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«University of Canberra Sandra Burr A dog’s breakfast: from canned food to cookbooks Abstract: Across many cultures companion animals have attained ...»

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Burr From canned food to cookbooks

University of Canberra

Sandra Burr

A dog’s breakfast: from canned food to cookbooks


Across many cultures companion animals have attained the status of significant others

in human households. Pets are now family members living in the intimacy of our

homes occupying our bedrooms, our hearts and our deepest affections. In many ways,

the lives of our pets mimic our own with designer outfits and personalised accessories, exercise classes, heated beds and specialised diets. There are doggy day care facilities, dog friendly restaurants and businesses that cater for pet birthdays and other important occasions. Dogs no longer survive on a diet of bones, off cuts and table scraps and cats can expect more than a menu of own-caught mice supplemented by a bowl of milk.

Today pet food is a significant global industry producing a complex range of scientifically formulated nutritionally complete canned and dried food for busy pet owners. In response to this phenomenon is a rise in the number of pet cookbooks whose authors refute the claims of commercial manufacturers, emphasising instead the importance of home-cooked food for the health and well-being of our animal companions. While America continues to dominate the pet cookbook market, Australia has produced a number of pet cookbooks that reveal a great deal about past and contemporary cultural attitudes towards companion animals in this country. This article reflects on the evolution of human-animal relations in Australia through the lens of this small but significant body of Australian published cookbooks for pets.

Biographical note:

Sandra Burr has a doctorate in creative writing. She is an Adjunct Professional Associate in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra where she also teaches creative writing and cultural research. She is a member of the University’s Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, on the editorial panel of the online journal Axon: creative explorations, and is a regular reviewer for the Australian animal studies bulletin, M/C reviews and TEXT: journal of writing and writing courses. Her research interests include human-animal relations and urban animal art.


Food writing – Cookbooks – Companion animals – Pets – Nutrition – Human animal relations TEXT Special Issue 24: Cookbooks: writing, reading and publishing culinary literature in Australasia 1 eds Donna Lee Brien and Adele Wessell, October 2013 Burr From canned food to cookbooks Fig 1.Russell Drysdale, Australia (1912-1981), Man feeding his dogs, 1941 Oil on canvas, 51.2 x 61.4cm, Gift of C.F. Viner-Hall 1961 Collection: Queensland Art Gallery, Photograph: Natasha Harth In recent decades dogs have become increasingly humanised and in many ways their lives mimic our own. They sit beside us on the couch while we watch television (and who is to say they are not watching too), we celebrate their birthdays, give them Christmas presents and spend a fortune on their diets. Feeding pets has become increasingly complex and a simple regime of bones, off-cuts and table scraps supplemented with an occasional rabbit carcass has been replaced by a confusing selection of scientifically formulated canned, dried, fresh and frozen pet food. Pet products have become a significant global industry. Home cooking for pets is also on the rise with a growing number of pet cookbooks gaining a niche in the pantheon of specialist cookbooks. While America continues to dominate the pet cookbook market, Australia has produced a small but significant number of publications that reveal a great deal about past and contemporary cultural attitudes towards companion animals in this country.

Research conducted by the Australian Companion Animal Council reveals that more than 63 percent of Australian households own pets, with dogs (3.41 million) and cats (2.35 million) outnumbering all other species (ACACa 2010: 13-14). Sociologist Adrian Franklin (1999) theorises that the absorption of companion animals into contemporary households has led to the hybridisation of the modern family and 91 percent of Australia’s pet owners say they feel ‘very close’ to their pets and regard them as integral members of their family (ACACa). As one journalist commented, ‘Once upon a time dogs were pets, now they rule the roost’ (Booth 2001: 2). Pets are ‘Increasingly cared for according to human patterns and human aesthetic standards’ (2004), and the way that we feed our pets is a clear indicator of how we feel about them. As well as a growth in commercially available dog food, an extraordinary array of food related services have emerged including: organic restaurants offering home delivery (Organic restaurants for pampered pets 2012); doggy gelato (Bain 2012);

dog beer ‘a beer for your best friend’ (Dutch brewers launch dogs beer 2007); and

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hotel pet packages that include gourmet meals (Outrageous culinary pet vacations 2012). Pet owners are faced with a bewildering array of choices when it comes to feeding their animals, a phenomenon that began with the industrialisation of pet food in America.

