Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Do You Know Your Food's History?

This morning’s sunrise brings the second snow of the season. Thanksgiving is a few days away and today we are invited to a turkey slaughter at the Alexander farm in rural Wisconsin. At first, I am apprehensive. Why would I want to see something so gruesome? Yet I have been immersed in this country community for several months now, learning how country boys, and women, survive. I take a deep breath and agree to attend the event and rationalize that it will be good for me to see where my food comes from.
The frozen snow crunches under our rubber boots as my husband and I make our way to the garage. In the summer the garage door is mostly open while friends and family wander in and out, sometimes stopping to share a beer at the end of the workday. But on this blustery day, it’s all business. The roll-up door to the garage is closed so I follow the blood splatters on the doorstep and go through the side door. I see two men gutting a large turkey. Two more carcasses are on the floor, headless, yet not motionless. 
One man is teaching the other how to slaughter and dress a turkey. It is a skill being passed father to son. It is not a pleasant job.

 A sack at the base of the tail must be removed in one piece to avoid contaminating the meat. The technical name is Poop Sack. Dwayne, the father, and a seasoned farmer is satisfied with the poop sack removal and directs his son, Dale to remove the crop located at the top of the carcass. The crop that grinds the turkey's food sits in the neck cavity where we sometimes cram extra stuffing. Dale again turns his attention to the bottom of the turkey. A few more pulls and yanks and out comes intestines, a gizzard, lungs, heart, and liver. I am thinking, broth for the gravy. Well, everything except the intestines.
It is time to kill the next three birds. This is the part that worries me. I have loved animals all my life. I am a spiritual woman that respects all life forms. I cannot stand to see anything, even an insect suffer. Yet here I stand on a Saturday morning prepared to witness a beautiful brown turkey’s life terminated for the sole purpose of feeding my family in a few days.

Before you start to judge these folks, let me explain how Dwayne found a nest of wild turkey eggs in our pasture last summer and did his best to incubate them and turn them back in the wild. His efforts did not succeed and most of the eggs didn’t hatch or the chicks were too weak to survive. But the point is he tried. He adores his Shepherd, Toby, volunteers at the local cancer center, participates in community fundraisers, always has several grandchildren and their friends running around on the farm, and has been teaching us city folks the fine art of country living.
Dwayne walks into the turkey pen and grabs the first bird within reach. His dark brown feathers  glimmer with a green shine. The bird is surprised and silent as he is dragged to the chopping block to meet his maker.

“He’s a beautiful bird,” my husband notes.

“Yeah, he’s a good one,” Dwayne replies. Dwayne believes you get a better turkey if you let the blood bleed out before removing the head. He holds a knife in his hand and the bird's neck in the other and before I know it he sticks the blade into the bird’s neck. Again, not a noise from the bird. The turkey looks directly at me with his black eye. I feel guilty and wonders if he is asking, why are you doing this to me? Dwayne stabs again and dark red blood spurts from an artery and splashes on the white snow under the bird’s feet.  The turkey stumbles backward as life ebbs away. He sits on the ground going into shock. Soon he cannot sit up and falls over. Wings and legs continue to flop.                                         

He’s dead,” the ten-year-old grandson says. I secretly say a prayer thanking the bird for his sacrifice.

“He’s not dead yet,” Dwayne cautions. “Keep away or he’ll splatter you with blood when he goes to bouncing around." When the bird is motionless and the snow covered in blood, Dwayne picks up the body and with one to two whacks, the head is severed.

 My husband leans close to my ear. “Pretty graphic.” I look at him and turn away, grateful I did not have any breakfast.

Inside the garage, a vessel that appears to be a deep fryer attached to a propane tank is boiling water. Each bird is held by the feet and dunked in the water to immerse the entire carcass. Chad, Dwayne's other son is experienced at this task. "Three to four dips is all you need or you burn the skin." The steaming bird is ready for plucking.

The plucking table is surrounded by four people and each pair work one bird. Joe rolls up his sleeves and jumps in. “It’s not that difficult,” he says over his shoulder. You should try.” The room smells like feathers and humidity. I am wearing my one and only winter jacket and do not want it covered in wet feathers.

“No thanks, I’ll document the event,” I tell him. Remember, this is educational.”

One of Dwayne's grandsons turns around to ask me, “Do you kill your chickens?” He is speaking of my sweet laying hens.

“Well,” I reply, “Hell hasn’t frozen over so no, I don’t kill and eat my chickens. They have a face and a name and are given a proper burial in my backyard at the end of their days.” The farmers laugh out loud. They are often amused at my city girl outbursts.

 In short time all that is left is the tail feathers. Wings are trimmed and the bird is passed on to remove the entrails. The cycle continues until the birds are washed, bag, weighed and labeled.

I wander outside and three greenish, blood covered turkey heads lay on the ground near the chopping block. This bothers me. Of all days to snow it was today, bringing to light what is really going on here. The words of a farmer I met last summer at the Baker Creek Seed Festival ring out in my head. He said, “People need to know where their food comes from. It sure don’t come from a grocery store. You gotta know your food’s history.”

I know the history of these birds. It was a hot June night when I first saw them, they were light brown, still with some yellow down feathers, about three to four inches tall. They grew up on this neighborhood farm with a kind man, who raised them with wholesome feed, didn’t shoot them up with antibiotics and hormones so their breasts would get so big they'd fall over. He gave them a good home and a good life. Now it was the end of their lives and they would go on to sustain ours.

