Food is Life
– Essay by Diane Choplin, Image, “If I Had a Tail” by Josiah Lopez –
Eating meat means taking a life. There’s no higher awareness of this than when participating in slaughter. What’s easy to forget is that eating anything at all means consuming life. My high school biology teacher once said “Vegetarians don’t kill animals to eat meat, but carnivores don’t eat their prey alive.” This was, for me, a revelation. Animals, generally recognized sentient beings capable of thoughts and emotions, have more in common with humans than insects or plants. Because of this, killing them for food carries great weight. But plants also experience a stress response.
Unable to fight or flee, flora are more subtle and sophisticated in their reactions, explains Michael Kolomeits, a plant pathologist at Texas A&M. While humans are consistently flooded with cortisol, no matter the source of duress, plants have unique hormonal responses depending on the type of stressor. During drought they produce abscisic acid, encouraging the closing of tiny pores, thereby trapping moisture. Fungal attacks trigger salicylic acid, a defense against pathogens. Plant damage via grazing, mowing or insects sets off alarm bells in the form of volatile chemicals, warning neighboring plants while spoiling their palatability.
To be clear, I’m not diluting the impact of taking an animal’s life with a discussion of cross-kingdom stress responses. Instead, my takeaway is that all life is intrinsically connected, interdependent and intelligent. I marvel at the complexity of systems that bind us, the healthiest of which also produce the tastiest and most nutrient-dense foods. However we choose to individually navigate what makes our plate, supporting healthy, sustainable systems benefits all life forms.
Aromas, flavor… these are sensual pleasures that achieve amazing heights in whole foods grown in rich soil and animals raised in healthy ecosystems with care for their welfare. Their quality of life is our experience of flavor. I revel in savoring layered notes… an initial pop of something followed by blended others ending with a final impression. It’s a sensate play in multiple acts that includes deep appreciation for all the lives written into the lines of our own.
When I started raising laying hens, I began eating only pastured-raised eggs laid by chickens with ample space to free range. They nibble on grass, scratch for insects, and contentedly coo as they hunt for their favorite foods. Eggs from pastured hens are rich in flavor and slightly earthy, like a buttered baked potato, skin on. Their yolks are a deep golden color, sometimes straight-up orange. Beaten into batter, they transform pancakes and waffles into toasted flat suns drizzled with rich maple syrup or tangy berry coulis. I love watching scrambled versions expand to fill my stainless steel skillet, golden clouds pushing melted butter toward pan edges. Their whites are viscous. Whipping them up into a meringue yields an impressive bowl of fluff both feather light and incredibly dense. Occasionally my son and I manage to collect an egg mere moments after it was laid, still warm and slightly damp from its 25-hour cycle of becoming.
In addition to developing a flavor preference for pastured eggs, I’m now a dedicated disciple of grass fed and finished beef and lamb, the latter of which I also raise. Grass fed animals gain weight more slowly than their grain-fed counterparts, but their meat is more nutrient dense. With meat sourced this way and produce from the orchard, kitchen garden, and local farms, my son and I exist in a happy bubble of eating close to source. In this bubble my taste buds changed.
In contrast to what I was eating at home, grain-fed animal protein lost all appeal. Chicken ordered off restaurant menus felt oddly spongy in my mouth, squeakily rubbing against my teeth. Beef lacked texture and flavor.
January 2020 brought about more change. I started a strict auto-immune protocol (AIP) diet in an effort to ditch the annoying and potentially lethal pepper allergy I’d developed after pregnancy. It was rough, the list of no’s basically leaving me with three food groups: meat, vegetables (minus nightshades and legumes), and fruit. Then pandemic lockdown hit and my son and I no longer ate out or shared meals with friends, the latter having been such a big part of our lives. Isolation was hard, but made following the diet easier.
Food sensitivities suck, complicating the simple act of eating. They turn meals, especially potlucks, into a minefield of possible pain and suffering. Our species is experiencing food allergies on a level we’ve never before seen, to the point where peanuts are banned from flights and school cafeterias lest particles released find their way into reactive lungs. This trend is tied to our habits of production and consumption, what we eat and how we grow it. Humans, writes Rodney Dietert, PhD and author of The Human Super-Organism, are home to a constellation of microscopic critters that make up our microbiome, which in turn influence our health. What might evolve in my gut if I regularly ate engineered food additives or plants and animals exposed to pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics? Not a population of critters I’d want to host, I’m betting.
