Calling Our Food by Name

By Jessica

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.


12 responses to “Calling Our Food by Name

  1. Alliegator June 8, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Our experiment this year has been meat chickens. We’ve raised 30 of them, and plan to keep 5 or 6 for eggs. We have a week left before it’s time to kill them.

    Rabbits are the project for next year.

  2. mfranti June 8, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Allie and Jessica,

    Do you think you could do all that you do alone or without the help of your spouse?
    My husband supports my efforts to grow food and keep chickens but he’s not a part of it. It’s all me and I’m often overwhelmed at the amount of work I have to do.

    I must have planet 18 pepper plants yesterday and 6 eggplant, tomatoes, etc. And that’s the easy part. Amending the soil, building fences, cleaning up chicken shit, hauling rocks and soil and straw and manure across the large yard are a lot of work for this woman with back problems. I can’t imagine bringing more animals on with the intent to raise them for food.

  3. missy. June 8, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Jessica, honestly, this post makes me feel really sad. Especially when you call yourself “lily-livered” for not wanting to kill an animal. I hate how sentimentality is considered a weakness in meat-eating cultures. I think of this quote by author Carol J Adams:

    “So what’s wrong with being sentimental? It goes back to the ethics of care. Perhaps sentiment is what we need. If there’s something that makes you uneasy, perhaps the thing is not to conform your emotions to what culture is telling you, but to conform culture to what your emotions are telling you, which is that there might be something wrong here. I grew up in a farming community. I watched butchering as a child. My sister was allowed to dip the dead pig into the boiling water and there was a sort of gothic fascination there. And I’d go home and eat meat — there was a complete disconnect. We were fascinated, but those animals were others, those animals were objectified beings. It is a violent process — and most animals are not butchered down on the farm, they are butchered in a horrendous way.”

    She makes some really interesting points here. Let’s keep in mind, for the purposes of this conversation, that 99% of animals being slaughtered for meat in this country are being mistreated their entire lives in factory farming systems. But as Adams points out, even being one of those lucky few who is cared for by humans does not guarantee that the animal escapes objectification and violence. I’m not trying to accuse you here–you offered your respect for vegans in the post and I send my personal respect back to you–but I always feel deeply uneasy when people equate a distaste for killing with weakness, cowardice or sentimentality. I see the threads of that line of thinking running throughout the culture I live in, and frankly it scares me.

  4. missy. June 8, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    *In my last sentence I wrote “sentimentality” when I meant “irrationality.” I think I made it clear that sentimentality is often, in my opinion, a virtue.

  5. SNeilsen June 8, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Are you into grokking?

    I also thought Soylent Green was a good idea. My parents will make a fine many meals, but unlike individuals in other cultures I don’t plan on wearing them.

  6. missy. June 9, 2011 at 5:56 am

    SNeilsen, I spent 15 minutes googling unfamiliar phrases in your comment, and I still need you to clarify what you mean 🙂

  7. Nicole I June 9, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    I often describe us as concerned carnivores. Part of it is nutritional – I just struggle when I’m on a veggie diet. But part of it is I am unsure of the ethics of it all and (admittedly) continue to take the path of least resistance.

    I do think there is something about knowing your food – meat or veggies – that helps close the alienation gap. To eat food without thought of the animal it came from or the labor put into it is wrong.

    On a side note, one of my current avoidance activities is to research goat keeping for milk. The only thing that is stopping me (and amazingly, it isn’t city code) is the fact that leaving town for 3-4 weeks per summer doesn’t do a lot for keeping up a milk supply. Besides, I better make sure I have the laying hens thing under control first or else my husband (who is theoretically but often not practically supportive mfranti) might cut of my urban livestock fantasies altogether.

  8. bettyjo June 9, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    We raise chickens and beef cattle. I learned pretty fast that when beef was served to the Grand kids, it was best to call it “beef”, not “katrina” or “lolly” or whatever that beeve was named while alive.

    Sorry to hear about the bad back Mfranti. Spring is a tough time of year for backs. I too come in from the field walking like an old person. We’ve had so much rain this spring that all but the greens are late getting planted – which was fine while it was raining, not much work to do at all, but now of course, everything is late and we’re rushing to get the plants out of the greenhouse and into the field.

  9. Corktree June 9, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    I’ve been giving this post some thought as we’re getting closer and closer to having our own chickens and cows. I know that this process of connecting on a very real level with the source of our food will be a journey for me, perhaps one that I’m not prepared for quite yet, but I also know that it is a path I am destined to take. I remember someone remarking to me a while back that they named their cows after cuts of meat so that it would be less disturbing to them later on. I didn’t like that idea. I wouldn’t want to think of any animals we raise only as food, even if that makes it harder to slaughter them.

    And the part about rabbits is very timely. My daughter is getting a pet rabbit from a neighbor, and everyone that we’ve mentioned it to assumed we were getting it for meat. I honestly hadn’t even considered the idea.

  10. Corktree June 10, 2011 at 11:23 am

    I wrote a comment but don’t know where it went. I think I said something about how we’re getting closer and closer to having our own chickens and cows and this is something I’ve started thinking about. And somehow I know that this is going to be a process in connecting with real life and death on a level that I haven’t previously. I long for that closer relationship to the earth, but part of me knows that it isn’t going to be easy and I’m nervous that I’m not nearly ready for it.

    As an aside to the naming issue, we knew some people that always raised a couple cows for food that named them after various cuts of meat. I didn’t like that. I don’t want to think of my animals as nothing but food.

    And we’re getting a pet rabbit soon, but I hadn’t even considered the possibility of raising them for food until someone assumed that was why were getting it. In the context, I have to admit it disturbed me.

  11. Alliegator June 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Mfranti- I would do raised bed gardens on my own, but the big garden requires tilling with the tractor, which I suppose I could do, but never have. I wouldn’t raise chickens for meat without him. I don’t want to do the killing. Maybe at some point I’ll be okay with it, but I’m not there yet. I think I’d do meat rabbits before meat chickens if I was doing it myself.

    Have you read City Farm by Novella Carpenter?

    Nicole- I want a milk goat too, but the twice a day milking every day is more than I could handle. I like to be able to go on vacation.

    Corktree- I admit to calling the 30 chicks “little nuggets”. Other than that we haven’t named the chickens, although we’ll probably name the 6 we keep for chickens. Right now I call them all “ladies”, even though most of them are roosters. 🙂

  12. bettyjo June 14, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Our chickens all have names. Tho since some are hard to tell apart, most are named “Sadie”. The cattle are also named, the kids get to name them.

    People always say it must be hard to kill a critter you’ve cared for, but I don’t have
    a problem with it. Without the cattle to groom the pastures, we’d have to mow them
    which uses more petroleum. Without the beef sales, we’d not be able to afford the taxes on the green open space that is also home to all manner of wildlife.

    Remember that movie Last of the Mohicans? When they killed a buck in the forest, they knelt next to it, honoring and thanking it for providing them sustenance. I liked that. I think our obligations as stewards to the critters, is to insure that their lives are
    just as happy and contented and healthy as we possibly can for as long as they live.
    I think when they are harvested, it must be in the most humane fashion possible. When I slaughter an old chicken, I pick it up in the chicken house, carry it out behind the barn, cooing and petting it as I have hundreds of times before. From the time they leave my arms to the time their head drops in the bucket, is less than 30 seconds. That’s not a bad way to die.

    Respect for all living things is part of being a good farmer. We talk about the departed critters sometimes, always with appreciation, but rarely with sorrow.

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