilities. Predictably, the agricultural industry—which by now was monopolized by an ever-merging handful of massive corporations—rallied their forces. Their response was to push back the picket lines and silence activists and investigative journalists with legislation that many believe infringes upon Americans’ First Amendment right to free speech. The Berlin Wall—the greatest symbol of the Cold War—fell in 1989. The United States’ first Ag gag law was passed in 1990.
Eggs are now so cheap and accessible that a person might feel like an idiot for asking questions about them. And by now, most of us know the answers anyway—but to make conscious choices to avoid factory farm eggs requires financial resources that many people lack. And for all of us, it is much easier not to think about it, to pretend not to know, at least for the duration of a tasty meal. Maybe Glenview Farms is nestled in a fertile valley that is, indeed, adjacent to a glen. What is a glen? To be honest, I don’t quite know. But wouldn’t it be nice to believe that a really nice one is the backdrop against which hens lay our eggs? Readers might be wondering whether I still go to Waffle House. Yes, I do. Here is the reason why: When a child’s parents say that a deceased family pet has been sent to live on a beautiful farm in the country, are you really going to pipe up and ask, “Which farm was it, exactly?” As I sit in a Waffle House booth, some part of me dreams that whichever farm my eggs come from is the same farm to which beloved pets retire. There are old people wearing overalls, pies cooling upon windowsills, scruffy old dogs, cats lazing about, and suns perpetually in the act either of setting or rising. The hens cluck jovially, pecking corn kernels scattered in the dewy grass by a young woman—smiling and fresh-faced, the kind of plump that signifies abundance and health, cooing gently as they all gather around her wooden clogs.