By Rebecca Huehls
Inviting Ferdinand and Wilbur to Dinner
Over the past 15 years or so — coincidentally as long as the Spirit & Place Festival has taken place — I’ve developed criteria for eating, which I unconsciously reference before each meal:
- No cheese or cream (I’m lactose intolerant.)
- Must have vegetables (They’re good for you and taste good.)
- Is there fibre? (My doctor said I need to eat more fibre.)
- Chicken, fish, and beans are good, but no animals that nurse their own young. (Protein is important, but other mammals are too close to me on the food chain; I can’t avoid equating them with puppies and kittens.)
- Have I eaten something besides carbs today? (Mmmmmm, carbs)
- How many desserts have I had since this morning? (Just because chocolate can work for every meal doesn’t mean I need chocolate with every meal; and pie is mostly fruit but also full of sugar.)
All this worked quite well for me until I went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, last year for a wedding. Each night for the week we were there, the American and Argentinean guests met for dinner around 9 p.m., the customary dinner time in Argentina. Eight, ten, sometimes fifteen of us gathered together. Not all of us could speak Spanish or English, but we discovered we could share our food. The gatherings reminded me of the large family dinners of my childhood, where we passed the food around, shared stories from the day, enjoyed each other’s company, and secretly spooned foods we didn’t like into our napkins; once, my parents tolerated my brother tossing peas across the table and into my sister’s mouth.
At these Argentinean dinners, each at a new restaurant, everyone ordered something different, which was shared with everyone else — mostly meat, mostly mammals. Plates of steak, rabbit, goat, cow’s tongue, blood sausage, even sweetbreads (a deceptive term for cow thyroid) passed in front of me. None met my criteria, but to skip just a taste would be to miss the conversation, to skip an essential facet of the life and land and culture of Argentina. This was as true to me as the love I feel for my dog, Halle, when she flips over for me to rub her belly, her heart-shaped ribcage forming a gothic arch above her soft fleshy stomach, just as my ribcage does. So I set aside the criteria and savoured small bites of steak, tested the liver-looking tongue, and added a small bite of goat’s meat to my plate (although I did skip the blood sausage). The experience was delightful.
I returned home to Indiana unmoored. Every meal presented food for thought, the theme of this year’s Spirit & Place Civic Festival. I couldn’t quite return to my old rules, but I couldn’t quite abandon them either. In the fall, I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and found justification for eating any meats I wanted if they came from local, free-range farmers who were treating not only the land well, but also the animals. I reminded myself that Temple Grandin worked to make the slaughter of animals quick and stress-free for animals. The issue is living in harmony with local agriculture, I reasoned, and began buying as much of our weekly groceries as possible at local farmers’ markets — Indy Winter Farmers’ Market in the fall and winter and Broad Ripple Farmers’ Market beginning in May— including free range bacon and chicken. For Christmas, I bought a goose. On Facebook, I clicked the Like button on the pages of local farmers’ markets. And one day, I scrolled through the list of updates to find a story about the personalities of the pigs at a farm, how some lifted their faces into the water streaming from the hose, while others kept a safe distance, easing into the edges of the mud. In the photo, the pigs all seemed to be smiling. How can I eat these animals when their behaviours offer evidence of their inner lives? Was the personified pig, Wilbur, in Charlotte’s Web, not such a flight of the imagination after all? Is a Ferdinand grazing on Indiana grass about to meet his carefully-engineered-to-be-stress-and-pain-free demise at the slaughterhouse? Am I okay with that?
As someone who has attended Spirit & Place events in recent years, each time finding a new way to approach a question, I’m curious what insight the 15th Annual Spirit & Place Festival, November 5-14, will offer about the questions I’m volleying back and forth about eating animals: What do the evolutionary biologists say about the reasons we eat meat? What is our connection to the animals we eat? What is the value of our traditional meals versus the inner lives of animals?