Monday, September 13, 2010

Let's Talk Chicken

A word of warning: this post contains full details on chicken slaughter.

As I have said before, I feel strongly that if I am going to eat meat (which is at the top of my list for food enjoyment), I should be able to kill the animal I eat. This does not mean I will kill all of the meat I eat, for obvious reasons, but that I understand the process and have actually been involved with it at some point. That's what I said. In reality, I was living a double-standard, and feeling guilty about it. I have always been squeamish about death (I have memories of screaming in fear as my younger sister chased me, holding dead flies), faint at the sight of blood, and felt deep sadness for animals in pain. When I was twelve, my family first raised pigs and I dutifully did chores and thought of them more as pets than anything else. When it came time to kill them, I left for the day; I swore I would not eat their meat. But then I smelled pork chops cooking, and I couldn't help myself. Nor have I been able to help myself ever: I love to eat meat, and talk a good story about how one should be able to kill it, but until this summer, did not.

A previous post details my first kill - lobsters, this summer. I was surprised that while it was difficult to take another animal's life, I felt empowered and responsible and that that lobster was the most delicious I had ever eaten. I also felt as though I wanted to try more. So, this past weekend, Keja and I drove up to my parents' house in Vermont to assist with the annual chicken slaughter. I will let her speak about her impressions, but here are mine.

My parents' have a friend come in to actually do the slaughter and they assist. Monty has been doing this for forty years. He is jolly and kind and funny and a wonderful teacher. He neither praised us for overcoming our hesitation and assisting, nor made light of what we were doing. He sees this as a job and wants to do it the best he can. It felt respectful and practical all at once. I don't know what my Dad told him about our desire to participate, but Monty started out with, "okay, let's go get some chickens" and we followed him into the barn, where he grabbed them, one by one, and handed them out to us. It's true that when you hold a chicken upside-down they don't fight. We put them into cones, so their heads hung out from the bottom, and Monty cut off each chicken's head with a knife so quickly that you literally would miss it if you blinked. And then, like the lobsters, the nervous system went into overload and their bodies convulsed and the wings flapped, and a few did so so hard that they came out of the cones and jumped and flapped on the ground for about a minute. This was the hardest part, to see this. My brain knew the chicken was dead and not feeling pain but my heart couldn't help but feel incredible pity and sadness for this being that looked alive, except for the obviously missing head. Monty says this convulsing happens to all animals at slaughter, even large beef cows, and probably would to humans, too.

Monty then dropped each body into hot water for a minute and then handed them to us. We held them over a plucker, a machine that has very flexible five inch rubber prongs that rotate quickly and remove all but a few feathers. Then we cut off the feet for my stepmother to make chicken stock with and dropped the chicken into cold water. When all of the chickens had been processed this far, we gutted them. Monty patiently walked us through this a few times until we felt confident.

Seventeen chickens went from clucking birds to ready-to-roast in three hours. It got easier as we went along. I was amazed at how, once the feathers were off, they felt like meat. I was sad, carrying them out from the barn, knowing that within minutes they would be dead, and they didn't even know it, but also honored to know that I was choosing to turn them from barnyard birds into food, because I want to eat them. I wasn't leaving the dirty work to someone else whom I would never meet. I knew that these birds had been cared for well their entire short lives. They had a clean, cozy stall to sleep in, a beautiful field to run it, an apple tree to nap under and eat the apples from when they dropped. And they had a respectful, quick death. I know they were scared before they died; how could they not have been? But short of being gassed in their sleep, I don't think they could have died any better or more humanely.

So in the end, we drove home with a cooler of fresh chicken and the knowledge that we choose to eat meat knowing what that means. It was not an anonymous death tonight's dinner had, but one done with full knowledge of the responsibility we take for our choice to honor our omnivorous heritage.