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October 19, 2012

How To Eat Food You Know

The most often asked question I get about farming is something along the lines of, "How do you eat food that you know?" Or more likely its said as a blunt statement, "UUGHGHH! How could you DOOOOOO that! I could NEVER eat something I raised!" Most times its accompanied by a lot of flapping around a lot of ridiculous faces - a mix of horror and shock.

Here's the thing. I understand the flapping and the faces. I used to be someone who thought I could "never" butcher anything - let alone an animal that I knew. But the fact is, you can. You may not "want to" but that's a far cry from "can't." There tends to be a lot of emotion around this so if you are freaked out, or getting defensive, then understand I'm not trying to convince you to change your mind. I just get asked this a lot. So I'll try and feebly attempt to explain our position on it.

This question has actually come up a lot recently. One of my blog friends asked me if we would ever butcher any of our extra goat kids? The answer is no, but not because we "couldn't" do that... its because the goat babies are worth more to sell as pets and dairy gals than the food value we'd get out of butchering them.

The fact is, we make more money selling 2 doelings than it costs to grow out a batch of meat chickens - and we'd end up with a lot more meat with the chickens. So while we could have one nice goat BBQ - it just doesn't make sense. Or cents.  Could we butcher a goat? Sure. Is Nibbles on the list? Nope. She's old and tough and we wouldn't get enough meat to make it worth it. So don't worry, Auntie Sally - Nibs isnt going to the grill. Just yet. The day isn't over tho. You know how that goes.

This also came up recently when I was talking to my favorite cousin, T. Cousin T is a hell of a guy and one of my favorite people. He's a genuine Oklahoma boy. He drives truck. He drinks beer. He can shoot black powder. The first time I met him he had a hat on his head made out of a varmint he was happy to kill. I was horrified. It was a fox hat.  I nearly cried when I saw it.

Back in the day I was fussy and self-righteous and thought that was the worst thing I'd ever seen. And after listening to his hunting stories.... I was shocked and amazed that someone would go out in the woods, shoot down Bambi, and gut it and grill it when there was all that food in the store....meat that was made without hurting any animals. Why not just get meat from the store? Why Cousin T? Why?

At the time he was manning the grill and they were making steaks. I sniffed. Steak....eeeuuuwee.. that was meat and I didn't want to eat it because it had a bone in it. I made my offense known. Under their breath the men-folk muttered that I must be one of them  "save the whales" types. That was years ago.

Fast forward to the other nite... me on the phone with Cousin T. Him laughing himself silly over remembering that incident...

He: Remember? Remember you were all ..... *sputtering and laughing*... Save the Whales!
Me, laughing:  And now look at me! I'm butchering pigz in my yard! How do you like me now?  ha ha!
He: Now? NOW? You'd be all, "Hey can I butcher that whale?"
Me: Sure! Them whales have got some bacon on them!

We thought we were hilarious.

It is a blazing understatement to say that my attitude has changed. And really that's all that you need to wrestle with when growing your own food. Your own attitude and how you think of things will determine what you can and cannot do. The saying "As a man thinketh, so he is" has never been more true.

As I've always said, the hardest truth about farming is that not every body makes it, and not every body gets to stay. When you stand this close to the circle of life you get the whole picture - the births and the deaths. You have to make hard choices. Sometimes you go out to find an old, or new, barnyard friend dead in a heap. Sometimes you are the one that has to put a barnyard friend down out of compassion or necessity.

Its not that you get "used" to it - its just the death isn't that big of a surprise anymore. You see it really is part of the cycle of life. It doesn't mean that there isn't sadness, but you aren't overwhelmed by the shock. And after a while you understand what you can muddle thru.

At some point you'll go out to your barnyard and see that you just have too many bodies. You can try to pawn them off on your friends or you can sell them or... you can harvest the rewards of your labor. You can prepare yourself for this or you can allow the shock to send you reeling.  So steady yourself, point yourself in the direction of a full harvest, and believe in what you are doing.

And know your limits. We "couldn't" raise rabbits for the table - that's our limit. I know folks who would rather butcher rabbits than chickens - and we are the opposite. Does that mean that I think less of those folks? Nope! In fact, I have a friend who is destined to become the Rabbit Queen of her county and I'm totally cheering her on. She is going to build a rabbit empire and I'm her biggest fan. But every time I look at our cat, Pepper, all I see is a short-eared bunny and I can't think about butchering rabbits. All that is holding us back is the way we think about it.

