January 12, 2015 / Creative Writing
A non-native-Midwesterner wonders out loud about the fields.
October 5, 2011
Editor’s Note: In 2010, The Other Journal published The Spirit of Food: Thirty-Four Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, a collection of essays and recipes that colorfully depict how our acts of eating echo the community of the church and the sacrament of communion. One of these essays, “Tasting the Animal Kingdom,” which we have chosen to feature in our Food Issue, shares Coons’s journey from vegetarian to omnivore, from restraint to a humble, open appetite.
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.”
I have carried a deep ambivalence about my place in the food chain since the summer I raised a flock of chickens at age thirteen. I was a town child, my pre-chicken agricultural experience extending only to our backyard tomato plants in Kalispell, Montana. For a family science project, my mother brought home a dozen Araucana chicks, which we placed under a heat lamp in a box in the kitchen. They were the size of marshmallow Peeps, and they were warm and downy and tottered around their cardboard nest on delicate miniature feet. That first day, my sister and I named each chick, cupped their springy bodies in our palms, and let our hearts swell to the chorus of their cheeping. At dinnertime, when our mother pulled a bag of chicken breast out of the freezer, I underwent a crisis of faith.
In the Sunday school classes of my childhood, I learned of fruitarian Eden and of the sin that necessitated the Old Testament complications of blood sacrifice and dietary rule keeping. The church basement rooms where I learned these lessons were often filled with the scent of ham being warmed for a post-service potluck or traces of bacon grease left over from a communal breakfast—the legacy of the apparent free-for-all introduced by Peter’s New Testament vision. Acts 10 notes that Peter fell into a hunger-induced swoon, and “He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. The sheet contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’” Peter himself was perplexed by the vision, but we had it figured out: Jesus came, among other reasons, so we could eat ham for Easter.
These things occasionally sifted and shifted in my mind as I ate, but the chicks sharpened my focus. For as much character as they had, for as clean as we kept them, these chickens were filthy birds. I was unwilling to kill them, let alone eat them. Then it occurred to me that I could no longer eat anything that I was not willing to bear the responsibility of killing.
My parents were supportive. They had been vegetarian before they moved to Montana and my father shot an elk. They bought me Diet for a New America and a subscription to Vegetarian Times. I was harrowed to learn about factory farms and feedlots, and it became clear to me that opting out of the meat system was better for the earth, better for the animals, and better for my health. Being vegan seemed even more noble, but it was far more effort than I could conceive. I continued to eat eggs and dairy products: willing to exploit the animals, but not to have their blood on my hands. At the end of the summer, we moved the chickens out of our kitchen and backyard and into Seeley Lake. There they lived in an alpine chicken chalet with a meadow full of grass and herbs and insects, and laid their pale green eggs for a family of canoe makers. It was an idyllic life, for a chicken.
My own upkeep was not so idyllic. The first year was easy enough—we had a well-stocked pantry, and I was armed with sufficient idealism (and references to Eden) for the inevitable meat debates among my peers. Then my father took a job in Hungary. We arrived in our small city in winter, and fresh produce was sparse. Over our malfunctioning Soviet-era stove, my mother claimed cooking amnesia, and the rest of us attempted to fend for ourselves. In a land rich with lard, goose liver, and veal-stuffed crepes, I subsisted on Nutella and oranges and learned to live with hunger, driven on by a self-satisfied sense of vegetarian sacrifice.
Later in high school, I moved to Germany, where I ate an abundance of homemade bread and learned to make a mean onion tart. When I returned to the States for college, I started cooking in earnest, reading cookbooks for pleasure, and reveling in the possibilities of plant products. This yielded years of good vegetable soups, bread, and baklava, all shared in the company of friends.
When I married Michael, he essentially adopted my diet, eating the occasional piece of meat when dining out or when we visited his childhood home, where the freezer is stocked with packages of his father’s cows, each labeled by name. As a goodwill compromise at our first several Thanksgivings, we ordered a free-range Hutterite turkey, the epitome of wholesome meat, which my sister prepared and served to the meat eaters among us. Although I have sautéed tofu samples for the uninitiated, I have never inflicted faux-meat on anyone. Tofurky, with its pretentions to meat, seems somehow idolatrous. Also, it’s trying too hard.
When we met, Michael was keeping kosher and living primarily on Reese’s peanut butter cups. Our biggest fight during our first year of marriage was over the Sinai Kosher sausages he ate at Costco. He thought that consuming two per trip was reasonable; I was convinced that he was eating himself into an early grave. But there was hope for his carnivorous soul: at age twenty-eight, he discovered asparagus.
