Inspired by several of my friends who are talking so much about food right now, I’ve decided to write about the role food has played in my life over the years and where I am at right now with food. For as long as I can remember food has been a big part of my family’s and my life. As one of the basic needs for human beings, I’m sure this is true of most people.
Some of my earliest memories are of family assembly lines producing hundreds of raviolis or several pans of lasagna based off recipes from my grandma. And, despite the fact that we did this every year, my dad had to always make a call to his mom about halfway into the process just to make sure that he was using the correct amount of flour and eggs or other ingredients. To this day my dad will not order raviolis in a restaurant. If someone at the table does he complains about their uniform, machine-cranked-out look which is followed by a declaration that they are not real raviolis.
Others memories of food as a kid were with my mom, baking in the kitchen. I remember going through a phase shortly after we moved to Bakersfield where we baked so much stuff. I would say, “Mommy, today I want to make…” and she would try and find a recipe in one of her cookbooks and we would attempt it. There were some flops, for sure, including the extra chewy cinnamon rolls that would never rise, but I also remember some successes, too, such as several apple pies we made after my dad brought home a ton of apples from one of his grower clients.
It was after we moved to Bakersfield as a kid that I remember really starting to pay attention to and learn more about food. I think part of this was due to the fact that I was finally old enough to start comprehending it, but part of it was also due to the fact that as a tire salesman, some of my dad’s clients included some of the largest farming operations in Kern County. If my dad had to put in extra hours on a Saturday he would often take one of his girls along for the ride and in addition to a fleet inspection of the grower’s tires, we would get a behind the scenes look at what goes on at a modern farm.
I remember when “organics” first came out and hearing several skeptical speeches from my dad on the subject as we would drive by an organic farm or see these expensive items starting to pop up in the grocery store. “What a waste of extra money!” he would say followed by telling us girls all about how the organic farm fields were right next to the regular farm fields which, when one considered the large amount of aerial spraying that goes on in Kern County means the organic stuff was definitely getting sprayed too. Or how the large growers that had some organic operations would tell my dad that organics meant they still put pesticides on them, but sometimes it just meant that instead of a spray application it was powder or that instead of an insecticide made from chemicals in a lab, they would use the naturally occuring version of those chemicals from a plant or mineral. Either way the plants were getting chemicals and usually the same chemicals at that.
After we moved to Bakersfield, my sister and I became involved in 4-H. Once again my dad’s farmer friends often helped us out with this by providing animals for our projects at a considerable deal. After our dogs, my first animal project was rabbits which we got from another family in our 4-H group. My sister, on the other hand, decided that she wanted to do chickens. A large chicken farming operation was one of my dad’s largest clients. So one day my dad took us out to the farm where my sister was going to get to pick out a chicken from among hundreds of chickens that were not keeping up with production and going to be sent to the slaughter house.
It was one of the most disgusting experiences of my life and one that left a huge impression on me. The houses were dark and long. It seemed like they went on for miles. Inside they were filled with rows and rows of cages about four feet off the ground. The bottoms of the cages were at an angle so that when an egg was layed it would slide down to a trough below where they could be retrieved easily. The reason the cages were so far off the ground was so that the poop could have room to gather underneath in large piles that were obviously very smelly and swarming with flies. The cages were small and held around 2-4 birds crammed together so that they really couldn’t move. All of the birds seemed to have this crazed look in their eyes. I remember asking my dad’s farmer friend about this and he dismissed it by saying that the birds were just freaked out because we were in their house. My sister picked out one of the thousands of white birds and Penelope the chicken came home with us that day. Penelope was named for one of her favorite cartoon characters, Penelope Pitstop from the cartoon Wacky Races.
Shortly after that our family moved out of the track home we were renting in South Bakersfield and headed east to a much bigger house with some land. As part of this move, it meant that we would drive by a really disgusting dairy on our way to school each morning. It was obvious why the dairy stunk so much: cows knee high in their own waste.
