Photo by Sarah Elmquist
Yum! Just the thing for a cold winter night supper, a chicken pot pie.

Food for thought: A yearlong exploration of local foods


Photo by Christopher Squires
Photo by Christopher Squires
Sarah acknowledges the source of her food.

by Sarah Squires

What came first? The chicken!

I have a secret.

It’s not one of those deep, dark secrets with remnants buried under the tulips, or even something that my close friends don’t know. But when you are a Minnesota reporter who prides herself on knowledge about rural and agricultural issues, when you tackle topics like Green Acres with the fervor of a farmer with a penchant for property tax problems, it’s a little known fact about me that’s hard to admit at the Farm Bureau Banquet.

I have been a vegetarian for 19 years. In fact, a full decade was spent with the label-reading passion of a vegan eater -- someone who doesn’t eat animal products at all.

There may not be space here for me to explain my reasoning as a headstrong seventh grader, or the ways that my ideas about food choices have changed over these years. But one thing is clear: I started feeling guilty. The lesson I’ve learned is that you cast a vote every time you pick up your fork, and while my mind wants to support the wonderful small local farmers that are tucked into these hills and valleys, I was Ralph Nadering it every time I stabbed my way into a winter salad.

And so although I successfully psyched myself out of any meat cravings more than a dozen years ago, I decided it was time that I start exploring local foods and local farms with an open mind, and an open mouth. I knew the only way that I could feel right about eating meat again was if I was part of the entire process -- if I met the animal, killed it and butchered it, and truly embraced all of the feelings that would come from the experience.

Enter Andrea, a young chicken from the Cedar Valley area with a shiny black coat of feathers and warm brown, somewhat frightened eyes. I had called up Steve Briggs, who operates a farm that his parents bought back in the ‘70s -- a beautiful spot nestled in the valley with a bubbling brook woven through the winter landscape.

I think just about anyone who raises chickens would also raise an eyebrow or two at the phone call I made a few weeks back to Steve, explaining in my preface that I have not eaten meat in 19 years but did he have a spare chicken whose head I could chop off and, while he was at it, could he help me butcher her and not make too much fun of me as I sob my way through the ordeal? Even though the fast-growing butchering kind of chickens were long gone, Steve said he could help me out and that he had his eye on one little hen. She had some missing feather issues on her underside, a quality that is apparently irritating to the other chickens, who will often peck at the less attractive gals with bald spots.

As we were rounding up plans to meet on the weekend before Christmas, I had one more question. “Does she have a name?” I asked, sort of hoping that she wouldn’t but knowing full well I’d christen her as something before we were through. Steve laughed. “Andrea,” he said in a way that made it apparent that it was the first lady hen name that popped into his head. I guess most farmers will tell you that you don’t name the animals you’re going to eat, which is why only the roosters Sergeant Pepper and Hippy Chick carry around real chicken titles at the Briggs’ farm.

I spent many sleepless hours in bed thinking about what I was about to do, and although I thought I had a handle on what to expect, I had no idea what I was up for. First of all, I had never swung an ax before, so I had to take a few hysterical practice whacks against the chopping block before I realized I have no aim. Immediately after that realization came the one about how chickens barely have a neck, and there is not a lot of room within a wild ax chop, the chickens little face staring at me, and my boyfriend’s hands holding her patiently against the tree stump. I came pretty close to chickening out (yep, plenty of corny to go with that chicken).

Much of what followed is a blur, although there are photos to prove that I did, indeed, manage to chop my way to a chicken dinner through the haze of freezing winter tears. A series of pictures immediately after the initial whack (it took two) are more than unflattering, with me making a face akin to the Staypuff Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters I just after the guys finally figure out that they have to cross the streams and just before the Marshmallow Man explodes sweet marshmallow goo all over New York City.

When it was all over, I did feel bad for Andrea. But mostly I felt excited, excited to know that this is only the first step to a new way of living, a new way of eating that I know will make more of a difference than a lifetime of tofu purchases. My idea evolved over the last few months -- first I thought I should put together a series about local foods and local farms. But then I realized that my desire to explore our many family farms and how I can support them with my palate is a pretty personal gig, and I now know that this is going to be a long journey. There is so much to know and learn, so many knowledgeable people and farms with incredible histories and stories.

I plan on sharing with you, our readers, some of the highlights of what is ahead of me, and I want to invite you all to join in this discussion about local foods and local farms. Are you a producer with some ideas or some feedback about what I should explore next? Just want to crack a joke about my recent adventure with Andrea the Chicken? Please give me a call or shoot me an e-mail, I’d love to have you at the table.

It is probably necessary to admit that I did eat Andrea, baked into a pot pie filled with other goodies to aid in the transition. And, before I did, I said a quiet prayer: Thank you Andrea; thank you family farmers old and new; thank you fertile ground and gentle rain; and thank you for the fortune and folly that has brought me here to live alongside such wonder.


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