For a city girl, I took what I knew about the ways of the country for granted. During endless summers that will never feel that carefree again I was no stranger to cherry picking, fig stealing, choosing tomatoes or lettuce for a salad and harvesting zucchini that had turned into pumpkins. The reality that my meat came from living beings with whom I had actually bonded hit home rather early. When in need of a good chicken, the farmer would go round the back of his house and wring a neck – the most traumatic experience was the pet bunny, at least I thought it was a pet bunny until it was transformed into Easter dinner, triumphantly brought to the table on the good china. My mother was denied the sound of my voice for two whole days. But my favourite bucolic adventure involved climbing the ladder of the chicken coop, crawling on my knees on the dirty straw and sliding my hand under a chicken butt to retrieve a still warm egg that would get dusted off and eaten raw.
I might not think about any of this every time I reach for packaged eggs at the supermarket or cook chicken thighs that a butcher, unknown to me, quartered somewhere far away from where I live. Strangely enough, I became a vegetarian in my 20’s and stuck to it for 15 years, much to my mother’s chagrin who well remembered our trips to the butcher’s, my nose pressed against the counter to better inhale the aroma of raw meat.
What brought all this to the forefront of my memory was a friend’s innocent question on how eggs are made safe to eat (it’s called pasteurization but I will save the details for another post). I told him about the eggs that are not mass-produced, how warm and alive they feel in your hands, speckled with chicken poop – what I thought was an endearing tidbit of information translated into a grimace on his face and a request to stop. Food in its raw form is invariably dirty and a measure of necessary and benevolent violence (if such a thing even exists) is always involved in transforming it into the slick packaged product we love. But we’d rather not know and with the loss of knowledge of where our food comes from we are also missing out on the traditions that came with farming and raising animals.
Farmers waste nothing, leave nothing to chance and yet have to rely on luck, weather patterns and an absence of plague and other natural disasters to see their work come to fruition. Take a typical country house in Lombardy, Northern Italy, huddled around the table on Christmas Day. The traditional risotto slowly cooked with chicken and beef stock, redolent of sage, celery and onion and thickened with potato is nearly cooked in the big copper pot. It will be followed by an array of boiled meats served with a “green sauce” made of parsley patiently chopped with a “half moon” (no food processor to speed the cooking along). That night, bellies still full from the Christmas lunch, the leftover stock will be re-heated and served with stale bread and a spoonful of grated Parmesan. But before sitting and enjoying the meal that hasn’t changed an iota in decades, the matriarch grabs the copper pot, walks into the yard and scatters some of the precious rice on the ground, for the chickens to partake in the bounty – even chickens need to know it’s Christmas, not to mention the good luck and the good eggs that will ensue.
Now, next time you are getting ready to scramble an egg, wouldn’t you rather want one that came with a story? Without going so far as feeding chickens before sitting down to dinner (and have you noticed how in vogue chickens have become, thanks to Martha?) it might be worthwhile to stop and look at our food – and if we can’t envision where it all began, could it be that our food has been transformed beyond recognition?
Many thanks to Giuseppina for taking the time of sending me her Christmas memories