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Ranching Like Tourists

The thing about being vegetarian in a carnivorous country is that you rarely go hungry. People are so concerned about making sure you get enough to eat, and concerned that the foods you eat seem entirely unsatisfying to them, that they keep offering more food until the table (and your waistband) are groaning.

This was definitely the case for us last weekend when we headed into Uruguay’s interior to visit a ranch.  Uruguay has many tourist ranches, which range from very fancy to basic. This one was a family run working ranch with 1000 head of cattle, several horses, chickens, two geese that mysteriously disappeared during the weekend (only their feathers remained), and a number of sheep recently diminished by preparations for a large group lunch.

To get there we drove three hours into Uruguay’s interior mostly on a tree-lined two-lane highway that cut through gently rolling green fields populated by cattle, horses, sheep, birds, and outcroppings of rocks. There were some cultivated fields and places where farm buildings were visible. Occasionally we watched gauchos ride across fields or farmers maneuver huge farm equipment across the highway.

Somewhere between Trinidad and Durazno there was a faded sign pointing down a rutted dirt road toward the ranch. The road dipped down to cross a stream and on the other side cattle stood knee deep in swirling early evening mist. The ranch itself was a few white washed one story buildings with thatched roofs and some outbuildings surrounded by manicured lawns with nothing but pasture beyond.  We were greeted by five barking dogs who chased our car down the winding drive. They were intimidating until we opened the car doors when they promptly stopped barking and prostrated themselves before us, waiting to be pet.

Our room was attached to the main house and was accessed through a walled garden, which was crowded with flowering plants and small trees. A porch ran along one side of the house, dormant wisteria vines climbing up the poles and over the roof. The door to our room, as well as doors to the kitchen and entry way, opened off the porch. Our room was a clean, high-ceilinged, spartan space with three beds covered in wool blankets, wooden shuttered windows, stone walls, and a moldering armoire filled with dusty extra blankets.

Before we had our coats off Mariela and her assistant Iris were feeding us. We ate our meals in a small room with a thatched ceiling, a sturdy wooden table and carved straight-back chairs, a huge fireplace (which was the only thing keeping the damp chill at bay), and two pink armchairs that felt like sitting inside a warm hug. The room was dark and cold away from the fire, but also appealing and cozy.

Mariela and Iris always brought us soup in a traditional cast iron pot with white bread and butter on the side. This was followed by delicious, but rich, dishes like canalones de choclo, milanesa de berenjena, and  zapallitos rellenos.  And this was followed by dessert. They made other dishes that would please the kids as well, but in quantities large enough for several busloads of children. Two meals in Nathan and I realized we were eating past hunger and on into guilt. No matter how many servings we ladled onto our plates, we didn’t seem to make a dent in the spread. Yet somehow after every meal, as we waddled out of the room, they worried that we were leaving hungry.

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To work off the food we explored outside. We watched the sheep who, understandably, were not so fond of people. The kids picked the pink flowers that grew in the yard. We rode horses around a bucolic field (bucolic as long as you didn’t look down at the sheep skulls chewed clean by the dogs and bleached by the sun). The kids climbed on the various tractors. The fact that it was a working ranch, not just a tourist destination, was always apparent. At one point I found the boy staring transfixed at piles of sheep skins hanging from a rafter in the barn. Trying to rationalize it, he suggested maybe they had been able to remove all the fleece so it just looked like a skin, but the sheep were still alive. There was a disappointing experience with milking that involved a year old cow, her still nursing calf, and a very sticky udder.

The ranch had plenty of entertainment to offer, but we also managed to tear ourselves away long enough to see some other sights. Outside Trinidad is a large, well-kept, and free animal reserve. We spent a few hours there looking at carpinchos, monkeys, alpacas, rabbits, snakes, deer, goats, and the cutest swarm of guinea pigs (including baby guinea pigs).

Some twenty kilometers down a bumpy road  in Flores are the Grutas del Palacio.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Grutas are 70 million year old naturally occurring limestone caves. Columns of stone and curved archways formed by millions of years of erosion give the impression of some intricately planned architecture. There are places where, with the help of a guide, you can walk back into the caves, stepping over puddles of water and into ancient history. Given the chance there are many reasons you should visit them, but our kids will tell you the best part was the flashlights they got to carry while exploring the caves.

On our last day at the Ranch, still well-stuffed from lunch and not yet ready for dinner, the owners took us for a drive to see some of the cattle and their property. They pointed out their cattle, distant property lines, and birds while we all made awkward conversation. A short way into the drive we discovered three yearlings who had escaped the pasture. We followed them in the pick up truck, Mariela leaning out the window making the same huffing noises cows make. Eventually, for some reason neither Nathan nor I could discern all three calves decided to plow back through the barbed wire fence into the pasture. Across the road curious cattle gathered to watch the show. Mariela knelt down in the ditch again making soft blowing sounds and grunts, which urged the cattle forward. We all stared at each for awhile as the light turned golden.

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Eating Eggs

Most chickens only lay for a couple of years, but will live for ten or more.  My mother’s chickens have stopped laying.  She now has nine very cheerful, very hungry chickens that collectively lay one egg a day. Letting them live out their days as pets would be grossly expensive and unproductive, but that’s exactly what she has decided to do. It comes as a surprise to absolutely no one except my mother that she has become attached to her chickens and their avian idiosyncrasies.  In her adult life, my mother has become attached to each and every one of the dogs, goats, plants, horses, cats, mice, birds, and legions of spiders she has taken into her care.