Eight months into my AIP diet, having completely avoided all food additives in that time, I was able to taste emulsifiers and preservatives on those occasions I didn’t read labels carefully. Guar gum, maltodextrin, and xanthan gum sapped my dining pleasure with their cloying, flat or chalky sweetness. On the other hand, whole foods gained additional vibrancy, enhancing my pleasure.
I have a lamb client who catches notes of a very different origin in her animal protein: Fear. The first year she bought lamb from me she explained how important it was that her animal be the first slaughtered. A couple weeks after I’d delivered her meat she called to say how much she enjoyed it. “I didn’t have any nightmares,” she said, “it was just lovely and so tasty.”
“Nightmares?” I asked.
She recounted a run of nightmares she realized correlated with eating beef she’d purchased: “I think I was channeling the stress of the animal, picked up from its flesh.”
Industrial meat producers know stress has adverse affects on meat. There’s even a name for it, Pale Soft Exudative or PSE. “It’s so common in fact,” writes Daisy Freund for The Atlantic,“that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization talks extensively about PSE in its ‘Guidelines for Human Handling, Transport and Slaughter of Livestock.’” Even when animals are transported and slaughtered in the most humanely designed facilities, à la Temple Grandin, with utmost care, it’s still stressful. For many, slaughter day is the first they’ve been loaded into a trailer and driven anywhere. Then they get out in an unfamiliar place with other livestock within sight or earshot. It’s a lot of stimulus, none inviting.
When buying meat by the whole, half or quarter animal another option opens up: farm kill. This is how we harvest our animals. One day a year a mobile butcher arrives in a truck outfitted with refrigeration unit, piping hot water, meat hooks, and a pulley for loading and carcasses for transport to the butcher. Animals never leave their home. When it’s time, I separate those that will be slaughtered from the rest of the herd, securing them in the same small paddock where I trim hooves and do health checks. Sheep don’t particularly like either event, but they’re not stressed. I know this because it’s becoming increasingly hard to collect fresh stool samples at these times.
Stressed and excited animals will pee or poop. During the last several health checks and hoof trims, nobody felt the urge. After releasing the sheep into a new paddock, I had to follow them around for another half hour, plastic spoon and lidded container at the ready, hoping their excited hunt for favorite forages would yield some fodder for fecal egg counts.
The moment of farm-kill is fast. I once timed it. Sixteen animals downed in two groups of eight in ninety total seconds. Nate, the butcher, enters the catch pen with a rifle. A few lambs approach, sniffing the strange object. They’re used to being hand-fed treats, so they’re curious and perhaps wondering if alfalfa pellets might pour out of the barrel. When the first shot rings out, they instinctively flinch, as anyone would in response to a sudden, loud sound. Then they look curiously around. Downing animals with a single headshot, Nate kills two more before the remaining five decide something’s up. There’s not much room to move. Though fleeing danger is their instinct, so is huddling close in the face of fear. Tears streak my cheeks. I can’t help it. I get attached and mourn their death. Five more pops and the first eight are down. Forty-two seconds elapsed.
Of all the meals I’ve shared with friends, one of the most delightful was right here, on the farm. Together we made egg noodles with sun-bright contribution from our hens and flour from a friend’s farm–wheat grown and ground ten miles from where we sat. We ate roasted lamb I’d raised, morels my son and I foraged, and a combination of greens grown in the gardens of those present. We’d each gotten our hands dirty in the production of our ingredients, could recall plant and animal beginnings, their growth, character, and moment of harvest. We gave thanks to all feeding us. It was the most connected I’d ever felt to what I was about to eat and the people around me. We all sensed it, a warm knowing rippling around the table, magnified by our gratitude. And the flavors… sublime.
Diane Choplin‘s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Oregon Humanities’ Beyond the Margins, Quibble Lit, miniskirt, and The Oregonian; her photography is featured in foreign travel magazines, galleries nationwide, and coffee table books including Lloyd Kahn’s Rolling Homes, from Shelter Publications. She’s inspired by authenticity, connection, self-discovery, and the natural world. Diane lives and writes on a 5-acre farm in Southern Oregon where she raises rotationally grazed lamb and pastured eggs, hosts workshops, welcomes airbnb guests, and keeps hopeful eye out for edible wild mushrooms.
Josiah Lee Lopez was born in Denver Colorado, he graduated from University of Colorado at Boulder with an MFA in Studio Arts he has shown his artwork since 1998, across the United States and Internationally. His work has elements of graffiti, fine arts and graphic design. Lopez uses the street as an inspiration in much of his work that touches on the complicated narratives of urban identity.
The marks told a story of the beautiful crude
The elaborate conversations, transforming the surface.