a kaddish for everybody i have eaten

A response to Mira’s latest, “of gummy-worms and larger creatures.”

Let’s start with the easy part: I love gummi worms.

While I was running along Skyline with Kjersten tonight, I got to thinking about how I’m actually thinking about taking a pheasant-hunting lesson in November.

I don’t hunt. Never have. I trudged alongside my dad once after pheasants. It was a cold fall morning, and my six-year-old stride couldn’t keep up. He didn’t slow down for me, nor did he explain much of what was going on. The only punctuation in the long, hard, all-day march (he probably remembers it as a few hours, but this is my story) was a lunch that was too brief and featured not nearly enough hot chocolate. And a moment when a weird flapping sound to our prompted him to grab up his gun and point, only to drop it again. The pheasant had flushed too quickly.

I don’t have any desire to hunt. Never have.

I don’t know if I could actually pull the trigger on an animal. Never have.

And yet.

I eat meat. My hunting dad still stocks my freezer with wild game, and I love cooking it, eating it, sharing it with friends. Recently I served our mutual friend a beautiful Viennese-style pheasant, seared off and then roasted in little bacon boxer shorts, disassembled into parts over wild rice, and drizzled with a gravy made from deglazing the dutch oven with chicken stock and thickening with roux. Her pleasure at the new flavor tasted even better to me than the pheasant itself. I enjoyed her delight at hearing it was a bird that Flicka, the dog Mom and Dad got after Candy retired to live with us in California, had helped hunt.

Kjersti is an exquisite young chocolate lab in the tall, athletic, high-spirited, intelligent Canadian labrador retriever style. This is not to be confused with the English lab style that we mostly see around here: dopey, mellow, short, pudgy, block-headed barrels with paws. Kjersti comes from a long line of field trial champions. She was bred to hunt, and I see her hunting intelligence every day—how she freezes into a quiet point at the sight of the wild turkeys that wander through our neighborhood, and holds it until I acknowledge them and she knows I know. How she tears after a fallen tennis ball, carries it back to me at top speed, and drops it at my feet. How when I walk her off-leash at Redwood or Sibley, she fans the area, running quietly ahead of me and sweeping from one side to the other, looking back frequently to check my progress. How she holds our youngest Siamese cat’s head in her mouth, ever so gently—dampening her fur, but not frightening or injuring her—not mangling any fur or feathers, not bruising any meat.

Meat.

I eat animals all the time. I don’t mind cleaning and butchering them, when they’re already dead. But can I hunt them myself? Kill them myself? I doubt it. But because I love my dog, my beautiful brown animal who works the brush ahead of me with such intelligence and enthusiasm, I’m actually considering it. It almost feels like an obligation to her, my animal, to go kill animals with her. I don’t begin to know how to unwind this conundrum, so I am likely to convince myself that I’m too busy even to consider it and then move on quickly.

I suppose it should be an obligation of my carnivorous ways to join in the violence of my reality. Dad always talks about the sacred connection he feels with the game as he kills it. I have spent much of my life thinking that’s a creepy, horrible cop-out, but when I buy my meat already dead, nicely sliced and wrapped on hygienic-looking white styrofoam trays, my complacency is shaken. If I’m even paying attention. Usually I am not.

My Japanese friends are good at mindful reverence at the table. They say “itadakimas” before starting to eat. Translations vary, but the way my favorite translators, Masako and Tomoko, explained it to me, it means thank you to the animals and plants, the farmers and ranchers and fishers and butchers, the truck drivers, the grocers, the cooks, and everyone else who brought the food to us. At the end of the meal, they say “gotso sama deshita,” which thanks the food directly, using the same respectful particle, sama, that is used for addressing the Shinto gods.

A kaddish for everybody I have eaten. Gotso sama deshita.

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    • mira
    • Nov 11th. 2010 6:34pm

    on pulling the trigger — oy-yoi-yoi! We’re talking for food, right — um, the meat thing, the eating animals thing — not for sport, or for the thrill of the kill, right? I know people do this, of course. And I don’t have the right to say, really, that I can’t picture you doing this. [where are the italics here, when I need ’em?].

    because the truth is, I can’t picture you at all yet as, so what do I know about what you’re capable of?

    I know that if you do this, then the image of you doing it will form in my head. and that’s what I will see. and (this is not a threat, mind you) I will see it in your kaddish. in your music. see you tiptoeing quietly, hearing a mournful kill, perpetrated by your hand. if I ever hear you play a cheerful tune, I will see you lifting that gun with joy…

    what have we done?

    what strange places this two-part harmony takes us! it’s an odd sort of harmony. a harmony of dialectics. in response to you, I have written a midrash about killing. I have a feeling there will be more to come… I’m not including the link, as it won’t post until just after midnight.

    should I say bitei’avon? um, no. I shouldn’t.

