Don’t play with your food.

Ever hear this from your parents or grandparents?  I did but I’m not sure the context was the same for everyone.  My paternal grandparents had a working family farm.  It earned the family income and provided a large portion of the food laid on our table.  That farm and the neighboring properties had lots of animals.  Horses, dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, cows, even a bull and, not surprisingly, chickens.  My grandmother made great stewed chicken with homemade egg noodles, one of my favorite meals.

All the animals I remember were working animals and livestock raised for and as food.  Lots of animals but one steadfast rule – don’t play with your food.  As a child I was not allowed to regularly interact with any animals planned to eventually be the food for our table.  Chicks grew into chickens providing eggs and hatchlings to refresh the flock.  Both pigs and chicken were meat for meals.

When my grandfather said don’t play with your food it was a gentle shorthand.  Don’t get too attached to that animal.  That cute or fluffy animal is not a pet.

Life moves on as it does and I didn’t think about the entire food cycle a great deal until years later.  Neighbors of ours with two young girls decided to raise a calf for food.  No, we didn’t mind provided it was well cared for (sufficient food, water, clean stall/pen).  Could be a good idea, let us know how it goes.  The calf was named, coddled, petted, walked around by the children like a rather awkward dog.  Generally fawned over.  Unfortunately neither parent was ever clear about why they were raising this calf.  Not a good idea, had a conversation about this with the mom but not my children so I kept additional concerns to myself.

Their issues started when it came time to send the calf to the butcher.  It was done when the girls were in school because now their parents recognized the girls wouldn’t understand.  The kids realized the calf was gone and not coming back, they grieved for a lost pet.  When they somehow actually made the connection between the missing calf and beef on their table they refused to eat meat, any meat, ever, period.  Their mom asked if I had any suggestions to overcome this new meat aversion.  I didn’t.  The family has since moved but I’ve wondered from time to time if the girls ever got over the meat-eating  issue.

Enjoying any animal as a pet, liking animals and being aware of the contribution of animals to our diets are wholly separate concepts.  I’m not surprised when other people have similar experiences, one is Beth at Practically Grown Up:

“This concept perplexed me. That they could have spent the majority of their lives drinking milk yet have no idea where it came from.”

Fast forward another decade from the calf to early discussions about adding chickens to our home plan and the possibility a few goats, primarily for dairy products. My daughter and son-in-law were 100% behind the idea, preferring clean food sources (local, organic, limited ingredients/processing).  My daughter grew up hearing stories about my grandparents farms, we had gardens where there was room, her father fished (and later hunted) and our family gratefully enjoyed what came home.  My son-in-law is simply a foodie: loves to cook, loves good food.  We and, by extension, our kids could be making the choice to move back toward food with the knowledge of how everything was raised and harvested.

My granddaughter was still bouncing the idea of the chickens and goats around in her head for a bit.   I would like to have seen inside her process because it resurfaced in line at the grocery store of all places.  She asked her mom what we were going to name the chickens, perhaps thinking fun and pets.  The response showed my daughter clearly understood I was thinking food products.  The chickens would be ‘called’ breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Interestingly, the lady behind my girls in the grocery line that day was somewhat taken aback by the answer to the naming question.  My daughter noted the reaction and explained her mother, now the grandmother, grew up around farms.  Somehow that seemed to explain everything.  Without a lot of heavy-handedness, lengthy conversations or hand-wringing all three generations in our family would now be starting from the same place.  Don’t play with your food.





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