Sports Column by Matt Dickerson: Appreciating our autumn harvest
I was at a dinner event this week with about 20 people. We gathered around a large table. As often happens, there were several conversations going on during the meal, and then again after the meal as we mingled in different groups as guests slowly rose and prepared to depart. Two of the conversations I took part in were prompted by very different topics and involved different people, but took an interesting turn toward a common theme.
The first conversation started out about college dining hall food, but became about food and meals and cooking more generally. One of the young women at the table got our attention when she announced that she remembered her favorite meal of all time. I was curious what it would be. A meal at a famous restaurant, perhaps? Or some unique cuisine in another country? Or, with Thanksgiving quickly approaching — and thinking about my own wonderful memories of family Thanksgiving gatherings — I wondered if perhaps her memory was of a family gathering.
All three guesses were wide of the mark, and her story took me by surprise.
The meal did take place on a different continent, but that wasn’t the main point. If I heard correctly, it was while she was on an outdoor adventure and leadership program in a mountainous country. It might have been in the Andes. What I heard clearly, though, was that the meal was sheep stew. Mutton. And what made it memorable was not the flavor of stew in particular, or any spices, but the fact that the sheep was alive shortly before the meal. The group had to kill the sheep, then clean it, butcher it, cook it, and eat it.
Although this is less the case in rural places like Vermont, most people in our country today grow up without any direct contact with the sources of our meat — or even, more generally, the sources of any aspect of our meals. We buy our meat at the supermarket deli, a few feet down the aisle from where we buy our imported fruits and vegetables, mass-produced breads, and our prepackaged, highly processed breakfast cereals.
The young woman — a Middlebury college student — said it was a life changing experience to have that connection to the source of her food, to an animal that lost its life so that other animal could eat. She was not grossed out by the process. Rather, she was fully engaged. She felt a connection to her food she had never known before. It will forever change the way she eats.
I suppose it was, in a sense, a Thanksgiving meal. But not the kind I had in mind.
The second conversation was about hunting. One of the other attendees at the dinner was an avid hunter, and somebody I’ve spoken with in the past about outdoor sports. And so, since this previous weekend was opening day of deer season, we fell to talking about our experiences on Saturday. Where we had gone, how long we had hunted, and whether we had seen anything. This led to remembrances of how we got into the sport hunting, and why we hunted in the types of places we hunted.
Another of the attendees overheard bits of our conversation and asked if we were talking about hunting and whether or not we hunted. She didn’t hunt herself, but she was curious about why we hunted. Or, at least, she was polite as we two hunters launched immediately into one of those long, passionate — and, if you are not a hunter, probably boring — explanations of why we go out into the woods and try to harvest a deer.
Part of it is the enjoyment of the peace and quiet of the woods: the sense of meditation when you sit quietly for hours, with a profoundly deep awareness of the woods around you, and all its life. The squirrels rooting around in the leaves, or leaping from branch to branch. Woodpeckers tapping up a nearby tree. A distant cluck of turkeys gathering themselves in the early morning light. The sough of wind through the last few leaves clinging tenaciously to the oak and beech. The screech of a passing hawk. The single bleat of a fawn.
Especially the bleat of a fawn, that is almost certainly near a doe, that may be the object of the amorous affections of a wandering buck.
But there is another pleasure of hunting and it is very much like the pleasure of that memorable meal of very fresh mutton stew I had heard about earlier in the evening. Or like the pleasure of lightly steamed pea pods freshly picked from the garden. It is the knowledge of where a meal comes from, and the participation in that, even though it requires the spilling of blood — an act which itself may bring no pleasure at all.
It is the connection to our food that seems to prompt a greater sense of just how wonderful it is, and just how much we have to be thankful for. Like the pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving meal of fresh garden maize and wild local free-range organic antibiotic-free venison harvested from the woods some four centuries ago. However apocryphal the details of that story might be, I know the sense of thankfulness and connectedness is absolutely true.