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Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Lots of dreams last night, very few details remain. Only that I went to the Ballet to see a wonderful dancer. My dreams were also peopled with numberless people, all of them faceless and nameless: they were always in the other room.

The news are not exactly cozy and fun today. So, they're going to be cloning our food, are they? Another reason to go vegetarian.

When I was a small child, and I always mean by that the time frame that ends when my mother was killed, we had a chicken coop behind the house where we lived. We also had rabbits, and raised turkeys for year-end festivities, but the chickens were my ongoing, daily responsibility.

There are two kinds of hens, those that lay eggs and those that like to sit on eggs, to hatch them. These last are called brooding hens. Sometimes a laying hen becomes broody, you notice a change of behavior over time, and it's usually best to humor her: you can fool mother nature with human beings, it's much harder with a hen.

A hen might become broody at about any time during the year, so it sometimes happened that we had to make room in the kitchen for a freshly hatched batch of little chicks, which we corralled underneath a large sort of cheese cover, one of those net thinggies one puts over a plate of cheese to keep the flies off, only this was a much bigger, specially made affair, constructed with chicken wire, and was designed to keep the fluffy little chicken balls from under our feet.

My job in the chicken run was to release the hens into the garden each morning, and my mother's instruction was "after they had laid their eggs". I had observed the hens' behavior; I had noticed that not every hen laid an egg every day; I had also sometimes come across eggs laid in far-flung corners of the garden, outside the hen house, the problem would always be the question: "How long ago? Was the egg still fit for human consumption?"; it was a problem for me to ponder.

I thought about it, and devised my own method of sorting the hens: I simply goosed them with my little finger, if there was an egg coming down the pike, they stayed in; if there was no egg, they were let out.

Nobody ever asked me what my system was. Actually, my experience as a child was that nobody ever asked me any questions at all, either about what was going on, or how I was feeling, or why I did certain things: it almost seemed to me that I was invisible and didn't exist, until I got into trouble that is, when all hell would break loose. People talked to me to tell me what to do and what not to do, and on the other hand, they blamed me and punished me for whatever I had done that I wasn't supposed to do, or for not doing what I was supposed to do. As far as I could see, that was about all the communication I was entitled to.

Anyway, I had a very cozy relationship with all our hens, they were all my friends, they each of them had a name, and they all let me catch them and handle them without any fuss at all.

What happened in the real world outside this idyllic relationship, in the grown-ups' world, was that you only need so many brooding hens in a hen coop, just as you only need one cock. There was a matter of an economic balance to be kept: how many eggs got produced for the cost of the grain purchased. My mother kept tabs, she allowed for seasonal fluctuations, but a hen that stopped laying completely eventually ended up in the soup pot.

I was never consulted. My mother in fact made sure that she executed the deed during one of my regular absences from the house. (I can imagine it now, "Quick! She's gone! Get me the knife!"). It wasn't that I was a quick learner, I just didn't really trust anybody, I knew they all lied, and dissembled, and dissimulated the truth. Whenever there was soup, I would pick over the contents, looking for the telltale evidence, the tiny scrap of chicken skin, and then it was: "Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Who is it now?" Followed by great sobs of grief.

"No, No," my mother would protest. She couldn't possibly deny "chicken". "It's not one of ours..."

But it wouldn't fly, I knew and she knew that the every next morning, I would do roll call and discover just who had been in that pot, I would have proof that my mother had lied to me.

So, I would just refuse to eat when it was chicken soup. It wasn't easy to get me to the table.

One day, I came into the kitchen and asked my mother for some eggs. "Eggs?" She said, startled, "What for?"

"I feel broody," I answered.

"What do you mean?"

"I want to make a nest and sit on them and hatch them."

I don't know whether my mother thought this was funny or not, but she denied me the eggs. She gave me perfectly good reasons. It took a long time to hatch eggs (How long? I was sure if a hen could find the time I could too; I certainly had as much patience as a hen); it was difficult to hatch eggs (How difficult could it be? If a hen could sit on eggs without breaking them, I certainly could be just as gentle); hatching eggs was a suitable occupation for a hen, not for a little girl (What do you mean? I just want to know first-hand how it feels to be a hen and hatch chickens). There was nothing doing, my mother refused the eggs.

"Okay," I backed down, "Can I have some potatoes instead?"

I don't know whether my mother thought this was funny or not, but she gave me some potatoes without any question. I took them to the hen house, made myself a nest with a canvass sack, arranged my potatoes in the center and sat myself down on top, clucking hen-like in joyful expectancy.

After a while, I noticed the hen house was dark and dusty, rather smelly too. All the hens, all of life, was outside. It was lonely and stuffy in there. My mother was right: time was long for a broody hen hatching eggs. It also occurred to me that the whole boring experience was useless anyway, because I was sitting on potatoes, not eggs, and they would never, ever hatch. I decided the experiment was conclusive, picked myself up, packed up my nest and returned the potatoes to the kitchen. My mother never said a word.

In spite of this negative experience, I'm clearly a brooding hen, not a laying hen.

Well, this was going to be a post about food generally, but I started by asking myself how I feel generally, about food, and the memories flooded in.

I am quite obviously conflicted about food because I am a bleeding heart about animals, and yet I still enjoy eating meat, fish and fowl, every so often.

On the other hand, if you are going to be squeamish about the taking of life for food let's face it, even vegetables have life; even a bean or a grain of rice is something's "next generation".

Making everything a Franken food will not change anything. It will only result in food that could not possibly, if it remained alive, produce a new generation of itself. For instance a genetically modified grain does not produce its own next generation of seeds, you have to go back to the "manufacturer", not a mere "supplier, to get next year's planting. So, all you have done is put control of foods into the hands of a few, a corporate entity, instead of leaving it in the hands of the producers, the farmers, who usually allow a portion of their crops to "run to seed" to provide for the next season's seeds.

At the same time, you have reduced diversity, quite an important factor, as long as there is both geographic and climatic diversity in the world.

The big problem is that the huge number of people who live in cities do not have anything to do with the production of food, most of the time they don't know how to grow anything, or even when it would be appropriate to grow it, the most they know, and sometimes not even that, is how to prepare it to put on the table. Nobody seems to be very bothered by the fact that some of these beautiful, "super" fruit and vegetables, that look so good on the shelves of the supermarkets, don't taste half as good as those scrawny little wilted, pockmarked and funny-shaped things that grow without any help from science.

The only thing I can say is that we should not take any part of this beautiful, mystical world for granted.

This morning, I noticed outside 310 (I keep saying 340, but it's 310) that the leaves of the cyclamen have finally come up, just a little over a month after the flowers. How wonderful! I suppose that now the little plants are fully established and we can have cyclamen all winter. I'm curious to see what temperatures they can bear.

Now that I have quarters, I really must go do the wash.

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