My dog Dharma is an omnivore without any dilemmas. It is equal cause for joy and heartache. One in a long line of Labrador Retrievers stretching back to early childhood, she will try to eat almost anything because her breed is hardwired that way. (Dharma was directly preceded by Devi, Diva, and Dinah. Because “D” is for dogs.) She finds birdseed and deer poo and even pine needles appetizing. I keep her away from chocolate and grapes, both Kryptonite for dogs, but Dharma counter-surfed some tiny bits of garlic a few weeks ago and that ended ugly. The puke stain will likely never come out of my carpet.
Her regular diet includes dry kibble, and I occasionally supplement it with homemade chicken stock and vegetable scraps, which might include raw asparagus, green beans, and “carrots.” Carrots can mean anything, including carrots. It’s the word she recognizes when I’m trying to bribe her into behaving. Dharma also responds to “chickalies,” “peanutbutterKongToy,” and “snackaboobadoobies,” one of my favorite neologisms. (I make up lots of words.) Then there are “pennies from heaven,” the accidental goodies that drop off the kitchen counter while prepping my own dinner. Sometimes, this might even be bits of steak and that comes with a special side serving of guilt.
For me, not for her.
My father was an artist, and my siblings and I grew up “artist poor.” We always knew when he received a check for selling a painting because my mother would go out to the butcher store and buy a London broil steak big enough to feed all seven of us.
One time, Dad left the meat unguarded while firing the grill, and our Lab at the time, Chancy, managed to drag it off the kitchen table and across the floor before eating most of it. Adding insult to injury, my parents were friends with a wealthy older bachelor, who we were told fed his Newfoundland steak every night. Whenever he came over to our house, I stared at him across the table, wondering why he would skip meals at his own place to eat my mother’s homely fried chicken dinners. Mom could charm the dog, or in this case the banker who held our mortgage, off the proverbial meat truck. She had to because my parents were often late on their loan payments. As a little girl, I didn’t appreciate those dynamics, only that we were eating budget-style oxtail stew and split pea soup while some pampered dog got a T-bone.
And here’s my dilemma about feeding Dharma well.
One of my sisters used to eat Gaines-Burgers. She was too small to climb into the top shelves where Mom stashed the people snacks, so scavenging in lower cupboards where the pet food was stored ended in a habit driven by calculated branding. General Foods, the same folks who brought us Tang and Jell-O, introduced these individually wrapped compressed beef patties in 1961. The key word here is “burger,” and my sister was too young to understand they weren’t the same as the patty in a Happy Meal. She said they tasted good, and would sneak them out onto the porch where she could hide behind the toy basket. The giveaway was the sound of cellophane crinkling.
The humanization of pet food is a cynical marketing ploy. The dog isn’t pushing a cart down the aisle in the supermarket hunting for “savory lamb stew” or “pot roast with spring vegetables.” We are the shoppers attracted to colorful packaging with images of gravy-soaked meals in bowls and plates fit for dinner guests. Rachael Ray’s Nutrish line of dog food has intentionally cute labels like “chicken muttballs with pasta” and “beef stroganwoof.” She’s not the only one to turn pet food lingo into something we’d order at a fast casual restaurant: Consider Taste of the Wild’s Pacific Stream Salmon, Blue Family Favorite Recipes’ Backyard BBQ, Alpo Chop House’s Filet & Bacon.
While the basic ingredients of modern dog food are similar to those we eat—beef, turkey, chicken, lamb—that doesn’t mean it’s fit for human consumption. Watch the Snapchat video of Serena Williams sampling her puppy’s hotel room service gourmet menu before the Italian Open and you’ll know why. And those recurring stories about the elderly resorting to dog or cat food when they can’t afford groceries? They run the risk of malnourishment, or worse, because the grade and parts of meat winding up in a can of wet dog food are much less regulated by the Food and Drug Administration than a packet of ground chuck in the butcher department. (After World War I, the first commercial canned dog food introduced by Ken-L-Ration contained horsemeat, which Americans still associate with “poor man’s beef.”)
Years later, the sister of mine who snacked on those dog food patties is struggling to make ends meet, and currently relies on SNAP benefits to feed her own kids. She still can’t afford steak, let alone feed it to a pet. Does it trigger childhood trauma when Dharma begs for beefy scraps from my table while one of my siblings can’t pay her bills? Absolutely. (Yes, I help my sister. Don’t @ me.) Does this mean I should stop feeding my dog human food because a close family member survives on a dollar store diet? I honestly don’t have a simple solution for all her problems, which are far more complicated than finding the nearest food bank or accepting counseling for underlying issues.
However, even minor acts of kindness and love in our daily lives can underline the empathy we have for people or animals. According to Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry initiative, 1 in 6 children in America suffer food insecurity, so I donate to food-related charities—Heifer International is another of my favorites—and volunteer time to cook and advocate. (Given my personal history, it should be equally obvious why I report on the culture of food.) And sharing with a beloved animal also dates back to the Paleolithic Period, when canines crawled out of the darkness to lie by a fire and gnaw on our discarded dinner bones.
As comfort, I take advice from the first dog food recipe written in 37 B.C.E. The Roman poet Virgil said this in Bucolics: “Do not let the care of dogs be last; but the swift Spartan hounds, and fierce Mastiff, feed the whey."
Dharma, latest of her name, would definitely eat that.
Do you cook for your dog? Share your best four-legged stories in the comments below.