Processed pet food was a mid-1880’s response to overcoming waste in the North American meat manufacturing industry. Grains were added to discarded, sometimes diseased meat and offal, which was then cooked and chemically treated to destroy bacteria and to extend shelf life. Appealing to modern desires for convenience and economy, pet food manufacturers created a market by promoting canned and dry food that required minimal storage space, lasted longer, was quick and easy to prepare and, above all, negated the need to handle and store raw meat. Sales expanded during the Great Depression when fresh meat became prohibitively expensive. Sales in Australia were initially small due to an abundance of wild game and horse meat and the high numbers of butchers selling fresh offal and off-cuts. By 2009 however the landscape had changed with pet food sales in Australia totalling $1.826 billion which was 3.2 percent of all major food products sold in this country (ACACb 2010: 27). It is interesting to note that rabbits, once the mainstay of pet diets worldwide, are now a luxury item. American social commentator Ira Glass (2012) describes paying eighty dollars a week for half a dozen rabbits to feed his dog whose health problems precluded it from eating anything else. In Australia rabbits currently cost between $14 and $18 per kilo (Light 2011). As well as commenting on the expense of feeding his dog Glass said ‘it’s weird feeding an animal that’s cuter than your pet to your pet’ (2012), reflecting humankind’s changing sensibilities towards the killing of animals for food with increasing numbers of people questioning the way they feed themselves, their families and their pets.

Many pet food manufacturers enlist veterinarians to endorse their products and their claims that they are scientifically formulated to provide complete, balanced and safe nutrition for pets. This kind of advertising has led to a new sense of public helplessness (Olson 2005), with many abandoning their customary pet feeding practices in favour of these ‘improved’ commercially produced diets. Public faith in commercial pet food was shaken in 2007 when more than 60 million cans of pet food were recalled in America following dogs becoming ill and even dying from eating processed food found to contain contaminated wheat gluten imported from the People's Republic of China. Consumers began to question not only the high cereal content in canned pet food, but also the inclusion of low-grade meat and the amount of pesticides, preservatives, chemicals and other additives used in their manufacture.

Similar concerns are apparent in the broader community where there is a growing mistrust of preservatives, cereals, fats, salts and sugars in all processed food. Indeed, ‘As people eat more sustainable seasonable produce and meat raised and butchered outside the industrial system, so do their pets’ (Storey 2011). The current trend is for owners to cook for their pets, and to include fresh, wholesome, organic ingredients just as they would for themselves.

Following the contamination scare, the growth in sales of pet cookbook in America was remarkable with sales of titles such as Twichell Roberts’ The good food cookbook for dogs (2004) growing by more than 300 percent and Moore’s Real food for dogs

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(2001) almost tripling in one week (Newman 2007). A survey of giant bookseller Amazon Books reveals the availability of more than 300 cookbooks catering to a broad spectrum of companion animals. Many of the current recipe books reflect prevailing anxieties not only about how to feed pets, but also about a growing crisis in pet health as more and more animals succumb to a multiplicity of modern dietaryrelated illnesses including obesity, allergies, digestive problems, and organ, joint and periodontal disease. It is popularly held that if processed foods are wrong for humans, then they have to be wrong for pets for ‘If you can feed yourself healthily and your children, then you can feed your pets healthily too. It really isn’t that hard’ Storey (2011). Accordingly, a range of cookbooks for pets target specific health issues, but they also cater for owners’ preferences to feed gourmet, organic and wholefoods and for their animals to be vegan and vegetarian. Pet cook books follow all sorts of trends including the current fascination with celebrity with titles such as, The culinary canine: great chefs cook for their dogs – and so can you! (Feldman & Pierce 2011) and The Beverly Hills doggie cookbook (James 2012), with its trio of jaunty Chihuahuas wearing outsized sunglasses on the cover.

