Brains for Supper

            If I think about my dad, I can picture him.

            He’s standing at the kitchen sink, slightly hunched over as he rinses the brains with cold running water. He washes them carefully, cutting away the protective membrane and placing the fleshy bits on a clean plate.

            He’s in a good mood, and jokes with me as he prepares a frying pan. “You don’t want any of these, do you? I think I’ll just eat them all.”

            Of course I wanted some. We had just butchered a market-weight steer on the farm that day, and I had been looking forward to the ultimate delicacy. Plus, we had gone out hunting for wild asparagus. Dad had already washed and cut up a bunch of stalks. The bright-green chunks were tossed on a plate of their own, like a tiny mound of firewood. A healthy slab of butter sizzled as Dad prepped the frying pan. I waited patiently at the dinner table, savoring the meal to come. Looking back, it is only with hindsight that I appreciate how this little scene would so significantly define certain aspects of my upbringing.

            Butchering was always a part of the farm – at least back then.

            As early as I can remember, Grandpa would select a hog and process the meat into homemade ring bologna. He did it in his workshop. He had all of his own equipment. I remember coming home from grade school, disappointed to have missed the occasion. By the time school was let out, the process was already done. The dogs gnawed on scraps, and the shop ceiling bristled with hanging sausage rings. I remember the spicy aroma, like chorizo in an old-world open-air market. One ring, with sides, could feed our family of six for supper. On occasion, my mother would grind them into sandwich meat for our lunches.

            Grandpa died in 1991. No one had thought to write down the recipe or procedure. He also made his own wine. After my grandpa passed, his old wine barrels got cut in half to make flower planters, and his sausage-making equipment sat in a corner to collect dust.

            After Grandpa died, we starting raising beef on the farm. Once or twice a year we would pick a steer for our own consumption. More often than not, the meat would get divided between several buyers – friends, neighbors, or relatives. Throughout the 1990s I looked forward to when we would butcher, not in a bloodthirsty, macabre, or demeaning way – quite the opposite. It was a process that, even as a kid, I felt was respectful of the animal. I learned so much about animal physiology during this process, that by the time I studied it in high school, the subject was a review.

            Butcher Day went something like this:

            A beat-up old square-body pickup truck pulled into the driveway. The bed was filled with 50-gallon plastic drums with lids. The truck parked, and a short, stocky man got out. For the sake of this blog, we are going to call him Vincent.

            I always looked up to Vincent. I remember him as a kind and methodical man, short but powerful, and patient enough to placate a never-ending stream of questions from a kid who shadowed him as he did his work.

            My dad and Vincent worked together to separate one of the steers from the group. From the animal’s perspective, the day was just like any other, except for one small detail – suddenly a gate was opened, and we walked out of the barn into a corral around the corner, and then it was over. A single shot split the air, and the animal dropped. I never liked that part, but it was always done quickly and efficiently, with as little disruption or stress to the animal as possible.

            We lifted the 1,200-pound carcass with a hoist, and Vincent slit the throat so the blood could run out. There was always a lot of blood. While the carcass hung and the blood drained, every once in awhile a foot would twitch, and I remember asking if the animal was still alive.

            “Oh no, those are just reflexes” was the patient, calm reply. And then, he went to work. I watched, fascinated, as Vincent skinned and eviscerated the carcass. He taught as he worked, and even went to the trouble to show me the different compartments of the stomach, the lining of the intestines, and the chambers of the heart. None of this work was done cruelly, or with the slightest hint of morbid mutilation. Rather, I always walked away with a profound sense of respect. I learned how the animal ate, and how food passed through the gut. I saw how the heart pumped blood. I saw how fat was deposited and stored throughout the body, and learned about joints, muscle structure, and respiration.

“The animal” was no longer an anonymous commodity.

            From a 1,200-pound steer, nothing went to waste. Vincent took the various cuts and packed them into the clean plastic drums, to be further processed off-site. He loaded the hide, the guts, and left little more than a coagulated puddle of blood. The delicacies stayed on the farm. My grandmother took the liver, heart, and tongue, and even the brains were carefully removed. By the time Vincent’s dented square-body pulled out of the driveway, the dogs were amusing themselves with a few scraps, and the other steers had long since resumed their daily routine. By the same time the next day, even the gelatinous puddle would be licked clean.

            And then it all changed.

            Around the late 1990s, Vincent stopped coming to the farm. Rather, when it was time to butcher, Dad and I separated a steer, loaded it onto a trailer, and hauled it across the county to be slaughtered in a state-inspected facility. I began to feel sorry for the steer. They all knew something was wrong when the trailer backed up to the corral. And then the ride – the trailer bounced down the highway at speeds inconceivable to the animal, and arrived at a strange place with strange sights and smells.

            The process had changed, and I could see in the animals’ eyes that they knew it, too.

