Where Food Comes From—A Childhood Memory

We’ve all heard stories about childhood food experiences, the memories of which scarred them for life. From my vegetarian friend’s story of eyeballs hanging from the eye sockets of a freshly clubbed, but still alive trout while fishing with her father forever turning her off eating anything with eyes, to another friend who avoids game meat as it brings back memories of the pet rabbits and deer which, after receiving names and love, mysteriously disappeared around the same time a hearty meat stew made its way to the dinner table.

Of course there are wonderful memories of food which can lead a person down a path, like the first time I tried dim sum and tasted a coconut bun back in the mid-70s with my mother’s work friend Mai Mah in what was then a thriving Vancouver Chinatown. I am now a voracious Chinese food consumer. Or how children go hunting with their fathers or uncles, leading them to appreciate where food comes from and respect the fact that an animal—or a plant if you get right down to it—gave up its life for your sustenance and enjoyment.

Everyone who knows me knows that I eat meat. Lots of it. Too much probably. Heck, I even have a t-shirt with the title of this post “Meat Is Murder” emblazoned across the chest, with “Tasty, tasty murder” in smaller letters beneath. But few probably realize that I come from a prairie farm family, where like many young kids, grew quite fond of animals like cows, pigs, horses and even chickens. And one particular incident is forever burned into my memory—one that could easily have turned me off eating meat forever.

When I was young, we would travel back to Manitoba to visit family over the summer holidays. My mother, sister and I would often stay at Uncle Henry and Auntie Shelley’s farm. What could be better for a kid who’d moved to the big city when he was five? Feeding the chickens and collecting eggs in the morning, taunting the sheep and cows in the fields in the afternoon, and horseback riding whenever we felt the urge. I even became so enamored with the big sow and her newly-birthed piglets, that the adults found me sound asleep beside her in the mud and poop filled pen one afternoon.

I wasn’t a foolish child. I was a prairie kid, and although I hadn’t been hunting or involved in a slaughter yet, I knew where food came from. In fact, I distinctly remember helping Uncle Henry get those same piglets ready for castration and the horrible shrill squealing they made as their manhood was sliced away in one clean motion. But that isn’t the scarring memory I’m about to share.

My Uncle Henry can be such a jerk. Oh I love him of course, and he’s actually really funny, possessing a charisma that is undeniable. As a young boy, he was someone I thought represented a ‘real man’ and looked up to him, but he was also quite impatient and cruel at times. And he didn’t suffer fools. For as long as I remember, it’s been his way or the highway. Period. No debate.

One afternoon, as the warm summer sun began to set on another lazy day in what in my mind has, over the years, gelled into a homogenized memory of farm life perfection, my uncle gave me a holler to come help him with something. This wasn’t unusual and I was ever keen to earn my uncle’s respect as a farm hand. Into the yard I ran, to discover him with an axe in one hand, and a large chicken in the other. Between us, like an ominous plinth of death, sat a large section of tree trunk. This was obviously a chopping block as it was stained red with the evidence of previous encounters.

“It’s time you became a man,” said Uncle Henry, “it’s your turn to help with supper.” He explained that he would hold the bird, still very much alive, but oddly subdued hanging from his large leathery hands, and I was to make one confident swing of the axe, severing the bird’s neck, killing it instantly. I knew how this went. I wasn’t afraid. I could do it. I was ready.

I lofted the heavy weapon to my shoulder as Henry positioned our victim on the stump, which oddly just lay there, like a virgin willingly surrendering herself on a sacrificial altar. The farm was grew quiet, or perhaps I had become temporarily deafened by the sound of blood rushing in my ears. This was really happening.

After a deep breath, I heaved and swung the axe, landing a clean blow as instructed. At that precise moment however, my uncle jumped back quickly, releasing the chicken from his hold. The bird’s headless body suddenly became animated, running straight at me—still standing there, axe in hand—spraying blood upward, onto itself and onto me. It frantically ran in circles, but silently all the while, bumping into objects in the farmyard until finally slumping to a final resting place against the house, twitching pathetically.