However, just as he was finding vegetables, I started losing momentum, sliding into a slow decline of nachos and grilled cheese. The unraveling of my vegetarianism began in earnest four years ago in Italy, on a trip with Michael and his mother. My mother-in-law, who in her restless youth was married to an Italian-American with mafia ties and access to an excellent family restaurant, was on a mission to find authentic Italian food. “I want to eat where the locals eat,” she insisted. And so Michael drove us into the Venetian hinterland, the mists off the salt marshes sublimating in the soft April twilight. We passed first one, then another, promisingly local-looking restaurant. Half an hour later, we found the one she had been waiting for. We pulled into a gravelly parking lot and approached a seedy stucco building festooned with cigarette ads. Inside, there was no menu, and the woman who showed us to a table left us in muted awkwardness as she sent out someone who was more accustomed to dealing with foreigners. The chef was cheerfully doughy, and although unresponsive to our English, French, Spanish, and Hungarian, he seemed eager to feed us. He addressed us in German.
“Fisch oder Fleisch?” he boomed.
I paused to translate, and then in my high-school German mumbled something about a vegetarian option. “Ja, natürlich, Salat,” the chef said and continued to wait for our choices. Something inside of me cracked then, and out of my hunger, I said, “Fisch, bitte.” Michael also ordered “Fisch.” His mother took the “Fleisch.”
I had been thinking about adding fish to my diet for a couple of years but hadn’t mustered the will to actually start eating it. I was feeling increasingly malnourished and losing my intense appreciation of the pleasures of vegetable matter. I had tried a few bites of salmon at an IKEA cafeteria once, trying not to taste its animality as we sat on a succession of lifeless sofas. That moment in the restaurant, I prayed that whatever came would be skinned, filleted, and bland, made palatable by its anonymity.
What actually came, if I had had the courage to say it then, was exquisite: a bowl full of fresh pasta loaded with fruits of the sea: baby squid, shrimp, and mussels, followed by a plate of larger squid, prawns, and various fish. I was overwhelmed. Anything with legs or eyes moved to Michael’s plate. But the rest! My keen resistance, more than half my life spent defining my diet on the animals that I wouldn’t eat, was a mouthful away from coming undone. I suspended my judgment and ate the remaining fish. The fatigue I bore in my mind, the weight of sheltering myself and restraining my choices, began to lift. The glass of limoncello may have helped, too. As I paced myself through the specimens, I prayed to be well and to be honest about the requirements of my existence. Then I was hit with a pang of regret for the meals I might have shared and hadn’t, especially my friend Borja’s roasted chicken—the sole dish he mastered during the year we shared a kitchen—that every night I would turn down. How much else had this sense of restraint kept from me? A catalog of feasts opened in my mind, and I decided to start slowly. Like the resurrected Christ did with his disciples on the shore, I would eat fish.
The restraint I practiced in my vegetarian life had been good training—two years ago, I was diagnosed with sensitivities to gluten, dairy products, and eggs, perhaps due to the excessive role they played in my former diet. As efficiently as I had quit chicken and bacon, I now quit pizza and ice cream. When I gave up my deeply entrenched bread, cheese, and yogurt habits, I lost weight that I did not have to spare, and I found that I needed to replace more than half of my calories with other foods. I could only eat so much fish, and I was yearning for something satisfying to eat. I was desperate to feel well.
One day Michael drove me to Whole Foods to see what kinds of exotic allergen-free products we could procure. I circled the store in a swoon of self-pity and increasing hunger. We picked up tapioca flour and xanthan gum—essentials for the science project of gluten-free baking. The towering displays of imported cheeses, the heady aroma of wheat flour and butter emanating from the bakery—it was all too much. Between the cheese shrine and the case of chocolate éclairs, I came upon the rotisserie chickens. They were roasted to a deep golden brown, and the air was filled with a scent that couldn’t help but explain God’s well-documented desire for burnt offerings. We purchased half a chicken and drove it home.
The packaging promised that the bird had led a good and healthy life, and the scent of its body, sacrificed for a single dinner, filled my head. I cried a little in the car and I made Michael promise not to tell anyone or tease me about the chicken. He had never given me a hard time about being vegetarian, but he seemed shocked and a little proud that I was preparing to eat this chicken. I took a portion of breast meat and tasted a small bite. The flesh was dry and overly bland, so I added some of the spiced skin—skin that I knew had held mite-infested feathers and came off in flakes when the chicken was alive but that now completed the flavor of each bite I took. Michael, hovering with concern, encouraged me to take a little more. When I was finished, I felt fine, even satisfied. Still, buying a pre-cooked chicken seemed cheap, a kind of cheating. I was not equipped to start raising and slaughtering my own birds, but I needed to take responsibility for the process. I decided that there would be a second chicken, and that the second chicken would be different.
