Wendell Berry famously wrote that “eating is an agricultural act.” Once you begin to think of food as the product of agriculture, of farms and gardens (rather than supermarkets or makers of boxes of cereal or macaroni or whatnot) you are forced to think about the kind of farm your food came from, and the kind of life your food lived before it became food. Or at least I’ve found that to be true for me.
Yesterday I cooked a meal for friends, and we sat down together at a big table, gave thanks for the food and the goodness of eating together, and ate bowls of home made beef stew. But for me the eating (although not the sitting down together) came with remorse. The beef was from the supermarket, and for a couple of years now I have eaten meat primarily from local farms that raise their animals humanely on pasture, rather than on grain and confined in feedlots. I’ve been thinking a lot about why I’ve been doing that, and how it fits in with my garden obsession.
If eating is an agricultural act, and if the kind of agriculture I want to “eat” is one that looks something like a healthy garden – one that cares for the health and well being of all life within its fence posts – I am required to leave out the feedlot beef and warehoused chickens. I can imagine a garden with animals (in fact I want one, with hens) but I can imagine no healthy garden that can abide confining a suffering animal. And so to eat one of those poor beasts I must eat outside the garden, which is something I am trying to do less and less of.
In one of my favorite novels a struggling priest asks his mentor how to know if prayer is successful. The mentor tells him that prayer works if you can act less like a shit head afterward. My effort to eat meat from animals that have not unnecessarily suffered is a bit like that – I realize I still act like a shit head when it comes to food a lot, since I do still eat meat in restaurants and take my kid to Five Guys for burgers on occasion, but if thinking of humane meat as meat from animals that have lived a garden life rather than a feedlot life helps me eat less like a shit head…than I can judge it a success.