I want to tell you the brief story of a couple who both grew up in separate privileged families – families that always had a healthy dinner on the table; families that grew up before the 1990’s rehashing of food, making Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) present in almost every processed thing they ate. This couple didn’t garden before meeting each other. They owned cats and dogs at different times, but never saw a chicken and maybe had driven by a pasture of cows.
When they met and fell in love, they simultaneously fell in love with cooking – and cooking good food at that. They soon started looking for a house to call a home and the only thing that was not to be compromised was space for a small kitchen garden.
The house they ended up buying was the Money Pit – 2008’s version – complete with BB bullet holes in shattered windows, punched holes in the walls, and soiled carpets (post home inspection). But they bought some steel horse troughs and grew three tomato plants in them, needing signs of life in the midst of a DIY remodel. Then they received a copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a year later all just because Kristin liked her fiction…
Fast forward to June 2012, and the couple has turned their one-quarter of an acre into a homestead that produces 40 pounds of vegetables a month and growing. The front yard contains blueberries, asparagus, rhubarb and artichokes, while the backyard houses almost every veggie you could dream of and a small flock of chickens along with over two-dozen fruit trees. The trees will start producing in another two years, but the question remains… why?
This couple started to feel different about the world – that maybe it wasn’t important to save the world; maybe their own neighbors mattered more. It has never been about converting others to gardening or to God, but it has been about living out a way of life that is radically different for their own vocation. They did this because they really do want to make a difference in their own health and for the health of a world that needs stewardship desperately, however, the work needed to start where they called home. They were done talking about it, instead choosing to live into the dirtiness of working it out through laboring.
Driven by hope, they now live in the rhythm of seasons, experiencing death and life and faith and liturgy in a whole new way – a way that is changing their souls.
Part of that change is understanding the role they play in some of the biggest politically divisive issues and not seeing them as issues; rather, seeing how they could actually be proactive about things like immigration, education, and human rights.
As it turns out, food is wrapped up in all of these things. So they took their blinders off, realizing food is cheap for a reason. It led to changing the way they worship, the way they learn, the way they live out their marriage, the way they give gifts, the way they interact with their community, the way they eat, and the way they see God working.
In the summer of 2012, these things took on an even deeper meaning – all of them – because it involved death and death by their hands.
Death – a thing that is so foreign to this culture. Cemeteries are not in our church yards anymore; some have been at bedsides, but then loved ones are whisked off to be handled by paid professionals. And that begs another question: why kill something when we didn’t have to? And what did we kill?
Because if we are to be part of the circle of life, to eat food, to eat meat… someone somewhere has to kill it. Much of the time this killing isn’t humane – for the animals or for the butchers. People often don’t realize what their “meat” has eaten; that it is always (even organic meat) dipped in bleach to “purify” it; and that meatpacking is one of America’s most dangerous jobs.
Ignorance was no longer bliss, so they knew when the time came their delicious egg laying chickens would become stew pot birds because they were not pets to them, they were part of a bigger process – a process their faith and discipline had committed them to.
It is a process that has gone on for much of the world’s existence. One that has been forgotten and one that is reemerging. It is not one that is easy, or fun, or one that they relish in, but a necessary one to be responsible and ethical.
So we killed.
And we dipped, and we feathered, we cut, gutted, and processed. First with the help of an amazing local farmer and then in our own backyard. Because we believed in connection.
It was the shortest commute for a meal I’ve ever taken. All but a couple veggies came from our backyard: carrots, onions, zucchini, kale, tomatoes, basil, and oregano.
And the people that we did it with – our badass friends – who slit throats because I couldn’t do that part (Daniel and Erik), who were gracious when I stuck my hand inside a still warm bird and realized (at first in my subconscious) that I had never touched warm raw meat and my gag reflex kicked in (Megan L. and Meghan J.). But by the end, I was fine… and the whole thing felt strangely normal and oddly as it should be.
Everything in my life up until these past few years has been so sterile. My meat comes with a maxi pad and it’s always cold. My veggies were pristine with no bugs or dirt. And now I deeply feel that something is terribly wrong with the fact that getting messy is not part of our food culture… and maybe not our faith, either.
I understand that not everyone can do this (or wants to), but don’t call us mean (which many have) because we participated in this. Our birds lived better lives than 99% of the meat in this nation, and no humans were harmed or exploited in the process. For us, that is important – not for our chickens’ “feelings,” but for our commitment to living in sustainable and intentional ways.
This sustainability and intentionality drove us to the kitchen and to our own backyard; these values have characterized our friendships and have fed our bellies and our souls. It has never been clean and somehow I don’t think it is supposed to be.
We chose to make Coq au Vin – an old recipe for old birds. We cooked for hours after having prepared for years.
We gathered on our deck overlooking our little plot of land and I took the homemade loaf of bread in my hands to say the blessing: “This is the body of Christ broken for you,” … and I looked around the table as I tore it. “All of it, this whole meal and all of you; we’re all connected in this Body and I feel this today more than ever before.” From death came life. That is the real story of this meal and of my life. How much more deeply do I understand this today?
And then we partook of this Eucharistic meal – a meal with depth of value and flavor that I have never tasted before.
The following morning, we gathered at church. Our tired eyes caught each other as each person walked into the room – somehow we were changed. We checked in to see how we were all doing. As we sat down to sing, I sat a couple of rows in front of Meghan J. Daniel was leading worship. Songs came and went. It could have been any other Sunday, but it wasn’t. There was blood on our hands. Whether planned or not, Daniel began to sing a song. No one can remember the song, but I remember the words:
“The blood, the blood…”
Upon hearing a tiny sniffle, as if prompted by something outside myself, I turned around to see Meghan J. with tears streaming down her face. We both motioned to each other and left the room, our motions still fluid and joined from the day before. As we met in the bathroom, we hugged.
“I just..” she said between little gasps, “That song, the blood, it means something different today.” I nodded in agreement. “I mean, I am not trying to say that Jesus was a chicken.” We both laughed. “But we killed something, we saw something die.”
I watched the revelation come to her – this nurse – who is so strong and able, who cares for the hurting and sick every day, be moved by our actions. It wasn’t simple. The gravity of taking life hit us hard. Our meal was as complex with flavor as it was emotion. Something in me said perhaps each meal should carry this much meaning. Bonded by our actions and our tears, Meghan and I made our way back to our seats, but we knew we were forever changed. The cycle of death and life does that and to do this with our community created a kinship on an entirely deeper level. We were led to the table that day – the Eucharist table – with a new lens on what it means to live in community – community with each other, with our animals, with our food, and with our earth.
To my friends – both bird and human – it was an honor. May we carry this story with us always, realizing there is blood on all of our hands.