Bringing Home the Bacon: Labor and Self Reliance in Knowing Our Food

Fourteen years of being a vegetarian gave way to living abroad in places where being a vegetarian would have traditionally been out of the question. After months in Mongolia, living as a vegetarian, I ran out of power-bars and I started to eat (more readily available) mutton. This experience significantly changed the way that I eat and the way that I think about eating meat.

When I lived abroad, it was easy to make connections between the food that I ate and the land, the life, and the livelihood of the place that I was living. My surroundings today make those connections less visceral and less clear. However, while understanding the direct impact that my (food) choices have on my psyche, on other beings, and on the planet may be harder to see, they are no less real. Compelling arguments have linked our food choices not just to personal health and obesity, but also to public health. Diet is a root cause of many diseases including heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes, killing more than a million people every year. But, the implications of our diet also go far beyond our physical health.

Misunderstandings of the value (or cheapness) of food mean that we undercut the livelihoods of farms and farmers. For example, how can a pound of chicken really cost forty-nine cents? Furthermore, conventional practices in the meat industry have been exposed as contributing to environmental degradation and suffering through inhumane practices. My own way of coming to terms with eating in general, and with eating meat in particular, has been to get closer to my food choices - especially meat. My most recent adventure led me through back-roads to a butcher facility at the edge of Massachusetts, where I helped to process a 300 pound pig that will be a main source of meat for me and my family over the next six months. This experience led me to appreciate the value, the effort, and the connection that we each have to the food that sustains us.

"Prepare to go back in time," Kevin tells me as he turns his pick-up and we drive into the butcher's driveway. I woke up before 5:00 a.m. to be here, at the edge of Connecticut and Massachusetts. And, now that we are pulling into the driveway, I wonder if this is where I want to be. We have an 8:00 a.m. slot to process, or rather to prepare for eating and freezing, the pigs that Kevin has been raising since July. Already, we are forty-five minutes late, and as soon as we walk in, we start moving fast to make up the time. The next few minutes pass by in snapshots. Four pigs are hanging in the cooler. They are probably twice my size. They are slit down the middle, hanging in two halves so that you can see everything on the inside. The jaw is cut straight through, I stare at their teeth. Nearly effortlessly, the butcher picks up half of the animal, puts it on a butcher block table, saws the animal into parts - chops, shoulder, hocks, feet. These parts get passed down the line, wrapped in white paper, and labeled. This continues for nearly 300 pounds.

It is jarring to realize that our grocery stores are stocked, floor to ceiling, with products that bear little or no resemblance to what they really are, where they came from, and the implications for what that means. Even more jarring to think that the industrial age, modernity, the super market experience has simplified eating to its very lowest common denominator - the price of a product not the value of food.

I am determined to not waste anything. So, I end up taking all the fat, the skin, extra heads, as well the kidneys and offal (or innards), often thought of as waste. I have no idea what to do with all of this. "Help," I call a friend of mine who is a pig farmer, "How do a render lard?" I spend the next few hours on the internet looking for options on how to cook offal. What comes next is a lot of work. But, I also feel like I am gaining a tiny portion of the know-how of self reliance and without this knowledge I am totally dependent on others for food.

Today, only about three percent of Americans live on farms. In the early 1800s it would have been more like 90 percent. I wonder, what have we lost along with this basic knowledge of how to take care of ourselves? Perhaps part of the explosion of the local food movement is rooted in relearning this knowledge of self reliance; the very knowledge that connected people to land, to livelihood, and to their communities. And, despite conscious effort to not romanticizing the practices or the hardships of farm life, time after time, these connections are noted as missing in our lives today.

"Is there a way to render lard with the skin on?" My farmer friend suggests I give it a try if separating the fat from the skin feels like too daunting a task. It does. So, I leave the skin on, a decision I will later regret. I start to chopping the fat into pieces. An effort that begins at 2:00 p.m. goes well into the evening, then into night. After hours of rendering, I am left with one quart of lard, a food that has been shunned and can be purchased for less than ten cents an ounce. Homesteading is work, and my day has only barely qualified me for "homesteading-lite." Still, by the time that I am ready to cook, I am all too aware of the months of work that have gone into producing this meal.

I understand that not everyone shares my zealousness to delve into their food choices. And, I would not classify myself as drawn to complicating the decisions that we must make every day. Still, my own way of moving forward in my relationship to eating meat has been to buy whole animals, process them, and use what I can. I work to build my own knowledge and skill in preserving and serving interesting foods as part of that process. A single animal might last six months or longer, something that I have come to value since learning that a conventional package of hamburger may come from a mixture of processed parts from a hundred or more different animals. Relearning food traditions helps to make me more self reliant and strengthens my decisions about the food choices I make to feed my family.