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A Meditation on Roast Chicken

PUBLISHED: June 30, 2010
very cute chicken
By Lluís Gerard / CC

For at least a decade now, meals at my dad’s house have begun with a short grace, of Buddhist origin: Thank you for this food, the work of many hands and the sharing of other forms of life. Neither my dad nor my step-mom are Buddhist, but they adhere strongly to the practice of saying this grace and I can understand why. Unlike other pre-meal offerings of thanks, this grace is quick, tangible, and profound. Mixing a reverence for life, labor, and the natural world, it could just as well be a slogan for the Slow Food movement. These words have been on my mind recently, after eating a particularly tasty roast chicken—rubbed with fresh herbs and butter—whose life, death, and afterlife I was able to observe from close range.

This chicken, a three-pound Red Ranger raised on fresh pasture and organic feed, grew up with a hundred and forty nine of its cousins at Dinner Bell Farm. Founded just a few months ago by my friends Cooper, Marina, Molly, and Paul, Dinner Bell Farm resides in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Although I have for many years done my best to buy organic produce and sustainable meat, to shop at farmers’ markets and support local producers, this was the first time I knew the many hands whose work produced the meal, the first time I felt attached to those other forms of life I was sharing.

I’ve known Cooper since I was eight. While I don’t think he wanted to be a farmer back then, the dream of Dinner Bell Farm has been percolating for a long time. Imagining our future selves,  those strange people with careers and spouses and mortgages, Cooper was always a farmer, and I always a writer. He was drawn to his vocation, I think, by many of the same reasons I was drawn to mine: the noble simplicity of the work, the slow accumulation of knowledge, the many hours of hard, solitary labor, and an end product others can enjoy. There were other jobs along the way, but the dream farm was always there. And now the dream is real. After years of preparation and planning—including a year at UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems and a range of apprenticeships—the four of them took the plunge, lit out into the country and founded Dinner Bell Farm.

Seeing the chickens as newborn balls of fuzz, watching them preening about their enclosure, and talking to Cooper about the details of their life cycle—their arrival one morning at the Chicago Park post office, the mobile slaughter unit, the construction of the silo, the constant fear of predators—all this contributed to the richness of the meal that was the chicken’s afterlife. Just as a bottle of wine or an antique chair is enhanced by knowledge of its production and provenance, food is enriched by knowledge of its past, by a sustained meditation on the life it once was and a reverence for all the work, the many hands, that brought it to the table.

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