    • mira
    • Nov 11th. 2010 8:44pm

    your kaddish tonight took me someplace new. not the siberian steppe this time, among the nomads there, but more familiar ground. although I’ve never been quite there, just very very close, I know this life:

    — sicily —
    the familiar narrow dusty road, whitewashed village on craggy cliffs
    little children running by the side of the road through the fields, with dogs
    lazy old men playing cards in a courtyard of an old cafe
    something ominous, or surprising — can’t tell what
    and
    shit
    that’s the spot that I get lost — AGAIN —
    after a breath
    then the tone shifts to further away
    a dog — your dog this time — heard this time, not seen
    your dog is grounding me — grazie mille di cuore!
    dog in the doorway of the white-washed villa, looking into the courtyard
    I can’t get back—
    last note: I’m lost…

    • Zoe
    • Nov 12th. 2010 12:21am

    The first time I grew my own sprouts, when the first ones were ready to eat, I looked at one of them, and felt genuine remorse for what I was about to do. Here it was: a fresh, beautiful, perfect little life, with its tiny, hopeful cotyledon just barely having turned green, reaching for the light though my mason jar, its root just beginning to branch, searching for the staples of plant sustenance, preparing to supply the nutrients needed to grow this minuscule life into a real, full sized, glorious plant. But, of course, that would never come to pass, because I was about to cruelly cut its life short – eating it before it even had the chance to grow a true leaf, never in its all-too-short life having even touched a grain of soil. What kind of a monster was I?

    Then, a bit bemused by my moment of absurd compassion for, of all things, an alfalfa sprout, I ate it. And it was so good. It was simultaneously warm and crisp – that surprising combination you only get from the freshest of vegetables – ones picked in one instant and eaten in the next. It was fresh, and vibrant, and entirely alive. It was plump and healthy in my mouth, and then it was no more.

    Such is the nature of being alive. We have to eat, and there are ethics involved in every bite we take.

    Attentiveness to what we are eating, where it came from, how it lived and died, and how our decision to eat it shaped that course of events is, I feel, the most important thing. Different people make different decisions out of that attentive state of mind. Some might take that moment of compassion for an alfalfa sprout, and decide to henceforth eat nothing but fruits and nuts fallen naturally from the plant. I didn’t, and that’s fine.

    I draw some arbitrary lines demarcating the foods I will eat, and the ones I won’t. These are the particular lines that my personal contemplation of the ethics of eating living things has led me to, and I recognize that other equally thoughtful people might easily draw different lines for themselves.

    I live most of my life as a vegetarian. I never prepare meat at home. I sometimes make the exception of eating sushi when I eat out (because I love it, and because I feel ok about eating an occasional fish, in a context where I am attentive to my choice of eating it, and am sufficiently appreciative of it). If I make sushi at home, I make only vegetarian sushi. When I visit my mother, I eat anything she cooks, which usually involves meat, but it is meat that I have known, or my mother has known, or a friend of hers has known personally. It is a rabbit that her husband raised and slaughtered himself, or a lamb from the folks down the road, or grass fed beef from a bit farther down the road. I haven’t yet been present for the deaths of any of these animals, but I would be willing, and even interested in being there for any of their deaths. I consider that willingness a prerequisite for eating them.

    I was going to say I have never, personally, killed a food animal, but then I realized that I had – I humanely dispatched plenty of mice over the years when I was keeping snakes. I was ok with that, because such is the nature of being alive (or, in that case, keeping an animal I was responsible for alive and in good health).

    I think there is something very wonderful and profound about that moment – longer than one might imagine – when a being is suspended between life and death. At what moment, exactly, does a person become a corpse, or an animal become meat? You don’t know that a last breath or last heartbeat is the last one until that moment has passed, and time has elapsed, and yet more time has passed, and still the next one hasn’t come. Being truly present for such a moment, be it in the context of hunting, or slaughtering a farm animal, or sitting with a dying loved one, is a way of looking the essence of life squarely in the face.

    So, I think you should go hunting, and I say this as a (mostly) vegetarian.

    Just be careful not to shoot your beautiful dog.

    Mira started with Michael Pollan, and I’ll come back around to him. If you haven’t already read it, you should pick up a copy of ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. This post reminded me of his experience hunting a wild boar in the section of the book devoted to his creation a meal from only foods he has grown, gathered, or hunted himself. Well worth the read.

    Also, his thoughts on the question of whether we control the crops, or the crops control us, which he explores in ‘The Botany of Desire’ can be extrapolated directly out from the plant kingdom into the animal kingdom in considering the complex relationship between humans and the domesticated animals they raise for food.