The next weekend our friends Liz and Scott and their toddler, Charlie, came to visit. They had undergone a food crisis of their own in the previous year. Charlie was born with severe reflux and digestive problems, and he had been in and out of the hospital, at times fighting for his life. Understandably, Liz and Scott have reordered their lives around preparing food that will help Charlie grow and thrive; Liz understands dietary desperation better than most. She saw the panic in my eyes as we picked the chicken out together at my neighborhood health-food store, and she volunteered to prepare the meat. But this bird was marked for me. I needed to prepare it myself, to know its body, to weigh its life and flesh in my hands.
I left the chicken to thaw in the kitchen sink, and it floated there, barely submerged, remarkably buoyant for the gravity of its condition. A few hours later, I split open the packaging, and the water flushed pink with blood, a faint hint of what must have happened at slaughter. When I took the chicken out of the bag, its wings relaxed into the water; and as I held the fleshy body, I remembered bathing my nephew in this sink at Thanksgiving a few months after his birth. The similarity in the size and weight and feel of the chicken and the baby shivered through me. I did what every young mother cleaning poultry must do, as my sister must have done that weekend as she prepared the Thanksgiving bird—I banished the thought. I reached inside the carcass to remove what I took to be the liver, grazing my hand on the bird’s sharp ribs as I pulled it out. Three washings later, the water was no longer tinged with blood. I rubbed the carcass with salt and pepper, and I prepared to cook.
Between the 1946 and the 2006 editions of The Joy of Cooking, I approximated a recipe, browning the chicken in hot olive oil, turning it awkwardly over with a pair of wooden spoons. Next I sautéed some sturdy vegetables in the bottom of the cast-iron pan, set the chicken on top of them, dropped in a bundle of herbs, and baptized the lot with two cups of water before setting it in the oven to roast.
When the chicken came out, we came to the table and collectively hesitated. None of us had carved a whole bird before. Someone older, wiser, or more experienced had always sliced the meat. We didn’t need to carve it, as it turned out. The flesh was tender and fell off the bones. It was good. And it was good for Charlie, who Liz calls a canary in the coal mine of our food system. Scott, who once had a summer job on a farm, talked about learning how to slaughter and butcher a goat, how he saw the twitch of the goat’s muscles after death, felt the blood and warmth drain from its body, and was filled with reverence.
After dinner, I looked at the jagged remains of the bird and knew what must be done next. I stripped the remaining meat from the bones, bit by bit, and then dismantled the skeleton, cracking the bones into pieces, dropping them into my stockpot. With chicken fat under my nails and the scent of bird-death on my hands, I thought of my parents and of all the poultry they prepared for us when I was a child—my mother’s delight at finding sale chicken and buying it in bulk, my father’s satisfaction in salvaging the remaining meat after a meal of whole turkey or chicken. As I picked over the carcass, seeing for the first time my hands as a continuation of his hands, I found the oysters. I had forgotten they existed, the rounded pockets of tender flesh sunken into little bone basins above each leg. I dug them out with my thumbs and wondered if my mother had any idea what she started when she put that batch of chicks in my hands.
The final stage of handling this chicken I undertook alone, late in the night, according to the comparative Joy method. The earlier text seems to take the reader’s familiarity with stock for granted, whereas the later edition explains the culinary and nutritional value of homemade stock to a generation of readers rendered indifferent by bouillon cubes. Taking my stockpot back to the stove, I added onionskins, carrot tops, and celery and covered the remains with water. For hours, I boiled the last nutrients out of the chicken, claiming the goodness of its skeleton for myself and for the soups of my future, a small act of faith in my slow reconversion. As I strained the broth and finally discarded the bones, I found the wishbone, whole in the pot, which had slipped unnoticed through my earlier bone breaking. I held it for a moment, and then I left it intact.
 This essay was first published by The Other Journal in Leslie Leyland Fields, ed., The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 89–96. Reprinted here with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Alissa Herbaly Coons
Alissa Herbaly Coons holds an MFA from Seattle Pacific University, library cards from three countries, and hands when crossing the street. She blogs about her immigrant experience at startingoverdownunder.wordpress.com.