I stood over the meat counter, eyes flitting from one slick package to the next, perplexed. I didn’t know what to buy. None of it looked bad, but none of it looked particularly good either.
I was 19 years old and had never purchased beef from a grocery store.
We raised our own, and every Christmas my grandfather gave my family a side of beef to fill our freezer. Our meat came wrapped in crisp, white butcher paper. I knew the hillsides the calf wandered, what it ate and where it was slaughtered.
The grocery store slabs packed in styrofoam were unknown. And for some reason, that didn’t feel right.
In the 20 years since, I didn’t delve beyond the surface of that gnawing concern until recently. Although we no longer raise cattle, my young family over the last two years has raised three sets of broilers (chickens raised for meat), dabbled in gardening and acquired laying hens.
The work is rewarding, and I find that old, familiar comfort in serving food raised on our two-and-a-half acres. But we’ve also come to realize that most families have never experienced this connection to their food and have no idea where it comes from or the work that goes into producing it.
We’re still learning ourselves.
The discussion started at our house with our first batch of broilers.
My son raised the birds for the Wise County Youth Fair, knowing they would be slaughtered at the end of the six-week process. He was not upset by the idea, but his experience hunting and fishing probably played a role in his understanding.
My daughter, who loves a good chicken nugget, was squeamish about the process and declared none of the birds would die. We gently, but plainly, explained to her that chicken nuggets came from chickens. Although it seems obvious, I’m not sure her then-8-year-old brain had made that connection. It was an important lesson.
She’s since accepted that if she chooses to eat meat, she has to make peace with the process of raising animals for food. But we also understand that the idea is sometimes difficult for her and respect her feelings.
I feel fortunate that we live in a place where we have the space, and organizations like 4-H and FFA, to help us explore these issues.
Just last week I came across a book, “Kitchen Literacy” by Ann Vileisis, in which she explores how Americans lost the knowledge of where their food comes from and why it’s important to get it back.
“I wanted to home in on how people’s thinking had changed as the experience of eating became wholly separate from that of raising and producing foods,” she says in the introduction.
From Chapter 3, a section titled “The Abstraction of Animals’ Lives,” she says, “… knowing about the lives of animals that became meat had been considered essential kitchen lore until the 1880s, but then the big Chicago meat-packing plants with their tidy cuts and wrappers made this knowledge obsolete and memories of it repugnant.
“Before long, the barnyard was distanced from the kitchen, ignorance about all farm animals became typical and even a matter of prestige.”
I had chosen “ignorance” in the slaughter of our first two batches of broilers, but I decided it was time for me to step up and help with the third batch. I felt it was important to know more about the process.
My husband killed the birds, and I had the dubious honor, along with my dad, of plucking 22 chickens. Every feather.
I learned how to cut off their wing tips, heads and feet, and I got a good look at their organs as my husband dressed them for the freezer.
It wasn’t a glamorous job, but necessary, and although we were exhausted after hours of work, it was rewarding to see a freezer full of fresh food at the end of the day.
In the last seven days, we’ve eaten homegrown chicken, fresh eggs from our coop and crappie caught just last week.
I don’t imagine that we’ll ever be self-sufficient. The magnitude of food needed to feed a family of four year-round would be near impossible to produce while we’re also both working full-time, but our recent experiences have encouraged us to grow what we can and continue to learn.
There is a prize in the end.
Two weeks ago it was an egg – our first.
My husband, who had patiently nurtured our hens for six months, brought it inside to a collective, celebratory cheer. We understood the time and labor he had put in and even felt kind of proud of the hens we had all watched grow from little chicks.
We hope one egg will turn into dozens, and when my kids are 19, they’ll be perplexed by the styrofoam egg crates in the grocery store just as I was in the meat market.
Kristen Tribe is editor of the Messenger.