I have always been an animal lover. My favorite is the cat, but I love them all.
I’m an animal lover who likes to eat certain animals. I love steak and chicken, and I make some really tasty pulled pork. I also love bacon. There’s even the occasional lamb and a very rare taste of venison.
That said, I think cows, chickens, pigs, lambs and deer are all really cute – and in some cases, majestic – animals. I have a great deal of respect for the animals who’ve died so that I can cook them up for my family to eat. Still, it doesn’t help that those critters are so innocent and precious, not to mention the numerous animal characters that I couldn’t even imagine eating: The Chik-Fil-A cows telling me to eat more Foghorn Leghorn, Lamb Chop the puppet, Wilber the Pig and Bambi to name a few. I wouldn’t eat Rocky the Squirrel, but when I see one of those numerous corpses in the road, I get a little weepy.
A couple years ago we went to the state fair, and when I saw a mother pig nursing her young’uns, I immediately wanted to have another kid.
That mother pig is in ecstasy. Some might think it’s gross, but I totally get it.
Then I had a hankering for sausage on a stick. What’s up with that?
Fish are no exception. It’s hard for me to eat a piece of fish without thinking about little Nemo being gutted and served up with fries, but I enjoy a well-prepared piece of salmon or halibut or some fish tacos.
I can’t help it, and I can’t explain it, but I enjoy the taste of animal meat. Even the Wild Kratts can’t make me feel more at ease about being part of the food chain. According to the Kratt brothers, I’m human, and I have teeth that convey a hint that I’m probably a carnivorous being, and isn’t that just so cool?
I mean, I get it. From the dawn of time, humans have been killing animals for food, but I will always be perplexed about how I can swoon over a cute mother pig and then eat one of her relatives.
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One of my favorite memories from youth is of walking through the door of the grocery store on the corner near my grandmother’s neighborhood – Hutch’s Food Mart. Before the population of our little town exploded and the major grocery chains took over, Hutch’s was where we shopped most of the time. It was a small store, owned by a Mr. Leonard Hutchison. It was cozy and warm and the people who worked there knew me and my grandmother by name. According to The Brother (who also has fond memories of the store), Mr. Hutchison was not entirely fond of kids, and if you picked up a piece of fruit or even touched it, he would admonish you for it.
After she took me to church on Sundays, my grandmother and I would go to Hutch’s to gather lunch supplies. The moment we walked inside, I could smell the chickens that had been cooked on the rotisserie. Mr. Hutchison was always there, standing very tall and crotchety behind the counter where those succulent, cooked chickens were still warming under the lights. I remember seeing more golden brown chickens twirling behind him, and the smell of barbeque, which he was known for. I was very young, but the sights and smells! I will never forget them.
We would browse the store with our tiny grocery cart (Mr. Hutchison would laugh at the size of grocery carts today). Grandmother would buy me some Neapolitan ice cream, and we would collect some sort of meat from Mr. H’s meat case, fresh green beans (my favorite), corn on the cob, and warm bread or muffins. Sometimes, she would buy a large roast or a turkey for those occasions when the extended family would come to visit. For major holidays, she would carefully prepare an elaborate dinner at her house and we would sit at the elegantly dressed dining room table with the pretty dishes and linens and real silver that I enthusiastically polished for her before company arrived.
Grandmother’s house was not huge by any means, but I loved it. It was a very modest three-bedroom with a carport and a large oak tree in front. There were irises planted alongside the carport where, some mornings, Grandmother and I would lounge and have breakfast. I would have half of a grapefruit with sugar sprinkled on it. There was also bacon and eggs or waffles – she made whatever I wanted when I spent weekends with her.
I loved the smells of her cooking. She made yummy roasts and soups, but what I remember most were her desserts. They weren’t anything particularly fancy. In fact, they were probably what most families ate for dessert in those days, but I am still pining for her Watergate Salad; not because I can’t make it for myself, but because I miss making it with her.
My mom had her own lovely meal repertoire. After a long day at work, she would come home and fry up some chicken or salmon croquettes, and on her days off, she’d make something more complex, like pepper steak or Beef Burgundy or a spaghetti sauce that cooked all day. I have fond memories of coming home from school to the distinctive aromas of her cooking, and hearing the music she loved listening to while she prepared dinner – usually Simon & Garfunkel, Carly Simon, or The Carpenters.
Of course, we had our share of TV dinners when I was young, but those were fine by me. My favorite was the meat loaf that came with mashed potatoes and green beans, and there was a strange dessert that I couldn’t identify (the box said it was “cobbler”), but it was sweet and gooey, so I gobbled it up. Back then, there wasn’t a McDonald’s on every corner or a Boston Market. Not that we couldn’t hit the local Jack-In-the-Box or whatever was around, we just didn’t need or want to.
Funny how some of my best memories of childhood revolve around food.
But there are some other memories, too.
