When I was a boy my family was always on the move. In the 1950s and ’60s we lived at numerous locations in the city of Toronto, but most of our time was spent on various rented farms and small properties in the nearby countryside.
My parents were of pioneer stock, born and bred to a certain way of life and whenever possible when we arrived at any property that was large enough for a garden, the first order of business was to dig the shovels out of the 1949 Ford sedan that served as our moving van and set to work spading.
Grace was never said at our table but, at certain times of year, my mother would replace it with the following dedication: “Just look at the table, kids. Everything you see is something we have grown or raised ourselves.” She most definitely had a green thumb and with her expertise and a bit of hard labour from me and my seven sisters, for a precious time each season, the family dined high off the hog. It wasn’t just an expression; we did keep pigs and chickens, so in addition to nurturing the garden, we were forced to face what was involved in raising the critters and then converting them to food. Being the only boy in the family, convention of the time deemed that I should be in charge of feeding and looking after the livestock while my father was away working. Knowing what they were destined for, try as I might, I couldn’t establish a distance between me and my charges.
“Bring us three or four of those fryers for supper,” my mother would say when I arrived home from school. I would reluctantly comply, but having forced myself to do something I hated, I would insist that my sisters take care of the plucking and cleaning. Sensing that I was upset with what I had done, they would chide me and call me a sissy.
I endured, personally dispatching the odd chicken, but when it came time to add pork to the menu, my participation was unthinkable. It’s difficult not to see piglets as pets, but when they grew into a marketable hog size I knew their fate was sealed. Everybody in the family was excited about the prospects of a roast pork feast when the time came around—everybody except me. I managed some excuse to be at the far end of our pasture on the day that Dad attended to the necessary.
One of my less sensitive sisters who had read the recently published Charlotte’s Web had christened our pig Wilbur to make me even more uncomfortable than I already was about an animal that had become a secret friend and confidant. Now, when, once in a while, my wife Andrea announces to our assembled family that all or most of the food on the table is homegrown, my mind goes back to that day in the 1950s. Mom made her usual announcement about the homegrown bounty, including the wonderful recently acquired pork, and then set about passing a large platter of steaming pork chops around the table.
When all of our plates were full, everybody at the table sat waiting, looking at me. I sensed that some conspiracy was afoot but undaunted I dug my fork into my pork chop. At that my sister seated nearest to me let out a blood-curdling imitation of a pig squeal and everybody started laughing. It wasn’t funny to me; I pushed my plate aside, left the table and went outside for a cry.
It took a lot of coaxing and the promise of an extra big piece of my mother’s pumpkin pie to get me back to the table. I remain a carnivore, but unlike most folks these days, I do not see meat as just something that lives in plastic packages in supermarket refrigerators.