It was here that we really began raising our own animals for food. We had quite the large flock of chickens and two roosters at one point and they were all kept in a fairly large pen that had a chicken house complete with roosts and nesting boxes. Our chickens roamed around all day eating bugs, weeds and the grain that we fed them. We had several varieties including a Holland, Buckeye Rooster, New Hampshire Reds, and some Brahma Bantams. While we never slaughtered our chickens for meat, we did get lots and lots of eggs out of them and even hatched some of our own chicks from time to time. Raising our own eggs did mean that from time to time we’d crack open an egg and find a half developed embryo, which could be quite shocking in a house full of girls. After the experience of raising our own chickens, which never had that panic-crazed look in their eyes, I really began to question the factory farm method of egg laying hens and knew there was much more behind people being in their house to the look.
We also raised beef cows and pigs for meat which we usually fed a combination of alphalfa and occasionally carrots that my dad was told by several beef grower friends would help sweeten up the meat. The cows were out on our large pasture until the last month or so when they would be brought into a smaller holding pen to fatten up a bit at which time we would continue feeding them hay supplemented by a scoop of a grain mixture that included oats and corn mixed with molasses. This was also suggested by farmers that had been there and done that.
Now, having access to what most people in my circle of friends would probably think is really awesome, premium meat, it might be hard to understand why this lifestyle actually was when I had one of my initial dives into vegetarianism.
Well, there were several reasons. I already talked about one reason, here.
When you slaughter a 1100-1600lb cow or or a nearly 300lb hog, even for a family of six that is a lot of meat. Sure, my dad would give a bit of it away to friends, but we kept the majority of it because that was the whole point to raising your own animals to eat. So that meant that upon the slaughter of one of our animals we were pretty much going to be eating that animal every night for a good long while. Couple that with my parents’ lack of cooking skills (no offense guys) and the diet got to be pretty boring. This is what I remember eating over and over: beef stew and pork roasts that my mom made in the crockpot with a packet of Lipton onion soup, every flavor of Hamburger Helper you could imagine, and beef that was barbecued and very rare which was just the way my parents liked it, but all the blood pretty much freaked us girls out. These things were usually served with sides of garlic bread, canned or frozen bagged veggies heated up in the microwave served with butter and salt, baked or mashed potatoes, or salads of iceberg, carrots, broccoli and shredded cheese drowning in ranch dressing.
The other reason was more sentimental than anything. Living with them as we did for several months, these animals were essentially our pets. I watched the birth of a calf late into the night and mourned with its mother when we discovered that it was stillborn. I was nuzzled by cows and pigs affectionately. They had names that we all came up with. They were companions when there was nothing to do but go sit out in the barn on a bail of hay and contemplate the ups and downs of life or escape the house when there was too much bickering going on.
To then watch these friends be killed was quite emotional, at least for me. To my parents’ credit the animals were often killed during the day while we were at school, but I do remember two slaughters very vividly, one of which was that same mother cow. Upon the first gunshot to her head she did not die, but stumbled a bit and kept walking around, now in a panic looking at those that had cared for her so dearly surrounding her. In complete crazed fear, she spun around and the butcher shot her again. Blood was splurting everywhere at this point. It took three bullets to get her down. The man then went to work. First he strung her up on a small crane. The neck was cut at the jugular vein so that a majority of the blood could be drained out onto the ground. The head and legs were removed followed by the hide. He cut into the belly explaining that he had to be careful not to puncture the intestines and stomach, which if you have seen any war movie sort of just similarly blobbed out quickly into a pile on the ground. The core of the animal was then cut in half down the spine and then in half again to separate the front from the back and hung on four hooks inside a metal locker on the back of the butcher’s truck to then be transported to the larger slaughter house for processing into steaks, ribs, ground beef, tri-tip, etc.
It got to the point where I didn’t even go outside anymore when I was home because I just couldn’t deal with becoming attached in any way to animals that I knew would end up in our freezer and subsequently on our dinner plates. This reclusiveness and the “very weird” (for Bakersfield) vegetarianism actually earned me a nick-name from one of the neighbors, “Third Rock from the Sun” which implied the popular NBC show about aliens disguised as humans living on our planet.
This is getting pretty long so far, so I think I’m going to have to do this as a series. I didn’t realize I had so much to say on the subject! Hopefully you find this interesting and enlightening and stay tuned.