On the farm, when nature offers you food, you don’t say no.
One evening last spring I walked outside to call my family in for dinner. It had been raining all week and my husband, Mark, had taken advantage of a break in the clouds to let our girls, 5 and 2, run around before the kitchen exploded with their pent-up energy. I found the three of them next to a puddle in our long dirt driveway, bent over a crayfish. We have two ponds on our farm, and I guessed it had been trying to make its way from one to the other. Mark crouched down and the girls gathered around as he picked it up by its shell. It waved and snapped its little claws in the air, beadily eyeballing us giants. It managed, through force of will, to seem more formidable than its size. I am 5'2" and married to a man who is 6'6", so I know how that feels.
The girls took turns holding it, passing it back and forth. They stuck twigs in its claws to test its strength, until I reminded them that dinner was on the table. “Do you want to carry it to the pond?” Mark asked. Jane, the elder, squinted up at him. “Dad?” she asked, “Could we eat it?” She had not yet developed a good grasp of scale, and it reminded her of the lobster she’d savored at her grandmother’s house the summer before.
I made the noise, familiar to my family, that expresses displeasure without actually saying no, and mentally collated my points of opposition. What was it doing out of the water, anyway? Maybe it was sick. I knew from other culinary adventures with my husband (hello, squirrel, and you too, pigeon) that this project held potential for mess and medium- to long-term household stink. Moreover, it seemed a little bloodthirsty. When I was Jane’s age, my brother and I found a crayfish. We named it Crabby and made a pet of it. My girls find one and want to make a meal of it. I felt, for a moment, the misgiving of the missionary: I was raising my children in a savage land, and now they had gone native on me.
Food-wise, I was brought up in the middle-class normalcy of the 1970s and ’80s, at the height of the freezer-to-microwave era. Eatable things came from the supermarket, in Styrofoam, very neatly separated from their origins. Mark was raised by back-to-the-land hippies who killed their own pigs and foraged the woods for wild food. When we married, I gave up the grocery store and converted to his way of eating. We started a farm together, where we raise a full, year-round diet of foods, including vegetables, grains, meat and milk, for 250 people. Our children are growing up almost entirely on what comes from the fields that surround our home. They wouldn’t know a chicken nugget if they stepped on it, but they have known, almost from birth, that asparagus season gives way to strawberry season, followed by the pleasure of raspberries, then sweet corn. They have never been sheltered from slaughter or from the idea that the animals they know and care for become the food that nourishes us.
So, of course, I knew that when it came to that crayfish, I would be overruled. I’d chosen this way of life, and this farm as my home. Raising our own food has given our children adventurous palates and a deep understanding of how precious food is. When nature offers you seafood, Jane was thinking, you don’t say no. In our home, feeling affection, wonder or love toward a creature and also wanting to eat it are not incompatible urges.
Jane nudged Mark’s leg. “Can we, Daddy? Can we?” Mark looked sideways at me, and saw me nod. “Why didn’t I think of that?” he said. She carried the tiny crustacean into the kitchen. Mark killed it quickly. Jane filled a pot with an inch of salted water, which I set to boil. The crayfish went into the pot and the girls stood on stools over the stove, watching it turn bright red. “It looks like a doll’s lobster,” Jane said, when it was out of the water and steaming on a plate. Mark peeled it and we ate a morsel of tail meat each, dipped in melted butter made from our own cows’ cream. It was exquisite: rich, sweet and pleasantly fishy. And that was exactly, I thought, how a doll’s lobster should taste.
Kristin Kimball is the author of The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food and Love. She and her family run Essex Farm in northern New York. She blogs at kristinkimball.com.