As I prepare to head home to rural Tennessee for Christmas, my thoughts turn to our family farm and the food traditions with which I grew up. Because as a farm girl I was well acquainted with the cycle of birth, life and death so early and so intimately, I’d say it has made me less squeamish than most when it comes to such matters, and it has taught me that it’s possible to develop respect and regard for an animal I know will end up on my plate.
This is the time of year when we’d select one fattened hog and one fattened steer to be butchered, packaged and labeled, then divvied up among the deep freezers of my grandparents, my uncle’s family and my family. This represented the bulk of the meat upon which we’d feed until the next winter.
After all the tidier pieces of meat had been put away, on a cold, cold night, we’d all convene in the smokehouse to make sausage. My mother would sew casings out of old flour sack dishrags (recycling on top of recycling!) and bring them out to the smokehouse, where my father and brother were grinding the hog trimmings with fat and seasonings. Then I, with my tiny hands, would take the squishy ground mixture, redolent of fresh pork, pepper and fennel, and stuff it into the newly-stitched casings. And my uncle would bind the ends with twine and hang the brand-new sausage with the hams to while away the months until it was needed.
I was an adult before I ever bought prepackaged meat in a grocery, or for that matter, cans of tomatoes, green beans, black-eyed peas or relish. Those things had always come out of the deep freezer and the stash in the hall cabinet. And when I finally did start bringing these items home from the grocery, they were never as satisfying as those I’d had a hand in putting up as a child.
This represents a vanishing way of life that organizations like SlowFood are working hard to reacquaint people with. Perhaps it isn’t practical for everyone to raise all their own food, but to the extent that we can, we should try. Even if it’s just a couple of pots of herbs on the kitchen windowsill, every little bit we grow for ourselves reconnects us with our initial bond with the earth from which we came.