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The Agony and Joy of Farm-Fresh Meat

Jen UbelakerVegetarianism and veganism are great for some folks, but it never appealed to me. I like real food, from real sources, and that includes my meat. The trouble is that I have a heart, and a conscience, and a subscription to Netflix so I have seen all the documentaries and read all of the articles about how factory farms are run and how some animals get treated. There are certain restaurant chains that we don't patronize, and grocery-store meat rarely (if ever) comes into our home. It's a choice we made and stand by.

I mentioned this to a friend recently, and she replied with the old cliche: “How can you eat something you know? Something you've named? It has a 'face'!” I told her that's exactly why we eat that animal. It has a face, and a history, and with the farmers and livestock raisers we give our money to? That animal has a terrific life and one marginally crappy day at the very end.

We met the woman who raises our pork at a farmers' market. She was selling vegetables but had a sign that she was also taking deposits on farm pork. My husband jokingly told her we'd sign on if he could name our pig. She agreed and we purchased “Kevin Bacon.” In the ensuing months, we got Facebook updates from her farm with Kevin tagged in the photos. He was a fine-looking guy. At every meal from that fall onward, we knew the animal that provided it. For my husband's birthday, we made ribs and our nephew solemnly ended grace with, “Thank you, God, for Kevin and may he oink in peace.” How many factory pigs get the recognition that they deserve? Not enough.

I think it also makes it easier if you are a person who has ever raised an animal. Animal husbandry isn't for the faint of heart. You smile at babies playing in the grass. You stay awake some nights in your soft bed listening for predators, and some nights you stay awake sitting on a hard floor listening for breathing sounds in a sick animal. What they eat is as important as what you eat, and you fret over things like clean water and shade. Sometimes it is the sweetest animal you have ever met, and sometimes it is a demon spawn critter sent to make you humble. When they finally do die, a little piece of you goes with them.

Growing up, we had a score of animals in that “ornery” category. Beef cows that would take off into the orchard, dairy cows that would gleefully pin you between the wall and their bony butts, a 4-H pig of my cousin's that could tunnel like nobody's business and made a great escape at least once a week, horses that could work latches like cat-burglars and be out of their stalls and in a hay pile in the time it took you to turn around.

I remember my grandparents had a cow, “Daisy,” who would jump the fence the moment that my grandfather drove off to work. No amount of cajoling, chasing, treats or threats would get that cow back into her pen. As soon as she heard my grandfather's car coming down the country road, she'd hop back into her pen and bat her long eyelashes. When Daisy finally hit the plate, we all had seconds. It was the same with “Tom” – the turkey who routinely drowned himself in the kiddie pool my grandmother kept for her ducks. I have vivid memories of my uncle pumping wet wings and performing turkey CPR. We laugh now but at the time those creatures were routinely making us late for work, extending our chores and making our lives miserable.

I currently share my life with a Great Dane and six chickens. The dog has his moments but overall he's a pretty cool guy. The chickens are chickens. “Camilla” is a veritable Houdini. She can escape their pen, and we have yet to see how she does it. The only thing we can figure is that she levitates and does a 'thread-the-needle' maneuver worthy of a Navy pilot to get through a gap in the roof that technically she shouldn't be able to fit through. I will be out working in the garden (also fenced) and hear a cluck at my feet. There's Camilla. Just hanging out and seeing what I'm up to.

On the other end of the spectrum is “Taffy” who is dim – even for a chicken. If it is possible to get stuck in it/around it/under it – Taffy is your girl. So, at least once a day the air in our yard is punctuated with “Darn it, Taffy!” “Camilla, you little !&#%*$!,” and we wouldn't have it any other way. I took my camera out with me when I did chores tonight. Camilla says hello.