The Satisfaction of Raising Your Food

Kate Bernot wrote a funny and earnest story about the trials and joys of raising backyard chickens for the A.V. Club's new food site The Takeout. This passage in particular struck me:

Raising your own food, be it for eggs or vegetables or bacon, has never been an easy task. Weather happens, predators kill, diseases wipe out your crop. It’s why we shop at grocery stores. It’s easy. Raising food—at least raising food the right way—is hard.

I have a meager history of raising my own food. It's a romantic notion, fresh eggs every morning for breakfast, picking fresh tomatoes ripe of the vine in the summer, a pantry and stomach stocked and nourished with the work of your own hands. But it's true that the reality of it is always more difficult, frustrating, and grosser than you imagine it to be.

My family grew up on an old farmhouse in the Massachusetts countryside. We were surrounded by people using their land to provide for themselves in small ways. When I, the youngest child, reached adulthood, my family dispersed in a way that left me living in the old family home with my sister and her husband for a time. I didn't have much of a say in the decision, but we ended up with chickens. Baby chicks start as one of the top five cutest animals of all time, and with alarming quickness, turn into creatures that are basically loud, feathered, insects. They're horrid.

Chickens are profoundly stupid. They're brains are capable of barely two things, walk and peck. They have no higher cognitive function, no awareness, they just blindly wander whatever space their in, and then peck wildly at the ground, hoping that food will end up in their mouth. They also produce an incredible amount of poop. About a dozen chickens living outside pooped enough to keep our driveway and moderately sized yard coated constantly. Eventually the chickens all succumbed to the hunger of the local foxes and coyotes. But while they lasted, they might've been worth it because of the eggs.

Ah! The eggs! Even the meager grocery store egg is a thing of uncommon beauty. The egg is a perfect food. It can be prepared in a near infinite variety of ways. It plays necessary supporting roles in so many foods, and even a humble fried egg can be a magical experience. The fact that these nightmare feather monsters daily produce one of God's greatest culinary gifts to mankind is a paradox of the highest order. And the eggs produced by a chicken doing nothing more than roaming a yard on a diet of grass and insects are so beyond the grocery store egg. They almost make owning chickens worth it.

Before the terror chickens and their holy eggs, my only other experience with raising food was my dad's garden. For a stretch of my childhood my dad turned a large section of our yard into a small farm. He spent countless hours out there, the sun cooking his bare back, tilling, planting, weeding, and tending to the harvest of his handiwork. There were always tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, zucchini, squash, and green beans. Some years there were potatoes, corn, watermelons, or strawberries.

A decent sized vegetable garden can produce an unexpected amount of produce. I remember countertops piled with zucchini and summer squash. I remember the overflow stuffed into plastic grocery bags piled into the car on the way to church in hopes to find anyone else who would eat our surplus of vegetables. I remember the sheer delight of feeling hungry and not walking to the fridge or the pantry for some boxed snack, but instead walking outside and just plucking a bell pepper and some green beans. There's a visceral connection to the earth when you can enjoy its fruits so directly grown through your own labor.

My responsibilities in the garden were few. My father was always the planner, the one with the knowledge of when and how to plant. But I followed instructions and could take pleasure in laying out the rows, planting the seeds in their small hills, weeding the soil, trimming, and picking. It wasn't always a pleasure though. Managing a garden can be hard work. You get tired, and so so dirty. I was a teenager for the garden years, and would often rather be playing video games or reading than sweating to death in the humidity when, wait, why don't we just buy these at the grocery store?

I don't know if it's the separation of time, or if it's an actual truer appreciation of what is good in this world, but the idea of raising and cultivating my own food is much more appealing to me now than it was in the times when it was actually a part of my life. Part of it must be the fact that I don't live in the countryside anymore. I live in a fourth floor apartment in a gross shopping district in Austin. I couldn't have chickens or plant a garden if I wanted to. Something off limits to you will always be more attractive. The closest I get to food that comes from the labor of my own hands is the (not quite so) weekly loaf of bread I make from scratch.

Bernot is right. Grocery stores are so easy. I wish they weren't so. I do about half my shopping at a Whole Foods within walking distance. Whole Foods over curates their selection to the point of feeling coddled, or funneled into a narrow subset of choice. You can't just use Whole Foods to buy groceries like a normal person. You have to use Whole Foods to buy groceries in the Whole Foods™️ way. They preach a natural and direct relationship with your food, but I've never felt so separate from it.

An important part of the satisfaction of the raising your own food is the work. Hard work. Sometimes work that sucks and you don't want to do it. But the fruit is all the sweeter for the sweat that went into it. One of my dissatisfactions with the Whole Foods-style grocery stores is the ease of it, the way they tell you, "Don't worry. We got this." I don't want them to got this. I want to got this.

I hope to find ways that I can create more relationships with my food that resemble my sister's chickens or my dad's garden. I don't mean this in the popular, capitalist-driven obsession with "natural" and "organic" foods. But in the way where I am more responsible for the creation of the food I put into my body. There's a satisfaction in knowing your hands did more than pick something off a shelf, but helped bring it to life in the first place.