As I prepare a plate of food to feed to the crows (some nice leftover chicken, berries, and a few chunks of cheese my daughter left in her lunchbox yesterday), it occurs to me that some people are just feeders. You know the ones I mean. Those people who cook without cookbooks, the ones with packed refrigerators who remember that you like black licorice or cherries or earl grey tea and so they always bring some when they visit. The grandmother who pushes your reloaded plate back to you (Mangia! Mangia!). Some people just feed.
Feeders are not necessarily eaters. After all, they get their kicks not by eating but in watching you put the food into your mouth and smile with pleasure, in making you feel cared for and welcome. Feeders understand the connection between the stomach and the soul like anyone who has had a bowl of really good homemade soup should. They know that sometimes, food is medicine, food is comfort, and food is love. A psychiatrist might have something worrisome or possibly shaming to say about that statement, but I’d have to respectfully aver that yes, that might be true, but that’s not what I’m saying. I’m not talking about overindulgence or displacement or cathexis (although those are valid points), I’m not propagating eating disorders, I’m not asking why or trying to change things, I’m just talking about the importance and the pure, undeniable, unadulterated joy of a good meal.
I am a feeder. I’m one of those people who stockpile cans in case of emergency and carry a purse filled with food. Some moms have sunscreen or antibacterial ointment, but I’m toting trail mix and fruit leather. If my kid bloodies her knee at the park, I hold her tight in my lap and put chocolate chips on her tongue until she stops crying. When someone else’s kid cries for no apparent reason, I immediately assume he’s hungry—tired or hungry—and rush in with a box of raisins. I get up early to pack elaborate school lunches, I bake fancy cakes for birthdays, and we decorate cookies. We have tea parties, pizza parties, dinner parties, BBQs, crab boils, and potlucks. I give leftovers to homeless people and I keep a bag of peanuts in my car to throw at the neighborhood crows. If you come to my door I will reflexively offer you tea, and if we run out of cereal or milk or eggs, I feel like I’ve let my family down. Feeding you is one of the ways I say I’m glad to see you and that I want you to sit down and chat with me for awhile.
I wasn’t always this way. I think it started when I moved in with John, years before we got married. John was hungry. Growing up, his mother’s refrigerator held nothing more than condiments and maybe a head of lettuce. When he lived with his father, his stepmother didn’t feed him. When dad was home, meals were more reliable, but John never knew what kind of mystery meat his father (an orthopedic surgeon/hunter/fisherman who always ate what he killed, even turtles and squirrel, and had no qualms about roadkill) had slipped in on the sly. But that’s another story. By the time I met him, John was starving and the more I cooked, the happier he became. To him, the sight of me in an apron was far, far sexier than any negligee could ever be. The food didn’t have to be fancy because he knew that every time I cooked it was an act of love.
Then my children came. For the first couple of months of each of their lives, my job was just an extenuation of my pregnancy. I was an exterior womb: I held them close, kept them warm and clean and made sure they were never hungry. Nourishing their minds and spirits would come later, but while they were so helpless, while their eyes were still usually closed, it was my job to take care of their little bodies.
But for me, feeding is not necessarily natural and is emphatically not a selfless act. I like feeding my family, but I don’t want to feed everyone. I don’t want to feed people who always show up empty-handed at dinnertime, people with excessive dietary restrictions, people who eat out often at the fanciest restaurants, or picky eaters. I get nothing out of feeding people who take it for granted or can’t be pleased. The joy should be mutual. That’s why I’m flummoxed when the crows don’t immediately swoop down and gobble up the food I make.
At first I thought maybe the crows were picky eaters, and I almost lost interest. But according to all accounts, crows are supposed to be ravenous. (That is the derivation of the word, after all: revenous is from Old French ravineux, a derivative of the verb raviner, which means to seize by force. This came from Latin rapere, the verbal ancestor of English rape. The main meaning of ravenous today might aptly evoke the image of a predatory corvid seizing and gulping down its prey and that’s precisely the reaction I’m looking for when I plunk that plate down on the table: a hungry leer, gleeful smacking of the lips, and a rapacious grabbing and gobbling it down.
But the crows don’t always do that. Sometimes when I leave food for that adolescent fellow on the telephone wire he just sits there, eyeing it like it’s a live thing, like it’s going to bite. He vacillates for so long that finally, a seagull swoops down and steals the show. Other times the young crow caws for his (braver? hungrier?) parents to come-and-get-it but by now, the seagulls know what that caw means. Seagulls appear from every direction, flock down and snatch it up, while my little guy just sits there like a useless scarecrow.
The book I’m reading says crows eat everything, but also that they are exceedingly selective foragers. They take what they need. So, if they aren’t too hungry, they might eat only the most nutrient-packed or tastiest bit and leave the rest—say, eat only the worm’s head or the snake’s liver or only the yolk of the egg. On the other hand, if times are tough, they make do—a Seattle resident reported seeing a desperate crow peck dried human vomit off the side of a building. So ultimately, pickiness isn’t the problem; it’s their caution that deprives them the most but also ensures their survival. Even if they’re hungry, crows might take hours or even days to observe before trying something new.
The seagulls are ravenous but they completely lack finesse. While the crow is trying to gauge the danger, the gulls just jump right in. They swallow eggs and chicken legs whole, without tasting, and then stumble around with giant lumps in their necks. It’s disgusting, really. I almost hate those bullies with their blank yellow eyes and their metallic whines. Why would I want to feed a stupid seagull who doesn’t even acknowledge my presence? What’s in it for me?
One day, after depositing a nice pile of food only to watch a gang of seagulls snatch it up, I charged them, yelling and waving my fist in the air. After a rather pathetic display I finally gave up and retreated to the front porch where my youngest daughter Gwyneth was watching.
“Those seagulls sure know how to get what they want,” she observed.
“I guess that’s one way to look at it.”
“They’re not afraid of you one bit.”
“Stupid birds. If I could catch one, I’d wring its neck.”
“But you couldn’t.”
It was true. She had called my bluff. And she knows my bark is worse than my bite. If I had somehow managed to capture a seagull, I wouldn’t know what to do. The wisdom of a four-year-old is simple yet profound.
She said, “Why don’t you just feed the seagulls instead? That would be much easier.”
“I don’t love the seagulls. The seagulls help themselves. They lack style. I guess I’m rooting for the underdog.”
“I don’t want to be with the losers. I want to win.”
“Do you mean you’re voting for the seagulls?”
“Yeah. I want to be on the winner’s team. It’s more fun to win.”
What could I say? We’ll discuss the finer points when she’s older. For now, I would be a fool to argue with such perspicacity. So I just said, “Okay. You be on their team and I’ll be with the crows. That way at least one of us will win.” And we shook on it.
Some day my children might cook for me, but in the meantime they provide plenty of food for thought. I’m thinking that Gwyneth’s approach, although less sentimental, will definitely serve her in life. She will probably have more friends, less stress, and will probably always manage to get fed. I’m thinking that the flipside of feeding is withholding and I’m thinking, hey wait a minute… I guess I’m a picky feeder.
But even though I don’t like the sound of that, even though I’ll have to give it some serious consideration, I’m not about to start making friends with seagulls. No way. Where’s the challenge in that?
P.S. Did I mention that the crows chose the redwood tree in our back yard as the place to build their nest? For me, that is like getting a five star rating.
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