No Wonder They Call Me Bitch…A New Connection




The opening lines of Anne Hodgman’s creative non-fiction essay, No Wonder They Call Me Bitch, are, “I’ve always wondered about dog food.  Is a Gaines Burger really like a hamburger? Does dog Cheese taste like real cheese? Does Gravy Train actually make gravy in a dog’s bowl, or is that just liquid dissolved into crumbs? And exactly what are byproducts?”  Living life as a writer and reader is much about the intersection of thoughts from what one is reading to the stories it conjures up through their lived experiences.  Hodgman’s essay has served me well in this regard over the years since I first discovered it in the 1990 edition of Best American Essays.

As a lifelong, avid dog owner, her unique writing voice drew me in. The bonus was that I found myself learning something about dog food, which until then, I had thought nothing about… its ingredients or what is consumed by animals we eat, chickens, pigs, cattle, etc. My  first connection while reading was a memory of my elementary school-aged daughter munching on one of our dog’s peanut butter flavored Milk Bone treats, which coincidentally found its way into Hodgman’s essay. It was like my daughter channeled her inner Hodgman with her sampling of a dog treat consisting of bone meal and chicken byproducts amongst the ingredients along with artificial peanut butter flavor. At the time it was more entertaining than thought provoking, and I didn’t pay much attention to the ingredients label on our dog’s food or treats during my early pet owning years.

Hodgman’s essay was perfect to introduce creative nonfiction as a genre and essay option for my students. It proved to be a springboard for some of the best writing produced by them while teaching English Language Arts, and ultimately  the graduate courses I taught focusing on writing across the curriculum. Of course, my daughter’s story and evolving reaction made its way into the conversation as a connective example; but as important, were the developing conversations for new possibilities that could be considered as our writing and stories advanced. Tangential ideas that perhaps were never explored were now invited into a personal essay or memoir.  Even better, they led to some deeper, more provoking pieces of writing.

One of the more powerful pieces of student writing was from an 8th grade student who was a reluctant writer.  Even worse, his parents complained during an early year parent-teacher conference that their son was a “terrible writer.”  As it turned out, they were all living with heavy hearts and the simple mention of ‘chicken byproducts’ in Hodgman’s essay proved to be the nugget that unblocked a resistance to telling his story.  It started with a journal entry describing his experience of “partying under the kitchen table, chicken bones in hand” as a four year old. His writing moved eventually to the seizures his brother had and his ultimate death later that year.  We read Ralph Fletcher’s Fig Pudding at the time as well, which also provided additional connections for that student’s piece.

A student in a sophomore humanities class, enjoyed reading Hodgman’s piece, connecting with how one integrates science into a creative piece.  She wrote a wonderful essay on friendship and loss using a fall hike through the woods explaining her friendship and loss metaphorically through the changing colors of the leaves working in chemistry and chlorophyll, along with meteorological concepts. It wasn’t so much the dog food theme that motivated her writing as much as understanding how the use science to tell a story.

When teaching graduate courses to practicing teachers focusing on writing across the curriculum, Hodgman’s essay once again spurred on ideas.  Science teachers rethought and reframed how students could demonstrate what they know with writing that went beyond the typical summary of findings when conducting lab experiments.  In some cases, science and English teachers teamed up to teach writing and science with an English teacher posing some conceptual science challenges for students to think about  integrating their current writing; or better still, revisiting a former writing piece that could be enhanced if relationships to science existed relative to the experience they had written about.  Math teachers looked at the notion of inquiry around word problems. Following Hodgman’s lead of using questions, they had students write about what they didn’t grasp to articulate questions for clarity and understanding.

Recently, Hodgman’s essay reentered my life with a new connection, which was more personal and went a bit beyond my reading/writing interests.  My daughter, who once munched on a flavored Milk Bone dog biscuit, now a grown woman, just became co-owner of a new age dog superfood/dog treat company, Neo Bites.  The nature of the food ingredients used in Neo Bites products has me reexamining once again what I put in my dog’s feeding dish twice a day.  Just as I did over 30 years and three dogs ago (not including my current Cocker Spaniel, Ruthie), I am making new changes for my dog’s nourishment. Beyond pet foods, I am also purchasing products across domains that lessen my footprint for what negatively impacts the earth’s environment. Neo Bites seamlessly provides a superfood alternative and also accomplishes an earth friendly alternative to the traditional dog treats and foods that my dog joyfully consumes.

For me, reading continues to provide a joy through its variety of deliveries and voices, some of which stay with us for a lifetime.  Hodgman’s creative nonfiction essay is one of those writings. Poems by  Naomi Shihab Nye (Yellow Glove) and John Holmes (A Map of My Country) make my resonation list.  Every cold winter day with a wind chill that I step out my door to walk my dog makes me think of Jack London’s description of ‘cold’ in To Build a Fire.  I tend to learn more about history from historical fiction; and Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi and Killer Angels by John Shaara have stayed with me as I’ve intersected with thoughts and multiple perspectives  on World Wars I & II along with the American Civil War that still connect to today’s turmoil around the globe and in our politics.  But for today, it’s a memory of my young daughter munching on a Milk Bone for a moment in time from long ago, or my dog enjoying a sunny nap following her meal that furnishes me a happy moment.  All thanks to reading an essay that’s provided connections, writing, thinking and creativity across several decades.