In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s autumn, and this year our Tasmanian autumn is vicious. She is hurling wind and sleet at us, stinging our cheeks and numbing our fingers as we move through the garden, picking the few flowers the gales haven’t destroyed and fumbling to tie string around bunches of turnips with our unfeeling digits. Trees are blowing down, my cabbage plants have been torn to shreds, and our farm has become an icy marsh.
Ten years ago I was pregnant with my first daughter. I had the luxury of a cheap mortgage on a tiny house and a pretty piece of land. I had a partner with a good job who could pay the bills while I swanned about buying vintage baby jumpers and bemoaned my maternal weariness. I’d been working an idyllic job at a plant nursery, growing plants from the Tasmanian wilderness for years, but with a baby in my swelling belly I yearned to stay close to home and to grow more food. The anticipation of bringing a child into the world ignited a desire in me for purity and nutrition, and instilled a sense of my responsibility to the environment.
I imagined the life ahead of me. I would wear a huge straw hat and white linen shirt. A horde of impossibly beautiful blond, curly-haired children would frolic in the garden while I harvested barrow-loads of pretty heirloom vegetables in gentle autumn sunshine. I imagined growing special things for my chef partner to take to the restaurant we’d fantasized about opening in the city, and the picnics we’d have in the paddocks on our weekends off. I left my job, and my generous boss gave me some money so that I could build a fence to keep marauding wallabies out of a little vegetable farm I started at home.
Not surprisingly, things have turned out a little differently than that deluded fantasy. The kids are beautiful, but not curly-headed, and there are only two of them. They don’t frolic in the garden so much as try to hide inside, playing computer games until I chase them out, where they then chuck all of my firewood in the dam, hide plastic dinosaurs in my seedling pots, and steal the carrots I’ve grown for a chef’s order to feed them to the pigs. At this time of year, my garden is a quagmire of vegetables threatened by slugs and swamp hens that defy every effort we take to fence them out. Rather than opening his own restaurant, my partner is now a full-time farmer, and days off for picnics are a distant dream, with weekends taken up spruiking at farmers’ markets and mending irrigation pipes.
But, despite all the hardships, we are making food. On a bit of land that most people around here would fill with car bodies or use to house a miserable sheep that would keep the grass down, we are growing enough food to pay our mortgage, keep our little family fed, and supply a lot of locals and chefs. This morning those two straight-haired kids were home from school with sore throats, lounging around by the fire, chewing on sticks of marshmallow root and sucking spoonfuls of raw honey. It was 39ºF, the wind was gusting at thirty-five miles an hour, and my partner and I were picking to a deadline for the restaurants we supply in Hobart. I’d lost all feeling in my fingers after bunching the tenth bunch of turnips, and there was still a heap of kale, radishes, achocha, and tomatillos to gather. My iPod was providing a depressing Tony Joe White soundtrack to this wet, muddy misery, and by mid-morning I found myself kneeling in the radishes with tears in my eyes from the stinging wind, the ache in my back, my lost fingers, and the seemingly insurmountable task ahead of me. I crouched in the mud, wiping my eyes with filthy hands, and looked up to see my seven-year-old beside me.
“Mum,” she said as she jumped in a puddle between the rows, splashing my harvest with mud, “The lady from The Sound of Music wouldn’t worry about the cold. She’d enjoy the wind on her face and sing!” She’d come out from her sick bed to point out the double rainbows in the southern sky, and was now racing up and down the rows, all pink cheeks and tangled hair, stooping now and then to drink icy rain from little pools that had collected in the leaves of cauliflower plants—surely the very best medicine for a sore throat. She gathered the kale leaves that the swamp hens had pecked, too damaged to sell but perfectly good for her lunch, and headed inside to make her favorite massaged kale salad.
Perspective and honesty are the two biggest gifts my daughters give me. We raise pigs and chickens here, and for their entire lives the girls have known that roosters and spent hens are killed and that pigs only stick around from spring until their harvest in winter. As a result, the girls understand that enjoyment of meat and affection for animals are not mutually exclusive. A few months back, our Rhode Island Red hen hatched a son. We named this tiny yellow boy-chick Sunny and watched him grow from a tiny ball of fluff to a sleek, red-feathered fighting machine. He leaped fences at will, crowed outside bedroom windows at four in the morning, and attacked anyone who came near him. Rhode Island Red roosters are utter bastards.
Nevertheless, our ten-year-old was attached to him, and wept when we carried him off to the woodshed to meet his destiny. Once I’d plucked and gutted him, I carried him back to the house to chill. My daughter caught sight of his body, covered in that luscious yellow fat only vegetable-fed poultry has, and said, “Yum.” We made pies and soup that she ate with gusto and said she wished Sunny weren’t evil and could have lived, but that he was delicious. The girls are eager to help with the plucking, saving the prettiest feathers for pasting onto schoolwork. They name the internal organs as I pull them from the bird. They don’t know squeamishness, and happily scoop hearts and livers, still warm from the bird, into a pan of butter heated over the same fire we used to heat the plucking water—then eat them, crusty on the outside and bloody in the middle, on slabs of toast. They have learned the price of food. They know if you kill an animal you’ve cared for, you enjoy its innards, strip every scrap of flesh, render the golden fat, and make broth from bones, necks, and feet.
Now there is a cock quail in our kitchen. My eldest daughter raised him from a chick for her quail-egg business, but he’s become a psychopath with a penchant for scalping female birds, and his destiny lies in a recipe she’s found for grilling quail in a sandwich press. Until our orders are picked and delivered and we have the time to harvest this little guy, she’s showing him around the house and letting him peck at crumbs on the carpet. She will cry a little when he dies, but she knows we can’t keep such a violent bird. She will help pluck and cook him, and, I’m pretty sure, she will enjoy nibbling the meat from his tiny delicious bones after he’s done his time in the sandwich press. Some may call me a harsh mother, but I think there is value in this, in teaching little ones to think, to taste, to revere, and to know what is on their plate, and exactly how it got there.