Sunday, June 5, 2011

Calling Our Food by Name

This didn't get published on Our Mother's Keeper, so I think I'll just throw it up here.
Ohp, they did post it! But how did this whole post end up in boldface. Sigh. Really must work on my technical skills. 

My mother’s parents were both school teachers. But they had 6 children (five boys plus my mother) and wanted to teach them the value of good honest manual labor. So they also ran a small dairy farm- the sort of thing where you keep few dozen milk cows on pasture just off the highway that runs from your town to the next town over. That was where the high school was, anyway, so it was fairly convenient to do the milking and feeding morning and afternoon. They sold the milk to the neighbors. They kept a quarter-acre vegetable garden beside their adobe home, and when they wanted chicken for dinner, Grandma caught and killed one from her own coop (while my mother hid in a tree to avoid being asked to help).

By the time I came along, the flock had disappeared, chicken came on a Styrofoam tray from the grocery store, and there were only a few cows left. I got to visit the milking barn as a small child, and I still remember grandpa grabbing a handful of oats from the hopper to snack on while he prepared a cow for milking. (He gave some to the cow, too, of course.) Raised on supermarket 2% milk, I couldn’t stomach the creamy stuff- certainly not when it was still warm from the cow, no matter how enthusiastically my older relatives raved about it! The beef, however, I was more than happy to eat. Old dairy cow isn’t much good for steaks, but pressure canned cuts make for excellent gravy over potatoes or brown bread. We sometimes came home from visits to Grandma and Grandpa with cans of beef, labeled with the year and a name identifying the cow from which the meat had come.

Fast-forward 35 years. I keep half a dozen free-range chickens in my backyard for the eggs, fertilizer, pest control, and general amusement. My children are involved in their care and feeding, making sure they have water during the day and locking them safely in their coop at night. It’s nothing compared to getting up a 5 a.m. to milk a dozen cows, but it’s still a responsibility for the well-being of another living creature, and a connection to their food. Between “the ladies”, our fruit trees, and our vegetable garden, my kids understand better than most of their classmates just how their bellies come to be filled every night.

 We also keep chickens for the psychological salve of knowing that at least we are doing some small thing to avoid complicity in the various horrors of factory farming without giving up animal products. That’s not to say this is a chicken sanctuary: when a hen gets too old to lay reliably, we kill and eat her (mostly in soup or stew; the meat on a three-year-old chicken is remarkably tough.) Yes, I know, vegetarianism is an option for avoiding the blood and sins of industrial farming. But my daughter is decidedly allergic to peanuts, mildly allergic to soy, and politely but firmly declines to consume nearly any other nut. We’re working on expanding our non-animal protein sources (I’ve got sapling almond and macadamia nut trees planted in the hopes of changing her mind), but we’re going to have to keep going with the moderate animal protein consumption for now.

If I could keep a milk cow, I totally would. Ditto for a dairy goat. But I’m in urban/suburban coastal southern California. One of my neighbors got in trouble with the city just for having a pet potbelly pig that got too big for his “pet” designation. Milk is just going to have to come from the store. Urban meat production, on the other hand, we are still trying. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, I totally respect that, and strongly suggest that you not read any further. To the rest of you I say: rabbit tastes just like chicken. Well, dark meat free-range turkey, anyway.

Honestly, my rabbit raising efforts have been a failure so far. My first buck (that’s a male rabbit, we called him Roger) died of heat stroke, before I learned to put soaking wet towels on top of the hutch on hot days for some evaporative cooling. Jane, my first doe, refused to breed despite being given her pick of two different bucks. (The kids got an eyeful watching the bucks try to woo her. I’ll have to get back to you all on whether or not having one’s first glimpse of sexuality be of a doe kicking the butt of the buck attempting to mount her is useful in preventing teenage sexual activity, but I’m thinking it might be.)

This spring I rallied my determination and acquired a new doe. This meant that it was time to cull Jane. I only have so many hutches. She was over two years old, but I’m opposed to wasting flesh as much as I am opposed to cruelty. So my husband gave her one last cuddle- or tried to, she was always crotchety- then quickly dispatched her and skinned the carcass. (I skinned and cleaned Roger’s carcass when he died, but I’m still too lily-livered to personally kill a mammal I knew. I’m working on it.)

Then I got cooking. We got a significant part of four dinners from Jane: rabbit stew, chopped rabbit meat in orange-ginger sauce over rice, rabbit adobo (Filipino marinade), and then finally the broth from boiling the bones went into a tomato-corn soup. Yes, she was a big rabbit, and we eat meat in small portions. During the second dinner, my 13-year-old was having trouble getting the somewhat fibrous meat out of the ladle and onto his plate. He muttered “Jane, stop fighting me and get out!” And then the meat did. And then, he ate it.

We don’t just know where our food came from; we know it by first name. Eat your heart out, Michael Pollan.  


  1. erm....

    you might want to edit this post! I'm putting it up right now. Sorry about the delay. I had some flooding in my basement when this came over the interwebs and I just remembered it right now.

  2. I forgot to tell you but I used for a school lesson too. I didn't tell my students that I'm related to the author but it was good for a discussion about where food comes from. I'd like to use it again next year but only if your able and willing to edit it for a younger crowd.

  3. Love it! And now I want a post on your awe-inspiring poultry-dispatching skillz.