Remembering where food comes from

I have been thinking about food a lot lately; and it is not just because I am hungry. The last month we have been listening to the “Bread of Life Discourses” from John’s Gospel at Sunday Mass, so homily preparation has been making me think about food, but also, a few events have focused my hungry thoughts.

A while ago I purchased a quarter beef from a friend of mine in my Guard Unit, and I noticed the other day that the white wrapped packages filled with good, honest South Dakota beef are dwindling. Coincidentally, this happened at the time of year when garden vegetables begin to appear on my kitchen counter.

All of these thoughts began to merge in my mind as I sat at the Roncalli booth during the Brown County Fair, surrounded by the scent of funnel cakes, corn dogs and all manner of deep-fat fried joy.

Yeah, I am a bit hungry.

First, the beef. I have never purchased a quarter of beef before, and to be honest, I sort of did it on a whim. Tyler, a farmer in the Kimball area, happened to mention at a drill weekend that he was looking for four people to get together and each buy a quarter, so I agreed. I was nervous, and not because I was worried I would not have the freezer space, but because I had never done anything like that before.

I was the first one to call the meat locker after slaughter, so I was given an opportunity to pick the cuts I would like and I just stood there, staring off into space, the phone against my ear. A part of me was thinking, “ground beef…tons of ground beef,” but that seemed wrong, so I asked for help and was given some great advice. A few weeks later the freezer was stocked.

The beef, as you would imagine, is amazing; you can taste the care Tyler put into raising his herd, and that makes me more respectful when I am preparing it, more thoughtful eating it.

But now, it is vegetables. My dad loves to garden and it shows. Each year, from his massive community garden plots (yes, plural), I am privileged to receive a stunning array of vegetables. Of course, I also receive vegetables from parishioners as well. A few weeks ago, my friend Trevor asked if I would like to have some cucumbers and zucchini. He came over with three bags, one filled with cucumbers, and two filled with zucchini, each about the size of a newborn baby. It was an amazing bounty, and the mark of a great gardener himself.

Our kitchen has been graced with zucchini, fresh cucumbers and cabbage, green beans, tomatoes, sweet corn, green peppers; soon will be the potatoes and carrots, beets and onions.

As I said, these thoughts began to merge as I enjoyed the sights, scents and sounds of the Brown County Fair. As I sat at the booth in the expo building, I could hear, just beyond the side door, the sounds of goats, and sheep, and calves and hogs. As I would walk by, there were scores of young 4-H farmers and ranchers, cleaning, brushing and preparing their stock. I listened to bleating of goats being washed snow-white in preparation for their judging. I remember, of course, that county fairs were all about this at the beginning, before the rides and the deep-fat fried everything.

These moments make me a bit more thoughtful in the kitchen, and mindful that the food I receive does not simply come from a grocery store. It is a reminder that these gifts are the fruits of the earth, and the product of the labor and sweat, the stewardship and sacrifice of those who so faithfully work with flocks and fields.

When we know where our food comes from, either from our own hands, or from the labor of our neighbors, it becomes more than just physical sustenance. We often say it “tastes real,” because we know it is real, real food which feeds more than our bodies. It feeds our spirit, and our community.

Returning to John’s Gospel, we remember this is the heart of Jesus’ words, and why He chose food as His enduring gift to us. It does more than sustain us, it brings us life. As with all food, it is important to remember where it comes from for it to be the true nourishment we seek.

It comes from the heart of God, merciful, bountiful, pouring His unmerited love over a broken, wounded, and hopeful, community of faith. It is from this relationship that we receive the Bread of Life.

It is important that we remember where our food comes from, the food upon our kitchen tables, and our parish altars.