Some folks don't name their livestock that is destined to be butchered. Or they name their pigz, for instance, Ham, Bacon, Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner - which I think is pretty funny. This helps remind these folks of their livestock's intended purpose. We gave up naming the pigz a while ago. Now its just "This One" or "That One" or "The Big One" or "The Smaller One."  We call the entity known as a batch meat chickens either "Little Buddies" when they are small or "Dang them things stank" when they get bigger. And truthfully there is always a couple of the roos that get mean. We are happy to name these "First" and "Next"...and they are come butcher day.

Some folks can raise livestock but just don't do their own butchering - which is fine too. We enjoy doing the butchering and have our systems set up. Plus it makes more sense for us to do it here - less muss, less fuss and once we got our confidence up we figured out its easier and less stressful for everyone. One minute that pig is wondering around looking for some snacks... the next its dancing on a cloud in pig heaven with angels wings made of bacon.  And we figure we can save the money doing the work ourselves.

I guess the biggest thing is to understand where you food comes from. As my friend L said on her first butcher day, "There's a chicken under those feathers!"  Yep. Just like from the store. Once you make that connection it will change the way you look at your barnyard. Instead of seeing an adorable fuzzy wuzzy lamb standing there your think, "Wow that lamb looks delicious!"

At this point someone inevitably will say, usually in an accusing way, "Well. You wouldn't eat your DOGS would you?"  No. I wouldn't but in another country they'd be looking at Kai and thinking "Wow she looks delicious!" and thinking what a beautiful pelt she has and wouldn't that be great for a jacket. Some folks in this world would look at our cat Pepper and think, "So tender and delicious!" and would ask me what my price was for her, by the pound. Remember too that you used to be able to get a horse steak in almost every country in Europe. And you still can in most places. It was outlawed here for a time but now horse meat is back on the menu. 

So pretty much everyone's sacred cow is a meal to someone else. Its all how you think about it. Remember that what you eat is largely cultural and almost always because of marketing. Some critters just have a better marketing team than others. Or other uses. Chicken used to be expensive and not often seen on the table. That's because you can either have a year's worth of eggs... or just one meal.

In the last few generations it became popular to think that growing your own food was some kind of low class, dirty work that "other" people have to perform. But remember that, aside from those folks, you can count on one hand the number of generations back to where almost everyone had to produce at least some of their food.

The Great War generations didn't really have a choice with rationing and what not.  And in the Depression the folks who did well were farm poor - at least they had food. No one thought twice about butchering their own food on the farm back then... in fact they were grateful because folks in the cities were eating squirrels or  pigeons, or out of dumpsters, or in soup kitchens.

So to me this aversion to eating food you know is really a "First World problem." For the first time in history we've had the luxury to not become involved in what is now the factory food process. To me that's not necessarily a great thing. We could launch into a discussion about the evils of factory farming but I'm pretty sure that's beating a dead horse and not getting a steak from it.

The point is that having your own food is a source of profound freedom. Its a great way to live, is remarkably rewarding, and is amazingly interesting. And eating food that you know just makes you more grateful for your life - and theirs. You strive to honor the process and be grateful for every meal.

So there you have it. If I went from a fussy, self-righteous, "couldn't do that if my life depended on it," won't eat meat that has a bone in it, "why would you kill a FOX!?!," card carrying member of the Save the Whales club.... to someone who is excited to get up in the morning and run right out there and butcher a pig in my yard....then you, Friend, can do it too.  Its all in the way you think about it.

So if you are ready to give this a go then I have a great way for you to start. Meyer Hatchery has their Surplus Broiler Bargain sale running again!  You can get 25 meat chickens for just about $20 (shipping is extra). If you ever wanted to start raising food you know, then this is a great way to start.

Happy Friday everyone! Now get out there and raise some meat that you know...and say hi to my Cousin T for me. Tell him that I'm gunnin' for a fox hat too.

Editor's Note: Notice that no where in this post have I mentioned environmentalism, cruelty to animals, vegetarianism, or animal rights. No way, no how am I wading into that quagmire. If you have strong opinions on these topics then that's great and I am already clear on your position. Comments will be judiciously monitored and if you don't like it than that is just fine. I do not debate these topics on my blog or on the Facebook.  If you send me a mean email or comment I will just mock you to my friends...and delete it.  If however, you need a little more courage on this topic then you can contact me on email and I'll do what I can to help you.