Caring for spiders?  Perhaps that’s a stretch, but those girls (to my mother all spiders are girls) have lead far longer, healthier lives under her roof than almost anywhere else in the world. Gertrude was the name she gave the large gray barn spider that took up residence over our toilet one winter.  Most of the spiders and I kept a respectful distance from each other, but Gertrude was a terrible bully.  She particularly like to torment me by waiting until my middle-of-the-night bathroom trips to spin herself lazily down until she hung suspended mere inches above my head. I pleaded for Gertrude to at least be moved to a less intimate location, but my mother would hear none of it.  So Gertrude, like all her sisters before and after her, stayed until spring.

Still, my mother is a realist.  You have to be to spend a lifetime raising that many creatures.  Animals die; arachnids, too.  In the end she spoke to people who know about these things and all said that the hens’ time had come. Integrating a new flock would be very difficult, and there was no room for her to maintain  two flocks.  She scheduled their execution, but when the appointed day was rained out, she changed her mind.  She now has a plan to integrate a new, younger flock with her old ladies.

I’m sure to most farmers her plan is one step away from chicken diapers, but to me, it was a bright spot in what had become a tumultuous internal struggle.  Ever since she told me that she would likely have to kill the chickens, I had been scouring Backyard Poultry chat rooms looking for irrefutable evidence that hens lay longer than she suspected. This was surely a hiatus.  They had laid steadily all winter, so hadn’t they earned a break? I became, I admit, obsessed with the natural and unnatural lifespan of chickens. If  even free-range, organically fed chickens are only allowed to live as long as they lay can I, as a vegetarian, really justify continuing to eat eggs?

It was my parents who taught me that eating eggs was acceptable, but eating flesh was not. They converted to vegetarianism in the early seventies. My father’s legend was that his latent childhood concerns about meat were confirmed the day he held their pet rabbit, Laura’s, lifeless body in his hands. “How,” he claimed to have wondered, “can we mourn the death of some animals while eating others?” Then he ate meat no more. My mother maintains it wasn’t quite that simple or that dramatic.  She didn’t have a legend and she didn’t share my father’s loud-voiced prosthelytizing, but she did cook amazing food, which wooed more than a few hardened carnivores.  Either way, by the time my brother and I were born there was no meat–or refined sugar or packaged foods or white flour–served in our house, but there were always eggs and dairy.

Honestly, I never did much questioning of what my parents taught me. I realize this may sound like I don’t think at all about why I’m a vegetarian, which isn’t the case. My parents taught me about the health benefits of avoiding meat through their own examples and some heavy-handed anecdotes. Our menagerie of creatures led me to my own ethical hesitations about eating animals. I pushed our baby goats around in strollers, taught them to sing, and mourned them when they died of old age, disease, or accident.

It wasn’t that I was a stranger to meat or was morally opposed to others eating it.  I grew up where farming and hunting were both vocation and avocation. Animals at neighboring farms were raised for food, not for love. Every hunting season, blood trickled a winding path from the weigh scale to the storm drain in front of the firehouse.  Pickup trucks arrived at regular intervals, a dead buck carefully arranged for maximum exposure. These things were unsettling to me, but death wasn’t unfamiliar and these deaths directly fed my friends and their families.

All my friends ate meat and their parents were constantly concerned that I was being deprived of nutrients and deliciousness.  I didn’t think I was missing out, but I did wonder what it would be like to eat like everyone else. My father had always warned me that eating meat would turn me into just another unhealthy American kid.  As an awkward pre-teen, I only heard him say that it would make me just like everyone else.  I figured all it would take was a few hamburgers and some fried chicken. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.  Eating meat meant I ate off the same plate, but that was it.  I was uniformly unimpressed with the experience.  The tastes and textures were foreign and unwelcome.  I felt a mix disgust and polite sympathy not unlike what I imagine people feel the first time they try tofu.

Assimilation, I decided, wasn’t worth the effort and I went back to my roots without too much thought and, with few exceptions, I have been a steadfast vegetarian ever since. My husband and I often choose not to ask about lard in Mexican restaurants or fish oil in Asian restaurants, or anything beyond the absolute obvious when traveling in many countries.  It’s not that we don’t care, it’s just that sometimes too much information is just that.

I have too much information about chickens to ignore.  It’s not just how long they lay versus how long they live.  I watch how they come running when my children call.  I hear how they chirrup excitedly at the sound of my mother’s voice.  I know that, like me, they will happily devour a bowl of warm oatmeal on a cold winter morning.  And I felt the horrible drop in my stomach when my mother began to explain how the nice man would butcher them kindly when they stopped laying.  I’m not sure what I will ultimately decide about eggs; it’s a longer road to a decision than I expected.  My father had a long explanation of why he wasn’t hypocritical for being a vegetarian who unapologetically wore leather shoes. It boiled down to the fact that he didn’t eat his shoes.  And maybe it’s as simple as just not eating the chickens that lay the eggs.  Or maybe it’s not.