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Why do they call it Father’s Day when it’s really Dads we honor?

(originally posted June 16, 2010)

I’m not being specious, there really is a difference between the two, one that goes deeper than a name. It’s Dad we will take out for brunch or dinner this Sunday, not Father. Just like it’s Dad who bought us ice cream when Mom told him we’d had enough sweets for the day. Taught us to ride a bike, then a car, for which he paid the insurance, and repairs when we had the inevitable accident forgetting in an instant all he taught us. It’s Dad who imparted a sense of security to our early lives, even if all he did was be a solid, sleeping presence down the hall.

I love dads, I love the ones I know and the idea of dadness in general. The sporty kind who shows up at school meets, the pedantic, stick in the mud kind, who, it turns out, said a bunch of stuff we try to live up to every day now that we are adults. The tinkers, the thinkers, the ones who cook, even if badly, when no one else is around to put dinner on the table. I especially love the ones who try and fail at a multitude of things in their lives, but hang in there, even when we realize, years later, that they must have been dying inside at how hard success, and sometimes just living, turned out to be.

Fathers, on the other hand, bring a whole different game to the playing field. Check it out: we have Father Time, Father Christmas, the Father of our Country (which in our case is George, but every country has one) and not last, certainly not least, Our Father Who Art In Heaven. Fathers are the big theme winners in the game of life: Time, History, Power, and Religion ~ they hold all the cards. Even old Saint Nick (his other name) the jolly, seemingly benevolent one, is a potential game changer if he deems your behavior warrants it.

These are powerful masculine entities who have controlled history and held sway over every big decision we’ve made in the civic realm from Plato on. So what compels us to call them by a declarative name which by rights should be reserved for the real flesh and blood guy who taught you to throw a soft ball? Where did the practice of calling them Father come from? Does it make the King more user friendly, less likely for us to overthrow? Strengthen our connection to God in a way that deepens it? For whose gain? Forgive me for asking these impertinent questions. One of the great things I learned from my dad was to be unceasingly suspicious.

My dad grew up in an era when good and evil were clearly delineated, where honor, not wealth, was the defining characteristic of a man. He’d gotten all the way through to his mid-30’s a bachelor, and if his life was not completely carefree ~ he supported his mother, four sisters, and a brilliant but invalid brother ~ he enjoyed a quintessential New York high life where Sinatra was the soundtrack and even dames wore gloves to dinner. An exceedingly handsome man ~ Clark Gable with less hair is how my mother once described him ~ while he played all night, he always returned home to his mama (and responsibility) in the morning. The age of Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll in which he was forced to raise his children must have presented epic questions for him, and no small amount of frustration. Short tempered when faced with what he could not control, he barked a lot around the house. But there was no bite to the man when it came to his daughters. My dad’s whole raison d’etre was to see his daughters succeed ~ a goal which required enormous sacrifices that I’m not sure he was ever amply rewarded for. That he didn’t do it for the glory made him a perfectly normal dad and totally terrific.

Which didn’t stop me from being disappointed in him when I was growing up. Historical archetypes have their doppelgangers in popular culture in a way that affects us deeply. I secretly wanted a father just like Nancy Drew's. He never meddled in her business, in fact he was conspicuously absent while she drove around the countryside (in the coupe he had given her) solving mysteries. But he always managed to arrive in the nick of time when she needed him to get her out of trouble.

Instead I was stuck with a dad who told corny jokes and yelled advice from the balcony instead of talking to me in quiet measured tones like Atticus Finch talked to Scout. That I held his lack of erudition against him is understandable, given my age. What’s sad is that even nowadays, when parental stereotypes have gone through so many changes, too often we still miss seeing our fathers for their unassuming virtues. Mine, as it turned out, was blustery but unfailingly brave in the face of moving cultural targets that loaded on financial pressures. He wasn’t Father Knows Best, because he didn’t know what was best ~ who could have in those frightening times, fraught with psychological baggage which seemed to emanate from deep global uncertainty, much like today. If he didn’t know best, he nevertheless wished for the best. Without guile or motive. From what I’ve learned of life since then, this well-spring of loyalty, this selfless pride, is one of the greatest gifts of love we have to bestow on one another.

I’ll let you in on a big secret: Most of what mothers do we do because we don’t have a choice. Instinctive or intuitive ~ it doesn’t matter why, our responses to the great challenges of motherhood are driven by something deep within us, a primordial knee jerk reaction. We can’t help ourselves. A mother doesn’t throw herself under the bus to save her child because she thinks it’s a great idea.

