See, I know a little about all the things we do to milk on its path from udder to table. We heat it to kill germs, sure, but we also mix up the fats and liquids so they stay blended, or take the fat out completely. And that’s what my child knew milk to be. But milk behaving like milk, milk with cream . . . that freaked her out.
I couldn’t help but think of all the other foods that freak people out in their “real” state. Meat with bones. Fish with skin. Unpeeled funky-shaped carrots. Anything with dirt or blemishes on it. We’ve gotten so used to food that has been altered into “convenience” food that we often have no appetite for food in its natural state.
I think about this a lot at my house. We raise chickens, and so every day I wander out to the nesting boxes and pull out a handful of chicken-temperature eggs; there is no doubt that they recently resided in the 105-degree body of a live bird. When I crack one, the yolk will be deep orange from all the carrot peelings and collard stalks and past-its-prime spinach in their diet. Chickens are also one of nature’s finest protein conversion machines — grubs and caterpillars and roaches go in, fresh eggs come out.
Some people don’t want to know this about their eggs, much less the rest of the food in their pantries and refrigerators. My grandparents wouldn’t have understood such a thing. Their field-to-table existence wasn’t a lifestyle — it was survival. Gourmet buzz words of today — phrases like “wild caught” and “sustainably grown” and “free range” — were unnecessary to describe how they ate because there was no other way to eat. There was no separation between eater and eaten. It was an intimate, often brutal, relationship. Food never came cheaply, and its cost was calibrated by the labor it took to produce it.
Now my husband works for approximately thirty seconds to earn a can of beans. I buy them in an air-conditioned store, heat them in a pan on an electric stove, and serve them to my family without ever glimpsing the hands that picked or packaged them. I consume them in complete ignorance. And that is a cost indeed.
This is why I make it a point to shop the Farmer’s Market and buy organic when I have that option. Ditto free range and cage-free and sustainably harvested. Critics ridicule these terms as foodie indulgences, out of reach for people with average pocketbooks. Not activism, but an elite “I’m so special I deserve special food” entitlement.
I see that attitude sometimes, but it’s a perversion of what “sustainable food” really means. Sustainable agriculture is never about the individual, always about the collective. Not about one stomach or one set of taste buds, but about hundreds.
We went to the farmer’s market again last Saturday, and we bought some more non-homogenized milk (my daughter drinks it right down, now that she knows its story). As I mingled in the crowd with my peas and okra and soap made with local olive oil, I saw a sign posted by one of the farms: “Be curious about your food."
Excellent advice for all of us.
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Tina Whittle writes the Tai Randolph mysteries for Poisoned Pen Press. The sixth book in this Atlanta-based series—Necessary Ends—is available now. Tina is a proud member of Sisters in Crime and serves as both a chapter officer and national board member. Visit her website to follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter, or read additional scenes and short stories: www.tinawhittle.com.