I wonder what other city folks would have taken away from this experience. Gratitude? Fear?  Shock? Perhaps a new respect for life and our food supply?  Would they become vegetarians?  When Saturday Night Lives comes on that evening and they show a celebrity hugging a brown turkey, Joe and I squirm and groan a little, bringing to mind the beginning of our day. Soon I will prepare my bird as I always have, say a blessing over the food, but this year will be different. I will remember the cycle of life and how all beings have something to contribute to life.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Do You Really Want to Know?

A few months ago I attended the national conference of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Chicago. Always interested in our food supply, I sat in on a panel of experts that are responsible for insuring our food products are safe. 

You know that feeling that you can un-see what you've seen? You can't unlearn what you know. Yeah, it's like that.

For the next hour I learned about the horrific things that are found in our foods. This occurs on a regular basis whether we know it or not.  These governmental watchdogs try to put a stop to it, but the skeptic in me wondered what gets past the pros? This particular session focused on our seafood supply. Even now I shudder to think about the "near misses" I've had when trying to eat. So far it hasn't killed me.
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But I keep thinking, you never know.

Or can you? When I got back I signed up for the Food Safety and Inspection Service produced by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. That's a mouthful, but this site provides regular emails that alert me to recalls and unsafe foods before it hits mass media.  I figure it's my duty as a health professional to protect my family and my community, and trust me, if I thought it was a critical issue, I would be sounding the alarm. 

A lot of it has to do with undeclared allergens or foreign suppliers failing to complete inspections. Our panel of experts said a lot of times it's about passing off an expensive fish fillet for a cheap ones. Sometime the buyers can't even tell and I'm sure consumers can't. I wonder if we ever really know what we are getting.

Today's recall notice: 

Washington, March 1, 2018 - Sensenig Turkey Farm LLC, a Lititz, Pa. establishment, is recalling approximately 1,925 pounds of turkey sausage products due to misbranding and undeclared allergens, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today. The products contain wheat and soy, known allergens, which are not declared on the product label. The raw breakfast turkey sausage items were produced on various dates from Sept. 25, 2017 to Feb 26, 2018. 

Well, first of all I'm wondering why this food is so old? It was made in September? Strike one. Next, I want to know why there is wheat and soy in a meat product? How much grain can go into sausage before it has to be labeled as something other than meat? Strike two. And strike three, it is mislabeled and I'm not getting what I think I am paying for. I hate that.

Here is the link in case you want to stay up nights wondering when you're luck is going to run out with the next mouthful of food:  https://public.govdelivery.com/accounts/USFSIS/subscriber/new 

 All kidding aside, we live in a country that for the most part, provides a safe environment for consumers. While others struggle to find clean water each and every day, we walk to the nearest faucet for ours. We have access to organic foods if we so desire. Or like me, and many others, we dig up our back yards, shun herbicides and pesticides, and harvest foods knowing exactly where they come from. No middle man, except Mother Nature. 


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Adapt or Die

It is mid-January in Arizona and I have just walked into the kitchen with a handful of tomatoes. That's right, tomatoes. Some will have to ripen indoors, but still, I have fresh tomatoes. Never in all my life has this happened. There was no die-back of the vines; no cold weather to tell the tomato plants another season had passed. There was no fall, there has been no winter. And in two weeks, my new tomato seedlings go into the ground for spring planting. Nothing like jumping from summer to spring.

Returning from my mountain cabin yesterday, I was dealing with a nosebleed. For the lack of rainfall, it is so dry in the mountains that by the third night I wake with a nosebleed, gagging from the dry air. Morning on the deck shows no signs of frost. It is too warm and there is no dew.

On the drive back I tune to a local radio station. The unhappy truth is that scientists have determined this is the longest stretch of drought in Arizona in nearly 700 years. I calculate that the last time this happened was just about the time that the Anasazi Indians disappeared from my state. And who could have blamed them? I think I'm having a rough time adapting? I'm guessing there were no grocery stores to run to when the rains didn't come. The Indians left to survive.

From our farm in Wisconsin, we get regular reports from our tenant, John. Weeks stretched on with temperatures below the zero mark on the thermometer. He talks of ice and cold but little snow. Apparently, these Wisconsin residents love to play in the snow but Mother Nature will not accommodate. Then the rains come. He sends us a picture of the farm across the road that looks like a lake. I wouldn't want to be the one to try to plant that field anytime soon and thank God I sit on higher ground.

Anyone in denial of climate change is clearly out of the loop. Climate change is no stranger to this planet, but during the last serious altercation in 1816, there were not as many hungry people on the planet. Still, there was untold suffering when crops failed.  The Year Without a Summer is a book worth the read if you want a first-hand account of what we may have to face. But instead of just one summer, it could be the rest of our lives.
Image result for starving polar bear

 If one is not connected to the planet, unlike garden-types like me, it is easy to miss the subtle changes. But the big changes, such as entire glaciers melting before our very eyes and animals staved for nourishment, yeah, those are hard to ignore. Greed and power will dictate how we will face our changing climate. This saddens me but I take heart in knowing I can adapt by altering my planting schedule and finding heartier plant varieties to feed my family.  I stress over limited water in Arizona and too much water in Wisconsin; hotter temperatures in Arizona and cooler temperatures in Wisconsin. Nothing seems right and I'm starting to feel like Alice in Wonderland when she is tumbling down the rabbit hole. "What if I should fall right through the center of the earth...oh, and come out the other side where people walk upside down?"

Adapt, Alice. We all have to adapt.