            I asked Dad why we did it differently and he responded, “Well, in order to sell meat it needs to be processed in a state-inspected facility.” I asked him, why don’t we just ignore the rules and do it on the farm anyway? Quietly and matter-of-factly he responded:

            “I don’t want the liability.”

            Slowly but methodically, everything began to change. Little by little, the physiology of our farm began to erode. No more on-site butchering, which meant no more Vincent. Foot-and-mouth disease broke out in the early 2000s, because who would have thought that feeding animal byproducts to herbivores could lead to negative side effects? At least that’s what us little guys quietly remarked to one another.

            In 2017, my wife and I had an idea that was so simple and so rudimentary, that my grandparents would laugh at it if they were still alive. In looking at the future of American Agriculture, and the growing divide between producers and consumers, we thought – why not just invite people out to the farm so they can see what we do? Certainly there is a need for transparency in farming; according to Business Insider, just 1.3 percent of the US population was involved in production agriculture as of May 30, 2019.

            So, we did. Only, there was a problem – liability. I explained to our insurance provider what we wanted to do. At the notion of guests interacting with horses, trying their hand at milking a cow, or bottle-feeding a baby calf, providers balked. Some of the big nation-wide companies would not even return my call. They didn’t want the liability. In the end, a special policy had to be written, just for us. The underwriter actually came out to the farm, and our premium more than tripled in order to accommodate the liability.

            A representative from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection visited our farm for the mandatory licensing inspection. She was quite friendly and helpful, and it was a pleasant visit. Upon completing the inspection she remarked, “Wait – you’re not going to be serving food out here, are you?” I explained that maybe someday we would work toward that goal, but certainly not right now. After all, I don’t want the liability.

            Here’s something crazy to ponder: Here we are, in the state of Wisconsin, the Dairy State, America’s Dairyland. It is easier to get raw-fish sushi in Wisconsin, than it is to go to a dairy farm like ours and get milk. As we are seeing in the news and headlines, it is better to dump milk onto the ground, than give it to consumers. Which makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, no farmer in their right mind wants the liability.

            Wait – did you hear that? There’s that word again. I’ve used it repeatedly, and you probably didn’t even notice, but here it is again – liability.

            Tell me, what exactly is “liability”? Is it “responsibility”? Is it a debt or obligation? Is it accountability?

            Let’s look at liability a different way. What if “Liability” simply meant “Redistribution”?

            Here’s what I mean – if you want to kill the entrepreneurial spirit, just mention the word “liability”. If you want to suppress innovation, originality, or even connectivity, just threaten “liability”. If you want to overwhelm the little guy and make sure he stays little, just lean back in your chair in your plaque-studded office, roll your eyes heavenward, and with a heavy sigh remark, “Liability.”

            Of course, I am not suggesting that one should escape accountability for bad actions, or there should be no reprieve for damaging behavior, quite the opposite. I think people should be held accountable for their own actions, and the risks they inherently take.

            Because, that’s the beauty of liability – there is literally no way to define where it ends. In absolutely no way can risk be eliminated from life. The only question is, who takes the blame? In the most ironic paradox of all, in some cases, God takes the blame for liability. Literally, a faith-based spiritual entity can actually be held accountable in a United States courtroom, which is the most prestigious and inalienable setting that the human mind can concieve, and this is known as a force majeure clause. Not sure what that means? Don’t feel bad – you’re not supposed to. Plus, it’s French.

            Liability is just another word for Redistribution. If we take that concept to the extreme, it is easy to envision a society that is completely shut down and immobile. Well, except for Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Amazon, Disney, Apple, or Google.

            What if you’re not any of those, and you just want to connect with people? What if you just want to feed people and let them go on horsie rides and teach them what you do? Good luck with the liability.

            They say that if you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will instantly jump out. However, if you put a frog in a pot of warm water and turn up the heat, the frog will boil to death before it realizes what is happening.

            In so many ways, the statement about the frog defines precisely what has happened to the concept of farming. It used to be that a farm served the purpose of feeding and providing sustenance to the people it was connected to. Not any more – so distant is the consumer from the producer, that we don’t even do school tours anymore. You have a better chance of running into an astronaut on the streets of Manhattan, than you do a farmer. Certainly, my grandparents would not recognize farming if they were alive today.

            Maybe the disconnect that is so apparent between producers and consumers has something to do with the division in America? After all, people generally fear that which they don’t understand. Maybe the great American divide is not by accident.

            As for my childhood memory, dinner is served. Dad offloads the frying pan onto two plates. One is for me and the other is for him. He takes the lion’s share. He sets the plates down and grabs a newspaper. I wait for him before I take a bite.

            You may ask, how does it taste? Did I seriously eat brains as a kid, or is that just a metaphor? Did I make that up just so I could invent a click-bait title?

            Well, I would tell you, but I don’t want the liability. But I will say this: If Dad had gone through a drive-through and slapped down a bag of processed food that he purchased with a credit card while flipping on the TV, would it make the story more comfortable?