My great-grandmother, Mamaw Haney, didn’t have the luxury of cultivating a philosophy about food. She was too busy trying to feed ten children from what she and her husband grew on a small plot of land in the southern Appalachian mountains. They raised their children in a tiny log cabin with no electricity and no running water, and while my great-grandfather raised cows and chickens and a few pigs on the hill above their home, Mamaw Haney tended the garden and prepared the food.
Mamaw Haney’s garden was organic by necessity. If a copperhead got into her corn, she hacked it in half with a hoe, snake blood splattering onto the hem of her long, homemade dress. If bugs got into her green beans, she went from row to row, vigorously shaking the beetles off the vines into a mason jar. When the jar was full, she dug a hole and emptied the contents into the ground. She covered the pile with dirt, stomping the earth with her hard-heeled shoes until she was sure all the beetles were dead. Mamaw Haney was not a squeamish woman.
My life has been decidedly easier than my great-grandmother’s. I can afford to make choices about what food I eat. However, after years of spending too much money on foods I didn’t need, I have begun a slow return to that simpler way of life that my Appalachian forebears led, a life that produced healthier food and a cleaner environment. Sustainable living, we call it nowadays. Organic gardening. Free-range. Antibiotic free. Hormone free. Permaculture. Slow food. For Mamaw Haney, it was the only way of life she knew.
Now, my husband and I have our own small garden, and I shop mainly at the local grocery and at the farmers markets in the summer. I try to eat foods that are in season, and I am a vegetarian of sorts. I occasionally eat free-range chicken and turkey, never beef or pork, but I do prepare for my husband and sons red meat that has been raised and slaughtered in a humane manner. And because I like to know the names of the people who raise our food, I have begun going directly to local farms to buy meat.
One day early in the stages of my food reformation, my friend Lisa and I took our two sons, ages ten and thirteen, to visit an old family farm near our homes. I was still a bit uneasy with the idea of staring into the faces of the animals that were soon to be killed and eaten, but Lisa assured me this would be a valuable learning experience for our sons and that we would get some great meat. What Lisa knew at the time but neglected to mention to me was that it was slaughter day at the farm.
When we got out of the car, the air was heavy and sour—a mixture of cow manure and something even sharper. While I swatted the flies from my face, Lisa, a true free-range meat fanatic, took a deep gulp of farm air.
“This meat is so lean and so fresh,” she said as we passed the pig pen where two enormous gray hogs happened to be making exactly the same sound my Jack Russell makes when he is glad to see me.
The farmer sold his meat in an open-air barn that served as his store. Inside, the walls were lined with deep freezers. There were a few shelves in the center of the room and, against the left wall, a large, standing refrigerator with glass doors. Packages of fresh meat and cartons of eggs lined the refrigerator shelves, and next to one of the egg cartons were two tan chicken feet, standing upright, talons extended, like the chicken had just walked away and left his feet there. I covered my eyes and kept walking.
At the back of the store, Lisa was bent over a deep freezer. She dug through the frozen meat with her bare hands, cold air flooding the room as she tossed rib eyes, flank steaks, sausage, pork chops, and a pork tenderloin into her shopping bag.
“This flank steak makes the best fajitas,” she told me without ever looking up.
I finally settled on some steaks and pork chops from the freezer and then, trying my best not to look at the chickenless feet, I chose a few packages of stew meat, some beef jerky, a carton of eggs, and a fresh, whole chicken from the refrigerator. Through the plastic bag, I could see the chicken’s intact neck cocked morbidly to one side. The boys stood behind me watching and whispering to each other.
“I dare you to pick up those chicken feet,” I heard my son say.
“I will if you will,” Lisa’s son said.
“Do NOT touch that!” I warned them.
I took my selections to the register and dumped them onto the wooden counter. While he calculated my bill, the farmer told me about how this was his father’s farm and his grandfather’s before that.
“You boys want to see the baby chickens out back?” he asked when I finished paying.
The boys looked at each other, shrugged and nodded. Of course, they did. This farmer didn’t look like any farmer I had ever seen. Where my family comes from, about forty miles west of here, farmers wear overalls and chew tobacco. They have deep creases around their eyes from squinting into the sun, and no matter how old they are, they always look at least sixty. This man was probably in his thirties, his face clean-shaven, and he wore jeans and a pin-striped polo. He looked innocuous, like someone who would feel bad about wringing a chicken’s neck and chopping off its feet.
“You just go past the truck bed covered in blood, and they’re in the fence just beyond it,” he told the boys.
He pointed behind his head, past the barn. The boys were gone in an instant. I put my meat in a cooler in the van, then headed toward the chicken coop. I heard the buzzing of the flies first. Not only was the truck bed stained a brilliant red, but blood had coagulated in pools beneath it. Tiny chicken hearts littered the ground. An orange cone, like the ones used to reroute traffic in a construction zone, hung upside down above the truck bed. Apparently, that was where the decapitated chickens were stuffed so their blood would finish draining. Flies swarmed everywhere—in the sticky blood on the truck bed, in the pools of blood on the ground, around the orange cone. They landed on my arms and in my hair. I covered my mouth and nose, stifling an urge to vomit.
The boys were already back in the van when I got there. Flies had come in through the open van doors, and they buzzed around the our heads while, wide-eyed, the boys vividly recounted the decapitation scene. I was trying to tell myself that this was perfectly natural, that if I were going to eat chicken, then I should see where chickens come from. I thought of the many stories my grandmother had told me about her mother walking into the front yard in her skirt and apron, yanking up a chicken, and wringing its neck, then bringing it onto the front porch to pluck. If she could do that, I could do this.
Back at home, I put the chicken in a pot with celery, onions, carrots, bay leaves, and thyme and simmered it until it fell from the bone. I added flour to thicken the stew, and pulling the carcass from the pot, retrieved tiny pieces of flesh to feed my dogs.
At dinner that night, my son, placing special emphasis on the part about the chicken hearts and the blood, recounted for his father and his brother his experiences at the farm. I tried hard not to listen. Instead, I closed my eyes and pictured my great-grandmother, her long hair pinned back in a bun, standing at the wood stove, stirring a fresh pot of chicken and vegetables from her farm, the smells of stew and cornbread enveloping her tiny kitchen. And when I slurped the broth from my spoon, it tasted like fresh air and grains.
Jennifer McGaha's work has recently appeared or is pending publication in the North Carolina Literary Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Pisgah Review, Moonshine Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Fried Chicken and Coffee, and Smoky Mountain Living Magazine. She also recently won honorable mention for her essay "Leanin' Back" in New Southerner's 2009 literary contest, and another essay is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming anthology, Echoes across the Blue Ridge: Stories, Essays and Poems by Writers Living in and Inspired by the Southern Appalachian Mountains.