While pet cookbooks often present as quirky and whimsical, the central focus is on the health, happiness and wellbeing of the family pet and authors often present themselves as animal experts with a genuine interest in pet nutrition. However despite these pet owners are both wary and discerning and are quick to spot fraudulent or misleading material and expose it on internet forums such as the Amazon book review pages. Avian expert Robin Deutsch attracted considerable criticism for including processed human food in her ’healthy’ recipes for birds, as well as a product known to contain a carcinogenic preservative. Similarly, Armstrong and Bagnasco were reproached for using ingredients such as oil, butter, cream, cheese and Italian dressing in their recipes which are known to be unsafe for birds. That said, the notion of cooking for birds is in itself rather peculiar.

Modern pet cookbooks emulate mainstream cookbooks in their design and presentation with chapters on entrees, mains and desserts and sections for making food for celebratory and other special occasions. Most feature a single recipe to a page illustrated with stylish colour photographs of food and dinnerware, together with endearing portraits of cute cats and well-groomed dogs. Treats, foods for family outings, and recipes for specific dietary needs are commonplace and there is a growing trend to include recipes for dishes intended both for pets and their owners.

Gayle Pruitt says in the introduction her The dog-gone good cookbook: 100 easy, healthy recipes for dogs and humans (2013) that it ‘offers more than 100 delicious, healthy recipes that are wonderfully nutritious for both humans and dogs’ and, according to Andrew Newman (2007) ‘When Arden Moore cooks ‘Marvelous Mutt Meatballs’ for her dogs, Chipper and Cleo, she digs in too’. This trend not only attests to the exceptional quality of food available to pets these days, but also gestures towards the increasingly blurred boundaries between humans and their pets. The cover of Pruitt’s book has a rose-bedecked pug sharing a candle-lit dinner with an equally adorable canine companion illustrating author Sandy Moyer’s contention that, ‘Dogs are no longer ‘just pets’. In many homes they are truly part of the family. They are our fur kids, our babies and our grand dogs’ (undated).

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A singular feature of pet cookbooks is the playful, often outlandish, recipe names with ‘Snickerpoodles’, ‘Meowish Sushi’, ‘Gizzard Goulash’, ‘Muttloaf’ and ‘Dogwiches’ just a few examples of this bizarre phenomenon. While this selfconscious jokiness may indicate a degree of uncertainty about the status of companion animals among the authors of pet cook books they and pet food manufacturers appear to have few reservations about conflating food with love and using emotional blackmail to sell their products. Renowned American dog trainer Cesar Millan clearly illustrates this phenomenon when he says, ‘One of the ingredients missing from pet food is the love and energy you put in by cooking it. … It’s that essence that you can’t purchase anywhere in the world’ (in Storey 2011). In this instance, ‘pet food seeks to please the master, not the beast and is one of the clearest examples of food as displaced love’ (Wilson 1999). Confusions over food and love is evident in the conflicted relationships humans have with ‘bad foods’ – chocolate biscuits, doughnuts, birthday cakes and other nutritionally poor salt, fat and sugar-laden snacks, and this conflict is also apparent in pet cookbooks.

Compared to American outputs, Australian publications in the field are relatively modest although the growth of online sales has seen an increasing homogeneity in the genre. The National Library of Australia has a small collection of Australian pet cookbooks that exhibit similar characteristics to those published overseas. They illustrate changes in national attitudes towards household pets in Australia ranging from the pragmatic to their inclusion in family life, with recent publications reflecting ‘the full range of human diets and desire’ (Masters 1999).

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