In 1988, I brought my French husband home to the U.S.; as well travelled as he was for 30 years old, this would be his first trip to the States.
Shortly after our arrival, we made our first visit to the local supermarket, one of several national chains in the area we would be staying, where the butcher's counter, the fishmonger, the bakery and the deli counter were known for the excellent quality of their products, each offering a wide and delectable choice. And unlike France this was all there was; there were no markets, no butchers, etc. We strolled around, excited to see so much lovely produce as well as what to him were exotic packaged foods, and found ourselves at the meat counter. He glanced over the display: perfectly aligned Styrofoam platters each holding a perfectly cut, sliced and trimmed steak, chop or burger, each as gorgeously and evenly red as a fine bottle of Bordeaux. Clear plastic stretched across the surface of each piece of meat, displaying to, yes, perfection the item now shiny and smooth, as shiny and smooth as the waxed apples and eggplants over in the produce section. My husband turned to me, shaking his head in disappointment, and said, "You Americans really do not want to know that you are eating an animal, do you?"
And I understood my husband's consternation and concern. Wander through any market in France, from small farmer's markets out in the country to our own large city markets, and it is not only sliced and trimmed meat that is on display: rabbits and poultry are laid out in all their glory, rabbits skinned but whole, chickens as well, right down to their feet and right up to their beaks, crests and plumes. Simply ask for a bird and watch the butcher whack off feet and head and dig out the innards and then burn off the feathers still clinging to the body right before your very eyes. Then wander by the butcher -- normally chickens, hens, quail, etc. and rabbits are sold by a different person, my Chicken Man, I call him -- and see lambs stretched out from neck to tail, stare eye to eye with a pig's head and peep in the chambre froide to see whole sides of beef. Fish are scaled, gutted and cleaned as ordered and sold. The provenance of each bird or beast, often right down to the farm, is marked on the label. The French still see exactly where their meat comes from with neither reserve nor distaste.
A friend of mine recently wrote a very wise and thoughtful piece on her blog about where our meat comes from and how most Americans are completely disconnected from the source of their food. She points out that "it is one thing to pick your own strawberries or buy green beans and fresh corn at the local Farmer's Market, but (it is) very different when you talk about where that New York Strip Steak or pork loin came from." These thoughts arose when she was invited to accompany a local farmer as she brought a cow to slaughter. Although raised as my friend was, as are many Americans, by a father who hunted, the family eating what he caught, this trip to the slaughterhouse was still disturbing, saddened as she was by having seen the cow alive in the pasture with her "companion" only a short time before.
Yet, she correctly points out, knowing the kind of life this one animal led, how she was raised, sheltered and fed filled her not only with respect for the beef that ended up on her plate, but comforted her that what she was eating was better for her.
Should we know where our food comes from and should we let our children in on the secret? Cuddly lambs end up as chops, Thanksgiving turkey comes from the barnyard and hamburgers may have been Bessy the Cow. Yet, with the news that pink slime is rampant and can be found everywhere, the worry that American beef is pumped up with hormones and who knows what else, that chickens are bred in horrifying conditions, maybe it is time Americans are taught where the food on their plates comes from, how the animals are raised and bred, fed and slaughtered. We too often accept whatever is placed before us on our plate, yet as my friend so eloquently stated, seeing the source of our meat, making that connection with the animals in the field and on the farm gives us more of a respect for and understanding of -- and makes us not so complacent about -- what we put on our tables, in our bodies and what we feed our families.
The French, along with their children, even if never having visited a farm, see the animals turned into dinner right before their very eyes and seem none the worse for wear. And, being closer to the source of their food, they seem to take better care about what goes into the food that they eat.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.