Old MacDonald had a farm. And you can bet that his Thanksgiving dinners featured some of the creatures that no longer gobble-gobbled here, moo-mooed there, or oink-oinked anywhere anymore. That’s the dilemma that farm folk face. They know the food they eat. Indeed, good farmers are familiar with the individual “personalities” of all their charges. They know which cow is moody and which pig disgruntled. While the psychologies of farm animals are mostly dominated by instinct, unencumbered with much reason, they are very varied. One cow can be timid. Another can be a bully, literally butting heads with those in the herd she wants to dominate. A rooster can be so low in his flock’s pecking order that he’ll stand in an icy snow bank rather than dare intrude on a warm chicken coop under the rule of a more aggressive rooster. All these barny behavioral variations are mysteries to most people today, who are familiar only with the behavior of dogs, cats, and other domesticated pets, who aren’t served up on a plate with a baked potato and green beans on the side.
We tend to be removed from our food. While we indulge in complex and exotic cookery, employing ingredients and techniques from every clime and culture, few are personally familiar with how the food we eat makes its passage from the farm to the dinner table. Take that big turkey that has center stage at Thanksgiving time. The average turkey eater thinks of a barn full of noisy birds with his turkey just another beak in the crowd–then, somehow, with the messy details obscured, the turkey becomes an inanimate frozen lump in a grocery freezer–something that can break a toe if you let it slip. This hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t that long ago that the average housewife, even in urban areas, would insist on buying a live bird that she would fetch home, then slaughter just before cooking. In cartoons, an axe is the customary mode of dispatching the bird but, in reality, many a cook prided herself on her ability to deftly wring a turkey’s (or a chicken’s) neck with a quick twist. Death would be followed by evisceration and de-feathering done by the cook. Today, all that unpleasantness occurs out of sight. We don’t know the details and don’t know much at all about the animals we eat.
I grew up on a Vermont dairy farm where we had a variety of animals, and I learned much about their ways. Turkeys, for example, are very stupid. This is a puzzlement, in that wild turkeys are quite clever and difficult to hunt. Some have claimed that domesticated turkeys are so stupid that, if caught in the rain, they will look up to see what is tapping them on the head, opening their beaks in dumb amazement. The rain then fills their mouths and they drown. This story isn’t true; but they are, nonetheless, nearly as dumb as a bucket of mud.
Lost Your Marbles?
A non-farmer friend of my father once sought to raise a few dozen turkeys in anticipation of selling them at holiday time. He bought some birds just past the chick stage–adolescent turkeys, so to speak–and put them up in a lavish little coop. He bought a bag of the best cracked corn and spread it before them in a long flat trough, expecting them to be delighted at this bounty. They ignored it. He shook the trough and clucked enticing encouragements but it was as if the corn were some strange, alien substance, possibly poisonous and part of an anti-turkey plot. They regarded it with aloof disdain. A couple of days went by with the birds growing thinner while food lay at their feet uneaten. Finally, a pal of the turkey keeper suggested that a bag of marbles be scattered in the trough with the corn. The theory was that the bright objects would attract a peck from a curious turkey which would send the marbles clattering and rolling, exciting the birds by suggesting the marbles–and the corn–were live insects fleeing from the turkeys. Instinct would get them pecking more and some of the corn would be sampled. The turkeys would discover that the corn was food and not toxic. The turkey keeper thought this an interesting notion. He bought a large bag of marbles and mixed them in the corn. The next day, he excitedly checked on his feathered friends. Sure enough, all the corn was gone. All the marbles were gone, too. The birds had been unable to discriminate between glass spheres and corn. Fortunately, turkeys have durable innards. Lacking a charming beakful of teeth with which to smile or chew, they swallow grit and pebbles to help grind up hard foods in their stomachs. The smooth marbles were probably of little use grinding up a belly full of corn but they did provide a strange reward for those who latter bought and cleaned the turkeys for cooking.
Which brings us back to the farmer’s familiarity with his animals. It is the purpose of a farm to produce animals that will be killed and eaten but it’s a rare farmer who doesn’t feel an occasional twinge of guilt over this. The farmer is both surrogate parent and executioner of his animals, and that can be troubling because–no matter how distant you try to be–an animal you care for becomes a pet, and who can be comfortable dispatching a pet? The calf loaded into a cattle truck doesn’t know its destination but it knows it is being taken away and it lows and lows for you to rescue it as it is trundled away.
When I was a boy, my father taught me to be kind to our livestock and to care for them with diligence. When I eventually realized where our cattle were going, I asked my dad about it. He explained that the cows were raised with the purpose of providing milk and beef. If they didn’t serve this purpose, they wouldn’t be raised. They might not even exist. There aren’t any wild herds of cows roaming out in the wilderness somewhere. The important thing was to give them as pleasant a life as possible before their useful demise. I asked my father if animals went to Heaven after they died. He said he didn’t know and that was why we should treat them well here on Earth. What God did with departed cows was His responsibility and beyond our power. What we did with our living cows was our responsibility, and, as we would want kindness from those who have us in their charge, we should give kindness to those in our care.
I know it’s not always so ideal, but that’s what I remember when I sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. I think of someone, like my gentle dad, fretting over that turkey as a chick and being careful to feed it and keep it warm in a drafty Vermont barn besieged by winter. The bird was destined to become a meal, but nothing is destined to be treated kindly. It takes a caring hand for that, and that’s what I like to think about. A good farmer, who tries to turn the humblest of lives into something worth living, then takes on the guilt of turning that life into something useful–food, in the turkey’s case. Christ compared his Father in Heaven to a good shepherd, who strove to save his sheep when they were in danger and cared for them. Sheep provide wool but they also provide meat and the good shepherd, like all sheep keepers, must have indulged in a mutton chop from a fatted lamb on occasion. The shepherd can care and put the object of his care to a purpose. Christ is also the Lamb of God and his sacrifice through his suffering and death on the Cross was to the grandest purpose, the salvation of mankind. In the scheme of things, we can hope that our good shepherd is a good farmer and that the travails and troubles we endure also serve a useful purpose. The faithful believe this to be so, and the celebration feast of Thanksgiving was founded as an expression of gratitude for the care given us by our Creator and caretaker.