And then something happens. I get a nibble, yank on the rod, and set my hook. It might be the first fish I've ever caught - I Have Arrived - and I smile and laugh and clumsily reel it in. But, suddenly, a pelican slaps against the water's surface in front of us, and eats my catch. And now, a very small boy finds himself fighting against a great big bird, his fishing rod tip turned skyward, in a surreal turn of events for a five-year-old.
My grandfather speedily cut the line, and explained to me that we couldn't catch the bird, because we didn't want to eat it. I was disappointed. But for the rest of my life I would always want to be a fisherman - I'd never felt so thrillingly connected to the natural world. Bird, fish and child had collided.
In the years after that I learned how to fillet and gut fish, pluck pheasants, skin squirrels, and break down the carcass of a white-tailed deer. These experiences, whether you approve of them or not, made one suburban child appreciate the animal world, and what it had meant to man for so long. I crisply remember the first time I shot a grouse and it was not quite dead, and my uncle told me to snap its neck between my fingers. It did not feel good to feel its life disappear in my hands, but it did make me think, and I appreciated my supper that night in a way that is difficult to describe.
I think that my life as a fisherman and a hunter shaped my ideas about cooking and eating more than any other force. I don't throw away anything from an animal that can be used - the bones from a roasted chicken go to stock, as does the spine and head of a filleted fish. Pig skin from pork bellies gets rolled and frozen for gelatin, extra beef fat is rendered. There is still something reverent and slightly sombre about breaking down a big piece of meat in my kitchen; something that my wife, who was long a vegetarian, doesn't understand. But if she grew up like I chose to, I think she would.
I write this in disgust, after reading this blog entry in The Guardian by Alex Renton. It involves a rural school teacher who chose to slaughter a lamb from the school farm, with the overwhelming approval of her student council, and sell the meat to raise money for the school. It seems sensible, even enlightening, that children should be taught where there meat comes from, and how that process happens. But she was maligned by an indignant mob on facebook. She was harassed and threatened, and finally, she resigned. This, in a town that celebrates its sheep farming heritage.
The distortion of animal eating, of reducing furry creatures with faces and voices to shrink-wrapped blobs of red stuff, might allow a lot of people to eat without feeling pangs of guilt. But it also causes them to throw away the 'nasty bits', to ignore the consequences of eating too much, or to let it waste in the fridge till past its expiration date. And because the factory farming system is so far removed from sustainable agriculture, creating meat in such a recklessly abundant supply, this is all possible.
A few months ago, I was walking through Bangkok's Chinatown - on a dark street between the bright lights of Yaowarat Road and the mash of traffic on Chaoren Krung. And I came upon a poultry slaughterhouse, where a large measure of the ducks that end up hanging chestnut brown in restaurant windows begin their trip into the afterlife. A temple was lit across the street. There were feathers scattered everywhere, and a smell like death filled the air. I lifted my camera to take a picture, and a butcher glared at me and shook his head severely. He was probably a Buddhist, and didn't want to be captured in such an unholy frame. I also think that when he orders a chicken or a duck, he probably doesn't let a single shred of meat go to waste. I think he understands.
(For a great piece on humane slaughter, see Barry Estabrook's Politics of the Plate blog)