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When I was seven years old, my mom brought home a box of chicks and declared that we would now be raising chickens in the back yard of our rented suburban house so we could have fresh eggs. There were two Dominiques, (also known as Plymouth Rocks), a couple of lovely brown Rhode Island hens, a Rhode Island Rooster, and then about 6-8 additional white hens.
We named the Dominickers “Dom” and “Nicker”, the Rhode Island hens were “Henna” and “Penny”. The white hens were named various things that I don’t remember, and the rooster was named “Dominick”, according to The Brother. The chicks were adorable, and my brother and I helped care for them to adulthood, although my brother did most of the work. We had to keep them warm in those first weeks before we moved them out to the coop that The Brother and Mother had built in our backyard, so we had a warming lamp that hung over them in a cardboard box that was just big enough for them to fit.
The coop was constructed from chicken wire and plywood. I loved going out to feed the chickens and commune with them. However, I got pecked at a lot, and eventually I stopped going into the coop, resigning myself to poking a finger or two through the chicken wire, hoping I wouldn’t get seriously injured by the rooster. Dominick was quite protective of the ladies.
The Brother, who was fourteen or so at the time, was responsible for fetching eggs and feeding and watering the chickens. I do recall that one day, The Mother (who was a nurse) came home early and went out to check for eggs, and since she had not taken a basket with her to put them in, placed an egg in the back pocket of her work scrubs because her hands were full. She came inside and as we were chatting about our day, she sat down, forgetting about the egg in her pants, and it was crushed against her backside. Kind of messy, but we laughed about it anyway.
There was a chain-link fence between our back yard and the neighbor’s. They had a dog – a gorgeous, extremely large, white German Shepherd named “Ski” – who would wake us up daily at 5am with his incessant barking, alongside the crow of the stupid rooster. I remember my mom expressing her displeasure at the barking and crowing, sometimes going so far as to open her bedroom window to yell, “Shut the hell up, Ski!!”, but she had to get up early for work during the week, so the dog and chicken wakeup chorus was helpful, I guess.
Some time during our chicken adventure, Ski ate a couple of our white-feathered hens after they had escaped from the coop and decided to go over the fence into his welcoming and drooling maw. I remember going out into the back yard one afternoon and finding a pair of wings on the ground. The white dog’s fur was now pink – stained with the blood of one of my pet hens.
My mom came outside because she heard me screaming at Ski. She shooed me back into the house, I guess in order to protect me from the carnage, although I had already seen the wings lying in the grass.
(I guess Ski wasn’t a wing man. Personally, I love chicken wings. He really missed out.)
There is no telling how long that dog pined for a taste of fresh chicken. That day was surely the luckiest day of his life. The Fantastic Mr. Ski lived next door, but he didn’t have to go to any lengths to capture his meal that day. It was basically presented to him over a silver-colored chain-link fence, and it was a foreshadowing – and maybe a bit of a preparation – for what was to come next.
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One Saturday, my mom had a few too many cocktails and decided that she was going to kill a few of our chickens for future dinners. There was an announcement but little talk of it. My brother and I were horrified.
At the tender age of seven, I had given very little thought to where our food came from (or anything else for that matter), so it was a bit of a shock to find out that those sweet chickens in the back yard were the same type of animal that was used to make my mother’s delicious fried chicken. There were no documentaries about how our chickens ended up on the dinner table, and I never questioned where my fried chicken came from. I just knew that it was good.
After dinner and a few scotch and waters, Mother invited one of her friends over (who was equally toasted), and together, they beheaded a good number of our flock. Although we did not witness the slaughter, I was aghast, as was my brother. We loved those chickens. Even though they pecked the crap out of me and smelled bad, I loved them as much as I loved my cat.
Upset by this mini-chickencide, my brother and I took out our frustrations by setting up shop on the coffee table with lots of paper and pencils and crayons so that we could draw pictures of our evil mother and her axe-wielding friend killing our precious poultry. We cringed every time we heard the axe hit concrete, and we would press our pencil or crayon onto the paper even harder in protest.
After that? I don’t know. I suppose I’ve either blocked it out or just lost interest and went to bed, because I have no recollection of the remainder of that evening.
As far as I know, I slept. I can’t remember anything after my brother and I created our art gallery of “Fowl Play”. I woke up the next morning feeling rested, but then I remembered the previous night’s events, and I felt a little off. However, my uneasiness was made better because I knew that “The Bionic Woman” would be on that night, so I focused on that and poured myself a bowl of Cap’n Crunch. After I had eaten my breakfast, I went to throw the empty cereal box into the trash, and when I opened the pantry door, laying on top of an already full trash can rested a disembodied chicken head.
From that day forward (at least for a good number of chicken dinners), my brother and I refused to eat any chicken that was served to us by our mother.
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Thankfully, memories fade, and even though I still can recall the Great Poultricide of 1974, the days and years afterward have helped me to laugh about it. If I had to live off of the land and I was starving to death and found a chicken?
I’d probably kill it, but I would not feel too good about it.
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Written to the tunes of:
Elton John “Greatest Hits”
Simon and Garfunkel