Farming and raising livestock often means eating animals you raise. Learn what separating pets from meat on the farm.
I worried my family had maybe crossed over to the dark side the day my 2 1/2-year-old-daughter cradled a baby rabbit in her lap and sang to it, "Oh, sweet baby bunny! So cute! We going to eat you, baby bunny! Yum!"
Then again, this is what I had, in theory, been working toward for months.
Ella was only 20 months old when my neighbor dumped three pregnant female rabbits on our doorstep one afternoon in February. Our neighbor Tommy is a genuinely nice fellow, and he works at the local dump. People in our rural area take stuff to the dump they don't want — it's like the country version of Goodwill. Tommy often brings us leftovers from the dump — a wooden rocking horse for the children, discarded walkie-talkies in perfect working order and, that fateful Saturday afternoon, live rabbits.
"You want them?" Tommy asked.
The children, looking on, definitely wanted them. And I'd read something the week before about rabbits being good Great Depression-type food. They breed quickly and, in a pinch, eat weeds instead of food pellets. It's a good animal to have in case of emergencies (economic breakdowns, collapse of the food system, nuclear war, asteroid impact, bird flu: pick your disaster).
So we took the rabbits. A few short months later, I had to face the reality of doing something about too many rabbits — like, say, 12 or 13 that needed to go to the Happy Hopping Grounds.
As an omnivore, I'd been determined for some time to avoid the common (and understandable) hypocrisy of meat-eaters everywhere — wanting to eat meat, but not wanting to think in too much detail about eating animals you raise, the living creatures that died to put meat on our table. Our food system has become so compartmentalized and emotionally sanitized, we don't have to think about cattle — only about hamburger or filet mignon.
I'll spare you the details of the ‘harvest,' which weren't pleasant. For months, we ate rabbit. We ate fried rabbit and stewed rabbit and rabbit dumplings. We ate Rabbit à la King and Kung Fu rabbit. Many times, I had to just grit my teeth, close my eyes and force myself to eat. My husband would squeamishly take a few bites and put down his fork. Ella, meanwhile, gobbled it up.
In Ella's world, eating rabbit for dinner became as normal as eating hot dogs might be for another child. I had wanted my children to be clear that some animals — our dog Zoey, for instance — are pets. And others, well, they're meat. We are nice to them, we try to give them a good life with plenty of food and no stress, we kill them in the most humane way possible, and then we eat them.
I worried I was scarring my children for life, letting them hold baby rabbits we'd later stew with potatoes. Little did I know, young children who never know any different accept these realities readily. Labels form quickly in their heads: bunnies — cute, cuddly . . . and yummy!
Older children and adults, meanwhile, do not learn this so easily. Past a certain point, you can't convince a youngster that a cute bunny is also a great meal.
My 12-year-old stepson, Nik, never met a hamburger he didn't like. In the eight years I've known him, I have never once witnessed him — in a restaurant — order anything other than ribs or a burger. The boy loves meat. But put a plate of home-grown rabbit in front of him and he won't eat a bite.
Put a plate of home-grown rabbit in front of him, tell him it's chicken, and he cleans his plate.
Since I'm the cook, I can't really fool myself. The rabbits, fortunately, have mostly been sold as pets to nice families with no plans to eat them. There will be no more hassenpfeffer served in this house.
The Easier White Meat
Chickens are another story. Chickens are, in my mind, repulsive creatures. They poop everywhere and they stink. A chicken will blithely peck another chicken to death over absolutely nothing – a grasshopper, for instance. They don't cuddle. They don't have snorffley little soft noses. Chickens are much, much easier, if you want to eat meat from your own barnyard.
We had kept laying hens for years, but last spring, we decided to order some meat chickens. No one can accuse me of moderation, especially when it comes to animals. I ordered 35 roosters (listen quietly; you can hear my husband groaning), which arrived in a box at the post office one May Monday morning.
Ten of them were those disgusting Super-Duper, Extra-Testosterone Jumbo Cornish XX guys, bred for breasts so large their legs break under the weight if they survive past six weeks. The poultry catalogue wasn't kidding: Beware of trying to raise these birds at altitudes above 5,000 feet — they die of heart attacks. None of those 10 birds survived to slaughter.
