On our way up to Toronto, where I had to interview police for a story, we stopped off to visit our friends Mark and Cheryl in the Catskills. Mark, a lawyer, and Cheryl, who works in communications for a foundation, used to live in a basement apartment in the East Village but decided to pack in city living and move to the country. They bought an 1870s farmhouse and have since acquired three cows, 50 hens, a rooster, and 11 turkeys. The raccoons came uninvited.
They get up every morning at 6.30 a.m. to milk the cow, let the hens out of the hen-house and draw out the turkeys, each of which will only move if the whole pack decides to go. They’re quite a democratic bunch.
Between the animals, a lush, extensive vegetable garden, and a maple trees full of sap out front, Mark and Cheryl are now self-sustaining. They get their milk from the cow and use it to make their own cheese, yogurt, butter and ice cream. They get eggs from the hens — about 8 a day. They get fresh tomatoes, string beans, potatoes, onions, garlic, lettuce and corn from their vegetable garden — the potatoes apparently last through to March. They’re fattening up their young calf with buckets of cow’s milk so they can kill him for veal. And come thanksgiving, they, and 10 of their best customers, will have fresh turkey. Mark has even learned how to butcher them himself. He told me how, although I don’t remember much past, “…turn them upside down to drain the blood…”
When we arrived at the farm, we saw there had been a little mishap. Several weeks earlier, the mother cow had backed Mark into a wall, crushing his wrist. He’d been in a cast for several weeks and still had a while before he’d have use of it again. In the meantime, Cheryl was on milking duty, though they wound up buying a pumping machine to make it easier.
That wasn’t the only issue. They’d also bought some chicks, who were now young hens, and they weren’t mixing well with the old hens (at 30 months, the “old” hens ruled the roost). To make matters worse, a rooster, who hung out with the young hens, seemed to think the old hens had a rooster of their own, even though they didn’t. It was a figment of his paranoid imagination. Still, he felt threatened and kept his group away, restricting them to just a corner of the yard all day. They had so little access to the food, Mark had to sprinkle seed on the ground in their corner of the yard — even though hens don’t like to eat that way — just to make sure they got enough to eat.
I never realized what a rigid pecking order hens have. It’s worse than high school, or jail. Those at the top of the heirarchy get first dibs on everything: where to stand, where to sit, when and how much they want to eat — everyone else eats after them — and which nesting box they want to roost in (as in apartment buildings and hotels, the higher, the better). The only thing that upsets the pecking order is when Mark steps in and punishes one of the hens for eating out of the garden. The violating hen, regardless of their rank, is thrown into the penalty box: a nesting box that is fully enclosed. Some hens have stayed in there for weeks at a time, if they showed no sign of remorse.
“Soon, all 50 of the birds — the new ones and the old ones — will be under the rooster’s wing. And they’ll go where he wants them to go –which is where I want them to go,” Mark said. And then, apparently reconsidering what he had said, he added, “I just want the eggs.”
There had already been a catastrophe in the hen house a few weeks earlier. Ten birds were ‘lost to predation,” as Mark put it. It’s a fancy way of saying they were eaten by raccoons. Mark killed two of the raccoons and caught a third in a “Have-a-Heart” type trap, though Mark apparently lost the instructions.
“What kind of people catch things like raccoons and skunk and then release them near someone else’s yard?” he said. “No, you take the trap and put the whole thing in the water and drown the fucker.”
We watched Mark and Cheryl milk the cow and feed the animals. I helped Cheryl collect eggs from the nesting boxes and pick string beans for dinner. By dusk, I was ravenous. Cheryl put out some pickled string beans and fresh-baked bread that was toasted and covered with a buttery home-made chicken liver pate. If not for the need to show a little decorum, I would have eaten the whole plate myself. As it was, for every piece of toast Bruce ate, I had three (I’d already finished off the string beans). But then he and Mark were preoccupied, smoking cigars and drinking mojitos, while I sucked on a seltzer.
Just before dinner, they pulled out a bottle of the raw cow’s milk for us to taste. I wanted to have some, but I declined, knowing that “unpasteurized” and “unhomogenized” were definitely among the foods I was not supposed to eat.
“Why?” Mark asked. “It’s healthy.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Botulism. Tetanus. syphilis. I don’t remember, but basically, I think bacteria can grow in it, and that poses a risk to the fetus.”
“Nonsense,” Mark said.
I sort of agreed with him, not just because I questioned the health hazards of something as natural as milk — and I saw how sanitary their milking process was — but because I come from a long line of shit -stirrers and scofflaws, who break the rules, little rules, for sport. Rather than signing his name, my father used to sign my sick notes for school in an unintelligible script that said, “This is bullshit.” He would go through red lights late at night, if no one was watching, throw handfuls of pennies into the toll booth basket to make it look like he’d deposited the right amount of change, and he refused to stop at stop signs if they were posted next to a speed bump. “They should have one or the other,” he would say.
One time, my parents were playing Pictionary against my siblings, and the word everyone had to guess was “coconut.” It was an “All Play,” meaning both teams had to guess the same word. The clock started and within seconds, my sister yelled out “Coconut!” Astounded, my father demanded to see what my brother had drawn on the pad. It was a rough sketch of a palm tree with round objects and an arrow pointing at them. When my brother asked my father what he had drawn, my father opened his pad, and on it, in big block letters, were “C O C O N.” He hadn’t had time to finish.
Despite our cheatin’ ways, if anything ever happened to the baby, the first thing I’d think is that it was all because I drank raw milk, knowing I wasn’t supposed to, and that I killed my child. And so I didn’t partake —until later, when after dinner, Cheryl brought out the most divine home-made chocolate ice cream I’d ever tasted, made from raw milk. Oh, and then I had a piece of cheese. Who could resist? Home-made cheese? It’s so rare one is in the presence of home-made cheese. The next morning, I had some butter on my toast, and a bit of milk in my coffee, but I only had half a cup. And I didn’t finish it.
Let the Botulism begin.