When a chicken has no beak

Draw a chicken," I commanded the son of a friend of mine, tossing him a box of crayons in the hope that the task would render him engrossed for the next hour, or several.

I glanced at the sheet of paper 20 minutes later, expecting to see, you know, the outline of a typical domestic fowl, with feathers and maybe a red beak.

What greeted me instead was a flat, brown-coloured boomerang-shaped blob on a plate, surrounded by yellow sticks.

This was, the seven-year-old proclaimed, what he knew to be a chicken: A fried chicken drumstick from KFC with fries.

Yes, but where does the drumstick come from? I pressed on. He looked puzzled and started picking his nose.

Hygiene aside, I thought this kid was amazing, in terms of what he did not know.

But apparently, he's a pretty typical kid.

Dialogues revealed that my nine-year-old cousin thinks that cotton comes from an animal and that rice is made from flour. He has no idea where fish-fingers come from, and his answer to the origin of cheese was "factory".

Another adorable kid in the playground told me that bananas were (in slightly different words) flat, concentric, tasted like chocolate, and grew on bread.

Her mother, it seems, regularly makes Nutella and banana sandwiches for her. Logical conclusion, just sadly inaccurate.

But the thing is, does knowing where your food come from matter?

I thought it should, and started a subsistence farming experiment in my front yard (yard being a description of the dimensions rather than the homonym for a garden).

I was adamant that my nine-month-old learn that bananas grow on plants (no, before you get ahead of yourself, they are not banana "trees") - a fun-fact that, according to one survey, a shocking 93 per cent of 1,601 Australian children between six and 17 years old did not know.

We now have crops: Bittergourd, rosemary, chillies, basil, spring onion, papaya, spinach, cai xin and bananas.

We also make our own ginger beer and pickle chillies. My husband recently suggested making our own mayonnaise. His brother makes butter. It's some sort of sibling rivalry.

Given Singapore's constraints - we import over 90 per cent of our food - I suppose you can't know much more about where food comes from than we do.

The farming episode was quite satisfying and we even managed to avoid buying vegetables for a period of time.

But it all ended abruptly two weeks ago when I glanced at the literal fruit of my labour: A tiny bittergourd that took several months to crop up, sucking the life out of its yellowing parent.

Suddenly, I missed the supermarket variety.

I caved in and bought three plump, green, long and warty bittergourds, origin unknown. The feeling of being able to get my hands on food so easily was amazing.

I obviously had gone overboard with the farming thing, but it made me realise that one of the greatest pleasures of modern life is not having to construct your own furniture, sew your own clothes and, well, grow your own vegetables.

After all, as the father of modern economics Adam Smith once said, it is the efficiency gained from the division of labour that led to "universal opulence" in industrialised countries. He also famously said that by exchange of goods and services, each person can be specialised in his work and yet still has access to everything.

In other words, I am able to hone my craft of writing because I am not spending time tending to the tendrils of my bittergourd plant. And you get to enjoy this article, without having to write it.

I suppose that is also why we have sommeliers, dog groomers, and in the United States, bingo managers.

And is there really a need to know the origin of our food? All food here is screened and so, safe. Someone else, with some skills and knowledge of the process takes care of this for me.

Sure, as philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said, the division of labour does remove people from a sense of connectedness with the society and with the world at large, including nature.

I get that.

But life is too brief for most people to spend fixing their televisions and leaky roofs, and too short for most to learn about food production. And that includes making your own mayonnaise.

That's just fine in my book.

Still, I suppose one should know what a chicken looks like. If not, I fear that children will envision drumsticks crossing the road and wondering why (and how) they did that.

A trip to the zoo should do the trick. Someone else can take care of the animals.

limjess@sph.com.sg