Written by Trisha Jefford.
All the volunteers started as vegetarians. On the first day of the season, the farmer asked us if we had any dietary restrictions. All five farmer-wannabes let her know that we didn’t know the last time we let chicken—many of whom were clucking ten feet away—past our lips. The excommunication of poultry made sense to me—even though I had worked as a caterer and a chef for years, I associated local, organic farming with vegetables, not so-called “ethical” chicken, duck, or turkey.
I saw farming as a path that would bind my health to my morals. I thought double-digging garden beds would deepen my commitment to kale and radishes, and that my newfound intimacy with the land would make me a better cook. The locavore movement made a beautiful narrative, and I wanted my diet to affirm this. Nevertheless, over the course of the season, my righteous diet crumbled as I attempted to expand it with knowledge about where our food comes from and how much labor goes into a single head of organic cabbage.
My first week of farming felt so physically draining that I thought about quitting constantly. I would spend five hours at the farm, then chase them with an eight-hour shift supervising a busy restaurant kitchen. I couldn’t bring a newfound respect for turnips to work because we hadn’t planted them yet. We couldn’t plant until after we spent hours shoveling poo and laying T-tape. Hauling trash bags full of horse manure across a quarter-acre of land is enough to inspire a quiet respect for feces even before one considers how, once composted, this “waste” would form food for soil and plant life. I liked to think of this in culinary terms. Our lives depend on food, and our food depends on our lives—our muscles and our waste.
Our team looked like we were wasting away. My Carhartts draped off my hip bones like ill-fitting row cover. It bugged me that I couldn’t seem to eat enough at lunch. While my daughters were getting chubby from Eggos, I wanted to impress my fellow vegetarians with what I could do with local produce. It seemed taboo to admit what I fed my family in the privacy of our own kitchen, or that I suspected I wasn’t getting enough protein to fuel my 13-hour workdays. When it was my turn to cater lunch, I steamed the finest wild rice from Northern Idaho and bought beans grown two hours from my home. I abandoned reasonable portion sizes as we discussed how neighboring horses, rabbits, and chickens participated in this meal. The conversation turned to eating animals.
We didn’t mention our hunger or the impossibility of our modern schedules when we talked about how ethically-raised animals could be a desirable addition to our diets. What if we were to find that one of our laying hens were barren? What is the best way that she could be useful to our land, our ecosystem? Could her life fuel the labor we put into the land?
Unpacking chub packs in the back of restaurants inspired me to resist the constant temptation of meatball sliders because my logic was that if I avoided eating cattle whose lives were disgraced and discarded by factory farming practices I had deemed “unethical,” then I wasn’t participating in “the system.” Farming made me realize that food was never that easy, and that a purely ethical diet is an unattainable fiction. I could feel better about eating a hen I raised than about feeding my children GMO corn.
We decided that “ethical meat” might be okay. After a long day of work, we went to a restaurant that served local lamb burgers. We could tell our side salads were composed of the spring greens that graced our own gardens. As I took my first bite, I told myself that if I had ordered a salad at the Mexican restaurant next door, the unseasonable tomatoes grown from GMO seeds several interstates away were far more troubling and unnatural than eating this flesh.
Justifications like this launched me down the kind of slippery slope that conservative politicians refer to when arguing against marriage equality, only rather than wanting to marry a cow next, I wanted to eat one. I’ve read some compelling evidence that stress affects our blood sugar and thus our willpower, and that’s how I explained my first not-so-ethical burger—the kind of burger we served at my restaurant. I had left my quinoa salad in the fridge. I needed to eat, and the beef I used to disdain smelled like the most appealing option at the restaurant. I could make it for free. The quinoa was probably shipped from Africa!
I didn’t want to tell anybody about the burger at the farm on Thursday, but one of my co-volunteers had admitted to breaking down and ordering Pizza Hut. Yes, we wanted to be GMO-free and local and to know the first name of the pig that became the pepperoni on our pizza, but the more we learned about the origins of our food, the more we learned what we couldn’t know.
Ultimately, double-digging garden beds taught me to question my commitment to placing moral and ethical restrictions on my diet. Quinoa shipped from Africa or the free beef that could be thrown away if you don’t eat it: which is the superior protein? Uncertainty led to anarchy led to the occasional fast food sandwich, and I wouldn’t trade this complication for a sense of righteousness about my dinner’s origins.
Trisha Jefford has farmed in Idaho and worked as a host, a server, a chef, a caterer, and often writer about these experiences in public and in private. When not cooking or writing, Trisha still tends to a huge backyard garden and slaughters her own chickens.