Songs at Dinner

When I was a kid, we used to say grace at every meal. And though I’ve lost my faith, I haven’t lost the urge to show thanks for the meal before us. Given the option, our kids would inhale their food and split. So we look for ways to teach them to be thankful.

Lately our family has been experimenting with secular grace, in the form of a song. We hold hands and sing before dinner. Some days, such as when we have my religious parents over for dinner, it can feel contrived and a little silly. And I can already imagine what a great satirical sketch this would make on the show Portlandia (are you listening Fred Armisen?). But we keep at it, because it expresses gratitude. We want our kids to understand that eating is a transaction: we get something from the earth, and in exchange, we must give something back. We must be stewards of the soil and treat plants and animals with respect. And so, every night we sing:

Orchard and Ocean
Farm and Field
We thank the Earth for all she yields
For soil and for water
Flower and seed,
We’re thankful in thought, word and deed.

The idea of secular grace took on new meaning for me when it came time to slaughter my two eldest hens and a younger one that happened to be in the wrong flock at the wrong time.

Lottie and Fannie had been with us since the very first flock. But their egg production had dropped off, and they’d picked up mites and the annoying habit of eating their own eggs from a beautiful but troubled hen we adopted from a friend. On a farm, these hens would have been culled long ago. A young, unnamed Speckled Sussex had picked up these habits too. I could have saved her, but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble of curing mites organically – not for a single hen. Finally, we made the decision to cull the lot of them. I’d take the winter to remodel the coop (for the fifth time), during which time the mites would all die off, and then we’d start over with a young flock in Spring. As the execution date approached, I found myself singing an old gospel hymn constantly: Lucinda Williams’ version of “Great Speckled Bird.” In that song, the bird is an allegory for the Bible. As I sang it to myself, over and over, the allegory dropped away, and it became an anthem of respect for the backyard hen.

What a beautiful thought I am thinking
Concerning that great speckled bird (or substitute golden bird, ruddy bird)
We remember her now and we thank her
At our table and in every word.

I am glad that she dwelled in my garden
I am glad that she ate all my weeds.
At the table we proudly recall her
And recount all her noblest deeds.

The grammar in this song is a little screwy, and the lyrics don’t exactly make sense, but the original song didn’t make sense either. Sometimes you must compromise grammar to make the song lyrics fit. If you can work out better lyrics, please post them below.

As slaughter time approached, my friend Janelle Maiocco told me she wanted to participate. Janelle is a chef, with mad skills. I have a tried and true recipe for backyard hens, but would love to learn more recipes and techniques for tenderizing their rather toothy flesh. So we worked out a deal. I taught her how to slaughter and sent her home with a few hens. In exchange, she promised to invite us over for dinner when she cooked them. You can read more about that meal in a wonderful post on her blog, Talk of Tomatoes.

As our big dinner date arrived, I began singing Great Speckled Bird to myself again. I thought I might sing it before dinner.

Janelle Maiocco

But as Janelle brought out the steaming bowls of pasta in backyard chicken broth, the chicken liver pate, the tender meatballs, I realized I didn’t need a song. Food prepared with a loving hand, achieving the highest and best use of an animal, is itself a kind of song. Simply slowing down and cooking with care – these actions show our children, perhaps better than any song – that we don’t take our food for granted.

For now, I think we’ll keep singing our dinnertime song – our kids have grown fond of it (you can hear it in their lusty rendition), and it marks the beginning of our daily family supper with a sort of exclamation point. But I recognize that spending time in the preparation of food, inviting my kids to help chop vegetables at the counter – these activities will drive home the value of food more than any song.

How do you show thanks for your food at the dinner table?

3 Responses to Songs at Dinner

  1. Annette Cottrell

    How wonderful this is Joshua, both in sentiment and in song. Thank you for posting!

  2. I think this is wonderful–what a lovely way to honor and give thanks both to the garden and to the animals that provide sustenance to us. Thank you!

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