Meat-eaters: Where does your food come from?

My great uncle walked directly into the water carrying with him the bucket he uses to collect crawfish from his nets.  It seemed as though he didn’t think twice about stepping into this stagnant swampy water, filled with all sorts of creatures that emit poison as a defense.  At first I sat on shore, feeling somewhat awe-struck.  As a kid, I’ve seen water moccasins drop from tree branches into the water…and I know alligators sometimes show up around these parts.  I thought to myself…’wow, he’s got trust’.  He looked back and chuckled, encouraging me to step in if I wanted to.  Snakes and alligators filled my mind…then my adventurous spirit decided to overcome fear and just go for it.  I moved into the water, gaining confidence with each step, and followed him on his route.  I eat crawfish, I thought, so I want to participate in the process of gettin’ em!  After this morning, I learned that the experience itself requires more than hard work and trust…my uncle’s routine of checking his crawfish nets was a myriad of beautiful things coming together.  Gathering this food to eat was also about honoring tradition, being in nature, and connecting with ancestors. Thinking back to that day, I wonder what it would be like to only eat meat that I expended the energy to catch or kill.  Given the place I live and the lifestyle I lead, it is very unlikely this will become my reality…but I feel grateful to have been exposed to the practice.  Experiencing where meat comes from and what it takes to get it, led to my curiosity of what it would be like if every consumer had this opportunity.

A meaningful piece of Cajun culture and tradition involves hunting and fishing, as well as the food-preparation that goes with sourcing your own meat. The forests and swamps of South Louisiana are teeming with wildlife…and because of it, many families are able to
supplement their diet with various game-meats.  Being a sporadic meat-eater, I love the idea of being able to honor your food source through capturing an animal that hasn’t spent its lifetime squished in a cage, eating processed foods that are most likely pumped with hormones it didn’t choose to ingest on its own.  Hunting is something that has remained a constant within many Cajun families, including my own.  Largely because of this tradition, we are able to continue eating dishes that root back to our Cajun ancestors.  We are a people that have grown up on duck, pheasant, deer, fish, wild boar, geese, frog, crawfish, shrimp and many other types of meat.  Our spicy, flavorful dishes reflect this culture of hunting and fishing.  Food gathering and its preparation brings family and friends together.

My grandparents generation had a diet that originated primarily off the land.  It was a time when people had more time than money.  They used their bodies to harvest vegetables and they learned how to hunt animals from their elders.  It was a time when hunting wasn’t seen as privilege…it was a way of life.  Times have changed.  These days and in some places, hunting is largely a privilege.  Most people do not have access to the land, time, or skill-set it takes to hunt their own meat.   And from years of this land/food disconnection, it seems as though many people would rather buy their food, than expend the emotional and physical energy it takes to hunt for it.  I wonder sometimes if the meat industry would change if more people needed/chose to hunt in order to provide meat for themselves and their families?  Would people respect the brown flavorful chunks in their taco a little more?  Or perhaps less people would choose (or be able to) actually eat meat?   What would it look like for people to see ‘meat’ as a living animal they had to kill and/or prepare to consume?

Hands down, some of the scariest issues facing our world/country seem to be in the packaging culture of food…genetically-modified animals, genetically-modified animal feed, and the use of hormones.  In a nutshell:  Monsanto and big-agriculture business.  It’s frightening to read about the realities and think about the consequences.  When I learn about the crawfish industry in China and how some restaurants in Louisiana choose to buy this crawfish because it’s cheaper…it creates another whirlwind of thoughts and emotions.  How is it cheaper to buy food that comes from 8,000 miles away?  What does it mean for the livelihood of small Louisiana fishermen when we buy millions of pounds of crawfish from China and have it shipped over on boats?  Is demand larger than supply?  How might our choices as consumers support our local communities and ease the environmental impacts that are created by eating food caught thousands of miles away?  How we choose to consume, affects the market.  What kind of food do you want to eat?  Where do you want your food to come from?  I ask these questions with an understanding that race, population, geographical region, accessibility, resources, land, systems of support…are all important factors.  It’s complicated.  So much so, entire books are written that talk about these various issues.

There are a billion ways to hunt with a million different hats.  It is not my purpose to idealistically paint of a picture of the heroic hunter without honoring how one might approach the task.  I’d like to think most people hunt for food, but I know that is not always the case.  A large part of my personal support for hunting comes within the notion that the person hunting is doing so with integrity.  Gun or not, it’s my hope that respect and honor is given back to the animal when people choose to kill and eat meat.  For many Cajuns, hunting threads back to tradition.  It’s a practice that is tied to the dishes we grew up on, the food-source that brings family together.  My aunt, who has been an avid hunter for years has this to say:

Whether it is walking the fields with my family as they hunt for pheasant, or riding in a boat to help collect crawfish out of the bayous, I always return with a deep feeling of hope that this way-of-life can be sustained.  When I think of hunting, I think of a human-being spending time in a natural habitat.  Not only is this person experiencing some kind of mental quietness from being in this beautiful outdoor space, but they carry with them the added purpose of attaining food for themselves and their family to eat.  Nourishment and valuable relationships come from this food.  I believe it is equally a privilege and a right to be able to continue these practices.

It’s a discussion, really.  I can only hope that others choose to have these discussions as well.  Inside the food we eat, there are valuable connections being made…so valuable that I fear we’ll notice them when and if they’re ever gone.

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