This is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time but had a hard time putting it all into words. SO, I’m just going to run and see where it gets me. I imagine I’ll hit all of the necessary pit stops.
Eating meat has become so simple in our culture. Too simple.
I’ve seen Fresh The Movie, I’ve seen Food, Inc. I’ve read Omnivores Dilemma. I’ve watched this beautiful (yes, beautiful) video showing how to butcher a pig. I have access to local, happy, healthy, natural meats (not to mention insanely delicious).
Meat requires another animal’s death -and that is something that far too many people take for granted, including me. I understand, appreciate and respect that each roast or pack of bacon that I unwrap is the flesh of another animal (‘another,’ yes, humans are animals). I don’t try to protect my children from the reality, either. Chicken is from chicken, beef is from cattle, pork and bacon (practically its own food group in here) are from pigs. Living, breathing, eating, shitting, feeling animals. And that it is so very important to me, and to J, that we respect it. Acknowledge it. Be grateful for it.
I’ve always wanted to go hunting. I first learned to handle and use firearms in Sea Cadets. I found I was a good shot. While living with my mom & step dad on an acreage for a few months after I graduated high school, John let me practice with his 22, I even went ‘hunting’ and successfully shot a grouse. Not a huge feat, but I’d killed an animal that we could eat. I don’t think we ever did, I have a vague recollection of it being lost somewhere in the freezer. Then, while working in Forestry, I was again trained to use firearms and used a 12-gauge shotgun for several months (a great story, if you haven’t already heard it). But when I say I wanted to hunt, most people that I was genuinely appealing to though I was being facetious. I wanted to know how to obtain meat in as simple, as natural a manner possible.
I do still want to go hunting for game. In case you’re wondering about me, I find no thrill in the killing. It’s not some kind of rabid blood lust that I have -I have a strong penchant for DIY when it comes to food. I like doing, making things from scratch. I like learning technique. I like knowing what goes into what I eat. So many times I’ve said to myself, “Why the hell should I buy that when I can do it myself?” I like projects!
Planning for my own urban chicken flock and looking for more urban gardening ideas, I purchased Essential Urban Farmer and read the whole section on raising chickens and through the ‘processing’ section, too, mostly out of curiosity.
When a commenter on an Urban Chicken Group page announced that she had a young rooster who’d started crowing and needed to be removed (roosters in the city make for grumpy neighbours -hell, roosters in my own flock’d make me grumpy, too), I half-joking suggested she turn him into soup. The woman said she couldn’t do that, he’d been too much of a pet for her. I said something along the lines of, “I’ll take him off your hands -but be warned that he’s destined for food.” A part of me was kind of hoping she’d say NO and keep looking for a farm to take him, but she agreed. We set up the hand-over and I came home with a beautiful 4 month old cockerel in a small box lined with pine shavings. Wondering what J was going to think of me, other than that I was nuts.
I won’t go through all of the details, but I did it. We wound up getting FOUR meals out of the 1 bird (roast, leftover meat in fajitas, 2 night’s worth of soup). The instructions in the book are excellent, the meat was surprisingly tender. The soup stock I made from the bones was amazing, so thick with gelatin and so incredibly flavorful. We’d had farm chickens for roasting from J’s Baba years ago, but they were never this.. nice. It could be breed, range-space, diet, or the 24 hour brine rest that make the difference, I don’t know. It could just as easily be that I wasn’t as experienced a cook back then. But, Sparky was amazing. I had been somewhat concerned that my ‘experiment’ in self-sustenance would wind up with a shrug and a drive to the supermarket for a rotisserie chicken. It certainly didn’t.
SO, a few days ago when I was offered a rooster who was apparently being an asshole and a duck.. I wound up being handed a medium-sized dog kennel containing a rooster and THREE ducks. As of writing this, they are all soaking in a 10% brine solution. Well, the food-friendly parts are.
