Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Chicken Harvest

Last Saturday I learned how to harvest a chicken.

I not only learned how, I actually did it, and it wasn't as hard as I imagined it might be--that was all in my head. In reality, even the slaughtering part was very matter-of-fact and simple. Very real. It reminded me of being at a birth. It's not a novel comparison, to equate birth and death, but some might be shocked or offended at my throwing killing an animal into the mix. But when you stop to think about it, killing for food is elemental for humans and animals, it is a part of our DNA, our natural lives. We watch lizards catch insects with no twinges of sadness. We are fascinated with lions eating their prey, looking like our own cats with backyard birds (this is one reason why we watched National Geographic specials, is it not?).

We were a group of ten, gathered at our local CSA on a cool (Miami-style) and glittery Fall day in South Florida. The roosters--noisy boys that they are--needed culling and we lucky ones were about to learn the process of turning bird into dinner. After a few false starts while we discovered just how hard it is to catch a rooster, even in a chicken tractor, we rounded them up into a holding cage. We only needed one demonstration, then we took turns performing each step: slaughter, scald, pluck, butcher, eviscerate. The birds were then washed and iced down. In the end, we had eleven dressed roosters (the extra was raffled off) and a bunch of heads, feet and giblets. I'll do a post on offal another day, but suffice it to say, I ended up with the heads and feet for my stock pot. Though the whole group was very game about the entire project, some things are just very new ideas to us all.

We sat down at a long table out of the sun and shared a light farm lunch. All the while, we traded recipes and stories, enjoying the company and the day. This is the essence of community in the New Millenium: Sharing skills and joys almost lost to the commodification of our food and our whole lives. To do this we have had to create all sorts of intentional groups, such as CSA's and support groups, schools of herbcraft and so on. I am sure that my great-grandmother learned to make gefilte fish from her mother or grandmother, starting with a live carp (for a wonderful children's story about this, see The Carp in the Bathtub,.) We now have to seek out the mentors and fellow travelers that would have been a part of our natural surroundings in our great-grandparents' time.

I do see that we are starting to value anew the richness of the food of the past. And I think that we really do yearn for the family dinners, the holiday gatherings, the kids who follow ours home, drawn by the warmth and the delicious smells coming from our kitchens. We love the ambiance; this is what Martha Stewart has been marketing with a vengeance for years. And we say we want real, that we
want whole foods--we even shop at a store of that name.

So why do we have suc
h a hard time owning up to the death inherent in our dinner? This connection may be as important for us to see as the one between the garden and the broccoli. The only folks attempting to educate our kids on this issue are vegan activists, and they see all killing of animals as bad (maybe we need to let them know how many bunnies died during the harvest of their carrots and kale.) Somehow we have lost the respect, the honor, that native peoples had toward their food animals. In refusing to acknowledge the death, we have allowed factory animal operations to take over and do horrible things--to treat the animals without respect. The vegans are right about that part: we should not be eating animals treated as CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) animals are--for the sake of the animals, and for our own health, physical and mental.

Going to a small farm for a chicken-harvesting workshop is not my answer to daily food choices--it was only one bird, after all. Instead, it is a way to respect the animal that would become our dinner, to restore that connection for every chicken going forward. It is a way to see the chicken on the plate as the culmination of a process that is real and tangible. It reaffirms my choice to eat humanely-raised pastured animals, always aware of how they lived.

And slaughtering my own rooster taught that its death is equally full of purpose and integrity.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Old Salt

People have been asking me about salt. Not about my husband, The Old Salt. But they need to know about salt. Old, traditional salt. Real salt.

Salt. We can't live without it. Yet we have been taught to fear it. Without it, food tastes bland, somehow wrong. With it, food has heightened flavors, and it can be used to make many foods last longer.

People want to know which kind to use, how much to use, and so on. I really don't intend to write a dissertation on salt--the definitive book, Salt: A World History, has been written. But perhaps I can quickly give an orientation to salt and some resources.

Let's start with background: naturally occurring salt is not just sodium chloride. It contains a complex of many trace minerals, which vary depending on the source of the salt. Refined salt is pure sodium chloride, but usually has additives, including dextrose, synthetic iodine, flow agents, even fluoride. These differences, between the natural and the refined, may explain why for many years "experts" have told us that salt consumption is hazardous to our health. The reason we think that salt is unsafe is that studies have been done with refined salt, not the real, complex substance.

Anytime we consume a refined product that is missing key elements, the body has to compensate by drawing on it's stores of those elements--in this case, the missing minerals. This creates an imbalance, and the body--always attempting to reach homeostasis or equilibrium--will do it's best to cope. Eventually, symptoms of deficiency, and then illness, arise. Since salt functions to help regulate fluid in the body, one of the effects of using refined salt can be swelling or edema (showing an imbalance of the fluids between circulation and tissues), and the well-known effect of high blood pressure. For some interesting information on the health issues of salt, see this site.

So we need salt biologically. But really I want to talk about taste, about food. That's why we are here, after all. What salt do I use? Well, I was introduced to the real thing by my daughter who went to France--Brittany, specifically--last year. She lugged home pounds of huge, damp, grey crystals she had seen workers rake out of the salt beds at the edge of the sea. She had lived with a family who kept 25 lb sacks of The Real Thing in the pantry, and large open salt jars on the counter. She told me how this salt went liberally into most every dish, so I learned how to use this strange new substance that bears no resemblance to the stuff that pours when it rains. And I was hooked. It changes the food and it subtlety changes my relationship to the food. I taste, I add a pinch. I wait for it to dissolve, to disperse. I taste again. I am more responsive, more flexible. Measuring means nothing and the taste means everything.

I have used other real salts, and continue to do so. Here, we can buy Celtic Salt, Himalayan Salt and Real Salt. I am sure there are other great brands. The commonality is that these are unrefined salts, as found in nature--either from the sea or mined from the earth. These salts all have color and texture. They are varied and fascinating. Each has a nuanced flavor, a different use. Delicious Organics has a wonderful page exploring different aspects of salt, and they carry many types--a wonderland of choice! Find your favorite everyday salt and put it in a lovely jar on your counter top, to use liberally, to taste. Find some special salts--I noticed two smoked salts I want to try for unusual dishes. You can do the same. Explore and experiment.

As always, what the Hunter-Gatherer in me is looking for is something real, something that resonates with what I hear from the voices of the Grandmothers deep down. Those of my ancestry, of yours, sought out real and delicious foods. And they went to great lengths to get salt, because somehow they knew they could not survive without it. And neither can we.
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