Food for thought

An environment-conscious meat eater reflects on the meaning of her dining choices

August 14, 2011|By Ellen B. Cutler

The nice young man at Bowman's Butchers in Aberdeen brought out a wire basket, wide and deep, piled high with vacuum-sealed plastic packages. The other customers were agog. I knew what was coming, and it still looked like mountain of meat to me. It all adds up to a single lamb, though, minus head and organs.

That lamb, like its fellows that have found their way into our freezer, led a happy and pampered life, coddled by a member of the 4-H Club, lovingly bathed, groomed and shown at the Harford County Fair, and ultimately sold to the highest bidder. Me.

I don't choose the lamb myself. I don't have any desire to get to know my dinner prior to its incarnation as chops, roast or ragout, not even from the distance of the grandstands. No — I provide a number, beyond which I don't want to go, to one of the folks who manage the event, and that person does the bidding. My little sheep is delivered to its doom at Bowman's and I get a year, sometimes more, of the finest, best-flavored lamb available. Anywhere.

This is the third such purchase in four years. (Last year we were still cleaning out the deep-freeze from the prior two years.) I feel slightly spooked as I glide down the long curve of the driveway, park in the shade of old trees, walk past the quiet and peaceful space I know is devoted to an awful deed, and enter the plain, concrete building where I pay for the skilled knifework that I force out of my consciousness.

I cannot forget however, no matter how hard I try, that my very survival — let alone my many indulgences — demands that I claim a more significant place in the universe than I permit to countless species.

In a recent New York Times article about the problem of theft associated with urban gardens, the writer quoted Brooklyn gardener Jon Crow, who said, "As the saying goes, you don't get too attached to your farm animals, and you don't get too attached to your vegetables in a community garden." Attachments, however, are defined by the nature of the loss. The tomatoes pilfered, peaches swiped, peppers pinched leave a void where the harvest shared freely fills the heart with treasure.

Was the 4-H'er who raised that lamb attached to it? Was there a tear in her eye, a lump in his throat, when they had to part? The purchase price — in my case, $356.40 — goes into a college fund, money well and truly earned by hard work and dedicated husbandry. Did the sale leave that young person with a feeling of reward or sacrifice? Or is the young person an experienced farmer, a philosopher who finds in the job honestly and kindly done an expression of natural order?

A modern suburbanite and former urbanite, I live a life all but disconnected from the origins of the foods that sustain it. I know the facts. I know that the meat, fish and fowl I savor come from living creatures that had to suffer execution. I know that the vegetables in the supermarket — fresh produce and canned and frozen — require nurturing that includes the enrichment of soils and protection from countless pests. I also know that excessive harvests from the land and sea have left both in frail health.

I remember this as I imagine grilled karsky shashlik redolent with garlic and rosemary, and spicy moussaka. I stop at local farmers' stands to see what ripens at this time of the year and look for new ways to conjoin the largesse from my community supported agriculture membership with my supply of chicken, pork, beef and, yes, lamb.

I am grateful for it all and accept the price. My dinner costs more, but the thought that I may have helped slow the loss of field and forest to retail and residential development gives it extra flavor. My investment in family farms is part of my investment in the future we all will share.

Ellen B. Cutler is a writer and art historian based in Aberdeen. Her email is ellen@ellenbcutler.com. Her website is http://www.ellenbcutler.com.

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