I expect I make it sound easy and I’ve had very kind comments about how brave I am, pride in me, admiration for my strength and it’s all very flattering and while I do take pride in having taken this extra, large step toward conscious omnivory, it’s TERRIFYING. When the birds are enclosed and I know that I Have A Job To Do, I’m anxious, I’m distracted, I’m procrastinatory (yes, I’m making that a word), my hands tremble. I finally reach a point where I know I’m ready (as much I can be) and I just need to go do it. My hand shake the whole time. My heart is thumping. I am so worried that the animal is going to be afraid, hurt, stressed. I have read and re-read as much as I can about methods and what is purported to be the most humane (and why) and I am confident that my methods are the best I can offer (and that these methods are over and above the humane levels of either predation by coyotes or life in a factory chicken operation).
Still, I’m a sentimental, sensitive, over-thinking meathead. But I do it. Yesterday, J helped me and I am so grateful. Not only because of a different approach that I believe is slightly (yet even) more humane that I wasn’t sure I could do (physical strength-wise), but because there is something indescribable about having a friend, a partner share these moments. It’s the feeling of support, that he doesn’t actually think I’m crazy or that it’s another irrational project. It’s the contribution of his experiences. It’s having someone to show my shaking hands to see how much this really does affect me.
And it really does affect me, on so many levels, which I’ll try to articulate. But first I have to say that I believe this …sorrow in taking another animals life, this respect for it’s feelings and fear for ITS fear.. this emotional response to something so basic as sustenance, nourishment is a gift.
If I felt nothing? THAT would be a tragedy.
And that, THAT, is what our Western Civilized Food System is. A motherfucking tragedy. To see the rows of rotisserie chickens and try to determine which one is plumpest and the best value for our dollar, instead of picturing or at the very least sparing a single neural firing’s worth of energy considering how those birds (YES THEY ARE BIRDS) got there. To decide that it’s a good thing for a drive-thru cheeseburger to cost less than a pound of fresh produce, instead of questioning the logic of putting that crap (SO MUCH CRAP) into our bodies, our children’s bodies. To feel, think, respect NOTHING of the value of food. OF OURSELVES. Because yes, you ARE what you eat. On a very fundamental, physical level.
The choices we make as consumers make a difference. You may say that you don’t have options where you live. Why is that? Because we were fed the idea that choice is overrated, here, let’s make the choices for you, eat this crap in a box shipped around the globe instead of supporting local Farmer Joe -and we ate what we were fed. The result?
Is the similarity not obvious? Some neon signs and fake plants slapped into plastic pots to draw attention away from the fact that we’re being herded, confined, steered away from exercise and effort and being fed crap we have no earthly business eating? And, beyond that, dealing with the health consequences of it all?
Food must be more important that that. It *IS* more important than that. Make the choice to try, at the very least. When the cashier at the supermarket asks you if you found everything you were looking for, THAT is your chance to express your choice. Say, “No! Not nearly enough organic produce.” “No, I want tomato sauce in cans free from BPA.” “No, I would like to see local meats.” “No, I want to see GMO labeling.” YOU are the one holding the debit, credit card, cash. Make them earn it.
Or when a crazy opportunity presents itself to you, earn it yourself. Plant a garden to start, it’ll open up your mind and your heart and your whole body will with thank you for it.
And, lastly the title of this post comes from this:
This is the gravel I collected from the 3 ducks’ gizzards. Some of it washed away as I cleaned it out but I tried to keep as much as I could. At first it was just a curiosity to me, an interesting tidbit of bird anatomy, but then (sentimental me) I attached more to it. It’s a step in the food chain. It’s the birds’ instinctive knowledge that it needs some stony grit in its gizzard to help it properly digest its food -to sustain itself. Just as its my instinctive knowledge that I am an omnivore and I require an animals death to accomplish that. It’s a natural process. It’s complicated. It should be complicated. It’s a complicated process, being a living creature, ultimately turning the sun’s energy and the earth’s chemistry into everything that we are.
Years ago I bought The Joy of Yoga and this passage struck me and I’ve never forgotten it:
You are as natural and legitimate an expression of Nature as a tree or cloud. -Erich Schiffmann
Despite technology and culture, we are animals. Even as we destroy it, we are a part of Nature. Holding those tiny pebbles in my hand is a truth.
Disclaimer: In no way am I suggesting or implying that everyone do what I did. Nor am I going to feed my family exclusively this way. Thank goodness for Ravenwood, I have other access to ecological, ethical meats. It’s the idea, the knowledge, the respect for the process that I want to emphasize.