My love affair with animals began at an early age. When I was four years old, my parents conspired with my grandfather and great uncle -- both farmers -- to give me and my sister each a baby lamb for Easter. You simply cannot imagine our delight on Easter morning! We were smitten! I named my lamb Snow White and my sister named hers Flour.
It was a cool spring and the lambs stayed inside with us. I can remember the lambs sleeping in a giant cardboard box next to the wood-burning stove and even sitting with us while we watched TV!
Eventually, the lambs moved outside and then back to my great uncle’s farm. I had a hard time understanding what happened when later that year my parents said that our lambs had gone “to market.”
As I got older, I began to better understand the cycle of life on a farm and how food arrives on the dinner table. My family had an orchard, an arbor and a large garden. My mother baked bread several times per week and made nearly everything else from scratch. We raised our own animals for food -- rabbits, ducks, chickens and turkeys. My parents also butchered hogs and even rendered the lard in a big, black cauldron over an open fire.
We rounded out our diet with wildcrafted food. I remember mushroom hunting in the spring, picking wild berries in the summer, and digging sassafras roots in the winter. My father, a skilled hunter and angler, provided the table with deer, squirrel, goose, duck, pheasant, crayfish, frog legs, turtle, fish and other wild game.
Despite the tranquility of such a natural life, I was deeply troubled by our relationship to the animals. Part of my daily chores included feeding the ducks, chickens and turkeys and I grew very fond of them. I would often spend my summer days under the shade of the plum trees visiting my feathered friends. I especially enjoyed two turkeys, Tom and Betty. When I sat in the grass of their open-air pen, Tom and Betty settled in on either side of me, resting their heads on my knees, waiting for strokes across their glossy backs. They loved to eat treats straight from my hand and would sit for hours listening as I read story books aloud to them. They adored human companionship so much that they would even follow me around the farm when let out of their pen.
Eventually, summer turned to fall -- butchering time. Tom and Betty became the centerpieces of our family's Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. I was devastated. On the morning of Thanksgiving I sat in my room and cried for my lost friends -- and decided to never eat turkey again.
Soon I swore off chicken, as well. What began as a simple 4-H project focused on chicken husbandry turned into a personal relationship with my little flock of six chickens. I was absolutely crushed at butchering time. Each chicken had a name! How could we dine on them?!
Though I had never met a vegetarian in our small rural community, I knew that a more compassionate way of living was the life for me. At age 18, I checked the one lone vegetarian book, “Laurel’s Kitchen,” out of our county library. I read the book cover to cover and overnight became a vegetarian. Now, 16 years later, I've not once regretted my decision to spare the lives of countless animals.
On the farm I learned more than compassion – my mother and grandmother also taught me how to cook and bake. Both were masters in the kitchen – earning the highest praise from friends and family and even taking home top prizes at county fairs. So it is no surprise that they placed a true value on these skills and taught me well.
Unfortunately, many people today choose not to cook, have forgotten how or never learned in the first place. It's surprising that even many vegans and vegetarians choose to warm up packaged food or eat out rather than cooking at home. It is time to heal this rift and reclaim the wisdom to honestly nourish ourselves.
"New Heritage Cooking" brings us back to the kitchen, armed with a new paradigm of compassionate eating that is more beneficial to our health, the animals and the Earth. It is a way to deeply reconnect to traditional home-style cooking, while using new products and techniques to bring truly comforting and compassionate food to the table.