Twenty-five of the roosters, on the other hand, were regular old roosters, unwanted male partners to egg-laying hens sold elsewhere. The roosters were, like creatures of most any species, really cute as babies and grew increasingly obnoxious as they hit puberty. The roosters started fighting in their enclosed yard, enough that I started letting them out during the day to free range. We butchered a few at 12 weeks and a few more a bit later; we left another dozen to grow to roasting size.
From part of that remaining batch, I ended up with a rooster I identified as a Dark Cornish. He was absolutely gorgeous, with a lovely, solid plumpness to him. His body feathers were jet black, and his long tail feathers were shimmery, iridescent blue and green, almost like a peacock.
I liked that black rooster and thought I might keep him around. I was weary of killing chickens, anyway — a task I squeezed between toddler care and shuttling our pre-teen to extracurricular activities. One day I unknowingly took my stepson to Aikido class with chicken blood on my feet, which I noticed when I took off my sandals to walk across the very clean white martial-arts mat.
So I figured, one less rooster to kill, the better. But as it turned out, the Dark Cornish was mean. And Ella hated him accordingly. The black rooster was probably only 4 months old the first time he tried to attack her. I was tending to the tomato patch when I heard her shriek, and I turned just in time to see the black rooster run off.
"That black chicken hurt me!" Ella cried.
Finding no red marks on her skin, I figured the rooster scared her more than he hurt her. Ella is, admittedly, prone to dramatics. But every time we went outside, Ella grew more scared. "That black chicken chasing me!" she'd yowl. Over time, I began to think of the rooster as That Black Chicken.
The next time it attacked her, I saw it happen. The rooster strutted right up to her and went for her. It flew in her face and made some pecking motions at her eyes. I ran for her and threw a rock at the rooster's head, but missed.
"Mommy," Ella sobbed, "Let's eat that black chicken!"
"Yes, Honey," I comforted her. "We will eat That Black Chicken."
And we did. That very night, we ate That Black Chicken. We roasted him. He tasted absolutely delicious. My husband put his fork down suspiciously early, but he hadn't been there to witness That Black Chicken chasing our daughter.
Still, I had to wonder how many 2-year-olds in the world would come up with such a solution.
No More Mutant Chickens
There was a time, not long ago, when I did not eat meat at all. This might seem strange, coming from a woman who now ends up at Aikido class with chicken blood on her feet. But it's true. I was raised by someone very squeamish, and in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, I had a nearly overwhelming sense that eating flesh was an act too violent for our fractured world.
So, for a time, I didn't.
I also had a Buddhist boyfriend once who would lecture me that it wasn't ethically OK to eat a creature if you weren't willing to kill that creature yourself — at least in theory. It was hard to argue with this viewpoint.
Like most Americans, though, I like meat. But information has been emerging about the horrible practices at factory farms. Several recent studies world-wide have shown shocking declines in the nutritional values of foods — especially meat and dairy products — in the last 100 years. Some government studies show a 60-percent decline in the iron content of beef, and a similarly drastic reduction in the calcium content in chicken.
Put a grass-fed steak on a plate side-by-side with a grain-fed steak. The grain beef might, just might, be tenderer. But for my money, the grass-fed beef will win on flavor, 10 times out of 10. It has less fat, less cholesterol, more flavor, more nutrients. And dang it, that cow was probably pretty happy out there at pasture.
I believe in raising animals in a more natural fashion. It might take 16 weeks to raise That Black Chicken to eating size, but I'll take that any day over a medicated 6-week caged Jumbo Testosterone mutant. It tastes better, and at least I know where the meat has been — out eating my grasshoppers and my weed seeds (when it wasn't attacking my daughter).
And, from an ethical perspective, I like the idea of raising my own meat: I'm responsible for this creature's life, and I am responsible for its humane death. I want my children to know where their meat comes from, and develop an appreciation for the life that feeds them. Even my stepson — especially my stepson. I wonder what he'll do about the burgers if we ever get a cow.