There are no labels on ribeyes at the grocery store to indicate which cow, sensing her impending doom, stood still and halted the line to the slaughterhouse as the only futile act of resistance available to her. Nor are there marketing schemes to hype the bacon from a gang of pigs who broke free from their pens and grew tusks in the woods, terrorizing grouse and foxes while they staked out a free land of their own, before being recaptured and eventually butchered.
Depending on your grocery store’s suppliers, most of the stories behind our meals would be banal (“Macey the Moo-cow was born in captivity, contented herself in grazing and sleeping, and was kept safe until her pre-ordained time of death”) or heartbreakingly dark (“Brenda the Bovine did not know the sun, only flourescent light. She was physically close to her family but kept separate. The meaning of her life eluded her and death was a mercy"). And our stories, those of gatherers who brave the busy sidewalks to the butcher or Whole Foods, are similarly trite and common.
But food can be more than a means to an end; it can place you in a story bigger than yourself, if you venture a little further to find it.
The story I enter in the deli aisle is already over, and was one of imprisonment, complacency and profitable efficiency.
The shoulder of a black bear, near the top of my freezer, awaits my stewpot. Two friends of mine brought it to me when they passed through Yellowknife on their way from Lutsel K’e, NWT, back home to the south and overseas. As they were leaving camp near the community, a rustling behind them revealed a malicious presence. They tried to frighten away the bear, but it did not travel far. What’s more, they’d seen it before, hanging around, and didn’t want to shoot it, but they wondered if and when it would become a problem. When it emerged from a bush within striking distance of them, the one with the gun shot it, and it turned from threat to nourishment. My friends prevailed and what once hunted them will now feed those they love.
Or what of the jackfish, frozen stiff below the bear’s shoulder, whose faded scars and formidable size indicate a life of fighting and winning? That day the battle was between us, and out of respect I would have put him back except the fight was bloodier than either of us expected and the hook was set too deep. His story was over but his body had more to give before it went back to the earth. And what about the ptarmigan? I remember the day we met. Among puffs of snow on black spruce, it alone had small, black eyes. My first shot took its flight but not its life, and I followed it through the woods as it scampered, soon able to end what I’d started. I felt guilt. It looked serene, its gentle head rested on the snow. I was at the edge of a small frozen pond, so I brought it out of the bush into the light of the sun, which hung high and was ringed by sundogs, and I cleaned the bird I killed.
I still felt guilt. But I felt the bird’s story I entered that day, albeit to ultimately end it, had meaning. It was one of survival, resilience and natural beauty. The story I enter in the deli aisle is already over, and was one of imprisonment, complacency and profitable efficiency. At least the hunter looks in its prey’s eyes and sees the life that ends for them. I still feel guilt, but some feelings we must come to terms with to survive. With meat from the wild, I feel like my meal is giving me something more than a full belly.
And before you justifiably shove me off my high horse, there are some frozen burgers in my freezer too.