This spring I hit a climax in my culinary career. I have been cooking a variety of proteins for more than 10 years and not until recently have I ever directly laid to rest the animals I would be serving.
Sure I’ve filleted fresh fish, crabs and lobsters, but there is a disconnect of empathy when it comes to cold-blooded ocean dwellers. Why is there this disconnect? Working in several kitchens over the past decade I have often seen farmers hold a much higher respect for the food they grow compared to food that my fellow chefs cook. Shouldn’t culinary professionals hold the ribeye they are serving in the same regard as the farmer who raises that cow? One would assume so, but unfortunately even in kitchens most chefs and cooks have no idea where their protein came from, and frankly couldn’t care less.
Running a mobile farm-to-table operation, I have made it a point to get to know the farms and farmers I am buying produce and protein from. Building these relationships has been the most positive thing I have ever done for myself and for the people I am serving. I have gained so much knowledge about sustainability and permaculture. The equilibrium of a successful farm is built between the farmers, the animals and the produce. This delicate chess match must be handled with the upmost respect and care, and must be guided by an almost spiritual purpose to coexist and be a part of what is growing and grazing in front of one’s eyes.
Chefs always talk a big game when it comes to slaughtering and butchering their own animal proteins. I have been in that circle for most of my career, never truly putting myself in a position to do the “dirty work.” I always just assumed that if it came down to it, of course I would be able to do it.
Building a connection with Haw River Ranch I had the chance to be involved in the processing and butchering of 56 chickens. Most of these birds came to rest by my hands, back feet held in one and the breast in the other. Each taught me something about how to be more efficient with the next to make sure they feel no pain. A method and an action that is truly as technical as it is spiritual.
I have always prided myself on knowing about food. But not until I felt the life leave that first bird or the splatter of the warm blood on my skin did I truly understand what it meant to be a meat eater. That chicken breast you are eating did not magically come boneless, skinless, and cyro-vacuumed. Someone had to feel every moment of that, and those moments build appreciation and respect.
When I prepared my chicken that night, I had never handled protein so delicately in my life. I took extra care and attention that would not have been possible until I had crossed the threshold of having to take another living animal’s life with my own hands.
I don’t care how many people reading this won’t be able to eat their dinner tonight. Food doesn’t grow in the produce section of your local grocery store. From the right farms, animals are loved, cared for and respected from their birth, their life experience and in their passing. Their life gives to the land and the land gives them life, which ultimately sustains our own.
This connection is very primal and does not present itself to most people in their modern daily lives. With that being said, one can still take steps and make efforts to build a better understanding about farming practices and getting to know how your food is being raised.
On that note, be cautious. Know that most animals, which are mass farmed, are not cared for in this manner. Honestly, the process of raising and slaughtering them is quite disgusting, and the product should be avoided.
The bottom line is that if you can have a better understanding of the process of where your food comes from and what you are putting in your body, you will have a better respect for the animals, plants, and people in that process. A respect and understanding of this food cycle is the first step into building a healthier, more interconnected and sustainable society.
Caleb Smallwood is a chef, photographer and a food-truck specialist.
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