      • Zoe
      • Nov 12th. 2010 11:01am

      I wrote that comment last night, and then I put on my headphones and listened to your daily Kaddish. As I was listening, I made a connection that now seems so obvious to me that I find it embarrassing that I did not make it sooner:

      That final diminuendo a niente that you do (is it marked in the piece, or an artistic choice on your part?) beautifully simulates that moment of suspension between life and death. There is a time when the piece is clearly being played, or the being is clearly alive, and there is an eventual time when the life or the music is over, but there is an extended, hazy twilight zone between the two. I find it interesting that the very fuzziness of that dividing line somehow brings into starker contrast the profound difference between the two states.

  1. Wow–very interesting observation, Zoe. Yes, I think it’s written that way, but after writing today’s piece and then recording, I saw some details on the page that were not quite as I had remembered while writing. Now that you mention it, no–I don’t think “a niente” is in the ink. That’s been a choice of mine. I might change it in light of the recent change I described today. Hm.

    I loved the reasoning behind your vote to hunt!

  2. M, somehow I didn’t see your first comment until now.

    I honestly don’t know what we’re talking about when it comes to pulling the trigger, because I can’t actually picture myself doing it either. I have pulled a trigger on several clay pigeons, a paper target, and some sage brush. I’m the daughter of a hunter, remember, and the sister of one. Pulling a trigger on these things was interesting enough in the way that any challenge is, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. 

    Guns hurt. They kick back into your shoulder—every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and the speed times mass of that load divided by the larger mass of the gun equals the force with which that gun kicks you in the shoulder.

    Guns are loud. Even if you wad those 28dB foam plugs well into your ear canals, each shot punishes your hearing with a numb ringing.

    Guns jolt the bones in your hands, and the force travels up your arms to your shoulders even as the stock of the gun kicks your shoulder.

    I’m glad guns hurt.

    Could I point a gun at a bird? A bird that I know would taste delicious? A bird I would honor, as my brother’s note suggests, by having the gratitude to prepare it carefully for my best friend and open my best bottle of wine? A bird that would be the single most honest meal I’ve eaten in my carnivorous life?

    I don’t know. I don’t think so.

    I have tried many times in my life to picture myself pulling the trigger, being the one who takes the life of the elk whose steak I savor like no other. I can’t do it. The thought makes my stomach sieze.

    I asphyxiated several dozen fish as a child. I didn’t enjoy that either, but as an adult I don’t hesitate to plan my breakfast when someone offers me fresh trout. I don’t even mind cleaning those trout—not much—but being the one to pull the trout out of the stream and put it in a cool, damp creel with no water for its gills to breath, that I find disturbing. Eating that trout, fried in bacon grease from a pig someone else killed for me, doesn’t bother me. I know there is no logic in this, just as there is no innocence in plowing a field to plant wheat, killing directly and destroying the habitats of I don’t even know how many more little lives.

    I don’t have joyful thoughts about killing. It doesn’t feel like a sport to me, and I don’t even enjoy the sports that actually are sports. I’m a wimpy, nonathletic pacifist. 

    I was even vegetarian for a while, on principle, until I was finally forced to conclude that my body couldn’t deal with all that grain. I already knew dairy and eggs were problematic. But I don’t need to rewrite Omnivore’s Dilemma here.

    Would the adrenalin rush from seeing Kjersti find and put up a bird raise my gun and pull its trigger? Or would the force of her expectation? I don’t know. Maybe. I’m pretty sure remorse would follow me home.

    Yes, I do have a gun. Two. A Weatherby pump-action shotgun and a .22 rifle that was also my dad’s first gun, and my brother’s. In my house. And I don’t have a quick explanation for how this came to be except to tell you that we have a little budget problem over here in Oakland that has led to astonishing cutbacks in city services including police. And I have a friend whose partner I vetoed, whose partner has a temper. The putative ammunition for these guns is nowhere near the guns. The real ammunition is how horrifying these guns look, and how easily I can raise one to my shoulder and rest my finger on a trigger that it would disturb me to pull, even knowing as I do that its chamber is empty. Why a shotgun and a puny rifle? These guns were chosen precisely for their ineffectiveness at killing large animals like people as much as for their effectiveness in a bit of theater to keep the pacifist, her family, and her would-be attacker all safe.

    Dad was happy to give them to me, because he still hopes that after about forty years of wanting nothing to do with his beloved sport of hunting, I will change my mind. I’ve got the right idea about dogs, after all, and I’m good with a sauté pan.  

    I was relieved to realize that I can’t go on that particular pheasant expedition. I have to play some Haydn in a church that night, and I would never make it back to Berkeley in time from the hunt. So no, you don’t need to picture me pulling the trigger on a bird so that my beautiful lab can fulfill her destiny. You must picture me instead in a church playing some Haydn on my horn with a bellyful of cow that someone else killed.

    How can you picture anyone but a killer when you picture me playing kaddish?

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