It was then that the sound returned and I heard the howling laughter from the window above the dead foul. A window that I now saw framed my mother, my aunt, my sister, and a bunch of my cousins. Uncle Henry was beside himself with glee, laughing historically. His plan to make me a “real man” evidently a success. And I was the evening’s entertainment.

To this day I can see that yard and feel the headless bird as it bumped into my leg. Somehow, miraculously, I managed to keep my composure and even help prep the bird and enjoyed it’s roasted flesh for supper that late summer evening. It was 1979 and I was ten years old.

I still eat foul, even though—perhaps especially because—I know exactly where my food comes from. In years to come I would accompany Uncle Henry on hunting excursions, and even help down a dear and prepare its meat for storage over the cold winter months.

I relish those memories of the farm and I still enjoy a good horseback ride, although these days one of my favourite red meats is horse. Go figure. In fact, this reminds me of our good friends at Cutter Ranch in Clinton, BC. Our second batch of grass-fed, un-medicated lambs are nearing slaughter age, and a bunch of Foodists are again going to butcher an animal ourselves, like we did with a pig called Wanda. Pictured below is Cutter Ranch owner Tyler McNaughton holding Angus 2, a three month old monster that is remarkably over 100lbs. She’s scheduled to fall to the hands of the Butchers of Gastown on May 15th. Stay tuned for an account of that, including pictures and video.

What early memories, good or bad, do you have of food experiences?


4 Responses to “Where Food Comes From—A Childhood Memory”

  1. Posted on April 5th, 2010

    Great article! I can think of few things more important than teaching kids (and adults) where and what food comes from.

  2. Posted on April 20th, 2010

    From the point of view of the producer, I can tell you there there is no greater satisfaction in the world than providing food for those who you know and care about. If an animal that is destined for the table can be given a dignified beginning and end, then we can all feel good about food security. True accountability is looking your food customer in the eye, shaking their hand and putting a basket safe and healthy food in their arms.

  3. Posted on April 26th, 2010

    When I was about 8 years old, I was in Japan visiting family and we went into a fish market. I remember the hospitable owner allowing me to hold a baby octopus from one of tanks and a mix of fascination and complete revulsion ensued. To this day, I refuse to eat any kind of dish that uses this animal as I’m flooded with memories of the baby cephalopod clinging and sucking to my hands and me trying to get the f***ing off.

  4. Posted on June 14th, 2010

    One childhood memory that springs to mind is from when I was just past kindergarten in Tennessee and my single-at-the-time mother left my brother and I with the village matriarch Mamaw Crawford. There were times when she’d tell all the kids to stay around on one side of the house, the part closest to the one lane road only recently upgraded from gravel to asphalt, before trundling off around the other side of the house to do something about dinner. So of course I snuck around to see what the lady was up too, just in time to see her do a move like a baseball pitcher cartoon character winding up for a pitch or punch respectively, a blur of feathery something at the end of her arm, as she effectively snuffed a chicken for a date with some gravy and dumplings. My memory is a little blurry at that point, likely from the surprise, however I believe the chicken’s head popped clean off and the remaining bird wandered around for a bit as the author above described. Could be the neck just snapped and then there was a chopping block and then some wandering. I’m sure of the headless wandering though, and what I’m really sure of is distinct vision of the veritable windmill this mighty woman could muster that had wind generating force to stay an oncoming stampede and stood as easy testament to her many, many years of back breaking farm labor before settling down closer into town to raise a huge number of kids, grand kids, and surrogate grand kids like my brother and I. Mamaw Crawford will be dearly missed, and her chicken & dumplings were pretty much the finest I’ve ever tasted. She raised her kids, raised her birds, raised her vegetables, rabbits, and paid us kids to find frogs. She treated all of ’em with respect, and I pretty sure she only windmilled the kids that deserved it, myself included.

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