Though I’ve never been one, I get the feeling dads aren’t wired quite the same way. When they stick around, through thick and thin, it's elective, not because their hormones and 2,000 years of genetic imperative force them to. For the ones that do stick it, and despite what you read the large majority of them do just that ~and then some ~ it’s all about character. And choice. Which makes their roles in our lives all that more amazing, when you come to think of it.




Love Thy Neighbor

(originally posted April 14, 2010)

Our first show in the new Studio will be photographer Wil Edwards’ Art of the Rind, a series of seemingly abstract, deeply saturated color images that if you didn’t know what they were, would put you more in mind of Salvador Dalí than smoky Gouda.

Going through Wil’s portfolio this week for a B&W series that will run concurrently in the restaurant, I happened upon some strong shots of animal carcasses he had not shown me before. Their formal elegance was reminiscent of the great photographer Atget. Wil captured the sinuous and quite beautiful line of the hollowed out bodies in a truthful way, one that did not objectify the animal so much as respectfully document its life. There is, after all, a long history of artists using the dead as models and inspiration: Michelangelo, da Vinci, Delacroix.

Only his mother liked them, Wil told me. Probably not a good idea to put them in the show. Did he like them? Yes, he did. A great deal. Still, he worried about offending people, turning them off.

I’m usually not drawn to art that takes its impetus in empty provocation, but showing these elegiac images isn't touting abattoir chic. Maybe its time we asked what's up with passionate omnivores who can romanticize the animals they eat while they are frolicking in the field, but still find methods of killing and butchering a squeamish subject. A reality check is important now and again, if you eat meat.

The majority of the Big Mac eating world is only dimly aware of the current national conversation about the dangers of factory farming which books like Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and films like Food First have rightly raised. Thats cool. It will come. After that, unless you refrain from eating animal proteins on moral grounds, knowing the animals you eat lived healthy lives and were killed humanely can make a consequential difference to your appetite and the way you choose to satisfy it. One of the most important goals of Fork & Shovel ~ the sustainable farmers and chefs collaborative we worked to get started two years ago~ was to make it easier for diners in our restaurants to get honest answers when they ask the question ~ “where does this food come from?”

The fact that ethical ranching represents less than 2% of the animal proteins served to the American public does not negate the paradigm we are supporting here in our food shed with groups like Fork & Shovel and our thriving Farmers Markets. Quite the opposite.

If you haven't read Temple Grandin, or seen the TV film with Claire Danes about her, do one or the other, this is fascinating stuff.  I'm of the opinion it helps to look death in the face and honor it, and animals give us that chance, in addition to feeding us.  Most Americans can't stop gorging themselves on endless images that celebrate gratuitous violence but don't want to know how the animals they eat are being slaughtered.  Major disconnect, no?

I take heart that the recent butchery class at Relish was such a huge success.  More and more eaters (and it usually follows, good cooks) are beginning to accept the fact that you can't talk about following the food chain all the way back to the animal in a field without also accommodating the icky bits that happen in the abattoir.

On Friday when we arrived at the farm for the weekend we found we had no water in the house ~ our entire 200 gallon storage tank was empty.  We did what we could to figure out the problem but had to switch locations for dinner we had planned with our friends, Tim and Karen, of Apple Farm fame, who live just down the road.  We got to their place just as the sun was setting.  As we pulled in I saw Sophia, their daughter, at the end of a row of blooming apple trees, setting off on her evening rounds to check on and feed the animals.

The Philo Apple Farm raises only enough animals to eat and serve to their guests.  What Karen learned at the knee of her Mum, Sally, owner/chef of the original French Laundry, about food and where it comes from can't be put in a book (unless they choose to write one.  Which I wish they would).  When Charlie Palmer gifted us a whole 'leftover' pig from his Pigs n' Pinot a few years back,it was Karen I called to walk me through butchering it. I have never been squeamish, but even I was surprised by how much satisfaction I got from holding the animal and guiding the knife as it cut clean deep channels in the layers of flesh.  That same feeling of connection came back when I viewed Wil's photographs this week.

The light was fading as we tended to Sophia’s horses and moved onto the pigs, who are kept in pens that are moved around the orchards for grazing and fertilizing ~ the heart of bio dynamic farming. Animals have a crucial role to play in this family’s life that goes beyond feeding them. In the case of the magnificent Nordic draft horses Sophia is training ~ they are partners in her life’s journey. What occurred to me traipsing through the gloaming was how all of us ~ Geoff, Sophia and I, the pigs, goats, horses, dogs, & chickens ~ were all sharing the same evening. Hunger and the approaching dark had triggered in us similar concerns. Whether we were able to acknowledge it or not, we were in it together, dependent on each other, on what felt like a pretty profound level.

Before I ambled off to one of Tim’s perfect gin and tonics, I’m not sure, but I think I had a moment with the goat.

All text and photos, Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted)