The philosophy of food can sometimes make my brain feel like a forgotten fried egg in a smokey skillet. What is really best for the human body? Paleo, vegan, Mediterranean, raw, slow-cooked, fasting a little, fasting a lot, or just sit tight and eat right for your blood type? I think, after many years of feeling passionate and curious about food and food production, I’ve been asking the wrong question. There is no singular philosophy of food that is best for the human body. There is only that philosophy, or even lack thereof, that seems to work for our own bundle of biology. I am more certain than ever that certainty has no place in a food fight, with the one exception that fresh, real food of any kind trumps processed, industrial food every time. Otherwise, we could use far less preaching on food, and perhaps even religion, since each of us can gauge for ourselves what makes our bodies, and our souls, really sing.
There is one aspect to my own eating that is particularly sorrowful, but first I want to put it into context. I eat mostly whole grains, vegetables, and fermented dairy (yogurt, kefir, etc.), so if you’re looking for a philosophical label I suppose vegedairyan might work. But I also occasionally eat beef from our farm and fish from the sea, so, in fact, I sound like just another omnivore.
I have always gravitated to a homesteading, farming lifestyle for food production. I enjoy the work, but I am not preaching to convert. It is just an interest of mine that makes me happy. What a mess we would have, at this point, if everybody on Earth wanted to farm. But if you want to farm and eat somewhat sustainably in New England, putting animals on the rocky, grassy pastures seems like a good bet. Something to transform all of that abundant New England grass into human food for the long winter ahead. Something like a dairy cow. Something like the six dairy cows that currently graze these hilly pastures of home.
This is where the sad part comes in. When a cow freshens (gives birth), she begins lactating so her calf has the milk it needs to survive. It is a beautiful sight to see a cow with good maternal instincts standing still while her newborn stumbles to figure out the workings of her udder. It is equally beautiful to see them curled-up together in the green grass, napping hard beneath the warm sunshine. But it cannot last.
Virtually all big dairy farms, and even most of us on a small-scale, separate the calves from their mothers. The big farms do it right away, and I usually wait about a week, keeping the cow and calf in a big, clean stall in the barn. Imagine the logistical chaos if newborn calves were left with their mothers on a large farm. Getting the cows into the milking parlor would be a nightmare each day, and cows that are nursing calves don’t always let their milk down for the farmer.
My biggest reason, however, for separating the calves from their mothers, is safety. Valuable calves are easily taken by coyotes and bears, so I like the calf in a safe barn while mom is out grazing under the stars. But it is mostly my safety I’m referring to. I want the calf to bond with me, not its mother, because in two short years it will be pushing a thousand pounds with legs powerful enough to hit the delete button on my life while I’m milking her. I want her to remember all of the times I gave her a bottle with mother’s milk, all of the times I scratched her chin and led her to fresh green grass beneath the apple trees.
The only way that happens, and the only way I can easily get milk from the mother (which is my income), is to separate the mother from her calf. I do that after their week of bliss together in the barn. Mom goes back out to graze, but soon, within hours, she will start to bellow for her calf. It is the sorrowful and sometimes panicked sound of a mother who cannot find her child. I have heard it for 17 years, several times each summer, and it haunts me most at night when I’m laying in bed. My heart aches every time.
And every time I remind myself that she will get over it, and they will reunite in a few months to once again eat grass together. But the sound of that pain is a dark and empty hole in the philosophy in which I’ve chosen to eat.