It’s now been about 24 hours since I posted the photo on Facebook of a free-ranging rooster from a chicken farm near Dallas that I was about to dispatch to become part of the menu at FRANK this weekend. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined what a magical 24 hours it would be.
Many, many nerves were touched on both ends of the spectrum. And while it was certainly stressful to moderate the conversation on Facebook and here on my site, I feel SO overwhelmed with joy that this debate was able to take place. (And I certainly hope it continues.)
The comments kept (and keep) coming, but among the most striking are the comments from parents who said they brought up the subject over dinner with their children. Childhood is most definitely the time to begin having this conversation. Adults who were born in the city and were never exposed to the origins of food as children end up being the kind of person described here by a fan in a comment on yesterday’s blog:
I had the occasion to meet a guy once with whom I ended up ranting about how much I love growing my own vegetables/fruit and how much I wished I had more then a balcony’s worth of shaded growing area (that’s all I got right now as a college student). This was his response: “You want to grow your own food? Isn’t that dangerous? How do you know if you don’t mess up and end up poisoning yourself? Why on Earth would you grow your own food?!?” Part of the reason why I became such a huge fan of yours is because it’s amazing to know that other people who love growing their own food exist in the modern world.
Those of us who grew up on farms naturally have that connection to our food’s source. But you don’t have to have grown up on a farm to have it. And you can help your kids have it by participating in community garden programs (which they even have in inner city Manhattan); taking your kids to state fairs and walking them through the animal barns and explaining to them that ALL the animals in those barns are loved pets of other kids their age, and will be turned into meat after the fair to nourish people’s bodies; encouraging your grade schoolers to participate in the 4-H program and your high schoolers to participate in the FFA program. Even if your kids live in an apartment in the inner city, these programs will give them the opportunity to raise crops and even animals at an off-site location sponsored by their schools.
I am so thrilled that I’ve been given the voice to be able to reach more people than just the ones in my immediate circle of family and friends. This conversation was so dynamic, and it’s obvious by the charged emotions on both ends that people were really thinking and struggling with the concept. These are the kind of conversations that are incredibly positive and constructive, and really make people sit down and THINK for a moment.
I wanted to end with an email that was sent to me by a very dear friend after reading the Facebook threads and my blog post:
I heard through the grapevine that people were giving you a tough time about your chicken-killing rampage. I thought I would share my own story, considering the fact that the first time I ever saw a live chicken up close was when I lived with you and Christian during those four years in Dallas, and for one whole year we raised chickens from the egg right up to their departure (either by natural death, moving to a nearby farm, or being made into dinner).
I also remember when we discovered that one of our sweet chickens, who we lovingly referred to as CP, was a rooster! As I recall, where we lived in Texas there was an ordinance against owning roosters because they are loud. So what do we do with him? Well, for me, what we did was we turned him into a learning experience. We decided to have him for dinner!
My mother tells me very interesting stories about how her grandmother would kill chickens by grabbing them by the neck and twirling them in the air until their heads pop off, and then their bodies would run around the yard until they fall over. I must admit, the thought was not appealing, still I knew that this was something that was important to see because of all the great points you brought up in your blog post.
So we did it. We all gathered very ceremoniously around CP (except for Christian, who wouldn’t have had the heart to actually let any of us go through with it… the big softy), and we chopped off his head. It was fast and he didn’t suffer. To be honest, I thought I would be mortified… but I wasn’t at all. I knew for a fact he had had a really great life eating in our organic garden, climbing trees, bossing the other lady chickens around. If he had been in a factory, he wouldn’t have lived nearly as long or as happily.
By the way, he was delicious.
His body was treated with absolute respect, and we even buried his poor little head so Christian would never find it… I believe it’s currently under concrete, so that’s definitely never going to happen.
What did I take away from this experience? I finally learned where my food came from, and that lesson sticks with me today. Even now, when I make food or go out to eat, if there is meat I eat every last bite of it. If I am too full, tough, I go ahead and at least power through the meat before I give up on the rest of the vegetables/noodles.
So, let other people say what they will. I lived with you for four years and know how you treated every one of our ladies. In fact, I think you cuddled with them more than you actually spent time with the rest of us! Also, I don’t recall ever hearing of any other farmer giving their chickens bananas or other tasty treats on a regular basis. These are not things someone who disrespects animals would do.
Furthermore, I have never met another human being that cried so many times during the movie, March of the Penguins, so I’m not sure how anyone could possible fathom you as anything but an animal lover.
If there is one thing that you are, Ben Starr, you are consistent in what you say and what you believe about food, and I’m happy to say that my own cooking adventures (both living with you and in the years since) are peppered with your “teachings.”
Thank you, T. That’s such an eloquent letter. What he neglected to tell you is that my best friend’s 14-year-old sister felt strongly convicted that SHE needed to be the one to slaughter CP. We sat down and had a long talk with her, and she said that, after meeting my chickens, she couldn’t in good conscience eat another bite of chicken unless she was willing to kill one herself. She was incredibly nervous when the time came, but she did it. And I turned CP into Chicken Parmigiana (his namesake) and she ate him. The next night at dinner, she talked for 2 hours with her family about the experience, and it has stuck with her to this day.
Before MasterChef, I only had the opportunity to share this type of knowledge and experience with those in my immediate circle. But thanks to MasterChef, I can now share it with thousands of amazing fans who can join in this incredible dialogue. Cooking, for me, is about far more than the final plate, and whether or not it can please a master like Gordon Ramsay. Since the day I was born, I was steeped in the story of food BEFORE it enters the kitchen. And, to me, being a part of the entire journey of food from dirt to plate makes the experience endlessly rich.