Slaughtering a chicken brings you much closer to what’s on the end of your fork
Published: June 1, 2011
It seems that many people go through a vegetarian/vegan phase during their impressionable and earnest twenties. I know I did. Since those almost-too-sincere-to-live years, however, I’ve wholeheartedly embraced carnivory: I Believe in Meat. Interestingly, though, I’m mostly a vegetarian in public, because I believe in eating only meat, eggs, and dairy products produced from animals that were raised humanely and sustainably—standards that make most meat unfit for consumption.
So I’m actually rather familiar with the animals my boys and I consume at home, vastly more so than the average consumer. Our meat comes not from sanitized and anonymous cutlets in neatly shrink-wrapped Styrofoam grocery store packages, but from local farms where we’ve often met the animals—maybe not singling out the one that made its eventual way to our freezer, but at least as part of the pastured herd. When we visit these local farms, I try not to get overly acquainted; after all, these animals are dinner. But I do sometimes know them by name: The pig that we bought a quarter share in last fall was called Napoleon.
Thus I have long felt a tad hypocritical that, while condemning the aforementioned anonymous shrink-wrapped cutlets, I have still left the actual killing of my own dinner to others. I, who loudly and often argue that living takes life—and that those who condemn meat eating are ignoring how many collateral animal deaths are involved in the cultivation and harvest of the crops on which their vegetarian diets depend—had never taken the life of a living creature in order to eat it (other than maybe a crab, but, you know, it’s Maryland).
These thoughts were on my mind when my friends Tom Paduano and Sarah Rider went to harvest (a slightly less brutal and, yes, more PC term for “slaughter”) their first-ever flock of pasture-raised meat birds at Flying Plow Farm, the organic CSA they run in Joppa. They’d put out a call for helpers: catching, slaughtering, plucking, cleaning, chilling, and bagging 270 birds is an unbelievable amount of work, particularly when it needs to be accomplished in the time frame dictated by the one-day rental of a slaughtering trailer. It was an opportunity to grasp firm hold of my principles and step up. So I signed on, without hesitation.
Well, OK, with a little hesitation. I was worried that, when faced with The Deed, I—with all my heartfelt convictions and possibly obnoxious hard-core DIY foodie philosophizin’—would not be able to bring myself to look a chicken in its beady little eyes and then lop off its head. I wanted to. But could I?
When I rolled up to Flying Plow on a recent summer morning, the mobile slaughtering station, rented from another local farmer, was already parked in the yard: a trailer complete with slaughter station (six chairs, no waiting), scalder (to loosen feathers), plucker tub (for removing feathers), and processing counter with convenient offal hole, all in gleaming stainless steel. Dang. This was for real.
Processing was already well underway. Sarah and three helpers were all busily gutting and cleaning just-killed birds. Tom was upending 7-week-old Cornish Cross chickens into the killing cones, open-bottomed metal funnels that both calm and contain the birds. (For some reason, being upside down seems to mesmerize chickens). There, in full view of the rest of the astonishingly docile flock waiting its turn nearby in the back of Tom’s pickup truck, he gently stretched out each bird’s neck and slit its throat with a knife, then held its feet while it bled out.
“Why don’t the other ones make a break for it?” I asked him between birds.
“Too dumb,” was his reply.
Not that Tom is an in any way callous or unfeeling about what he’s doing: Before slitting, he silently thanks each bird for giving its life and future nourishment. He and Sarah tended these birds from chicks, feeding and watering them and moving their mobile pens to fresh grass twice each day, protecting them from predators. But, ultimately, these chickens are just another farm-raised crop, like the tat soi and tomatoes they grow in the fields.
I got busy helping, at first by doing my share of butchering: First cut off the feet, then the oil gland above the tail. Then slit the skin around the anus, taking care to not puncture any innards, and slide one hand inside to completely loosen the gut sack. If you do this correctly you can extract the entire package, including windpipe, in one intact handful. Snip out the heart and liver, drop the rest down the offal hole, wash the chicken, place in ice, repeat . . . 269 more times.
But Tom needed help, so I started corralling birds out of the back of the pickup and delivering them to the slaughter station. The chickens would flap and struggle when first picked up, then quickly calm. I could feel their beating hearts, their body heat: These animals were undeniably alive. Then Tom handed me the knife. My turn.
I stretched out the chicken’s neck, found the place right above where beak joins throat like Tom showed me, and lightly pressed knife against feathers. The chicken regarded me calmly. Looked right at me. I looked back, said a quick silent prayer of thanks, pressed harder. The blood came. I had taken my first animal life.
I felt at peace, and grateful—and frankly surprised that was all. I had anticipated guilt, at least; absolutely expected serious hesitation. But in the event I just . . . did it. And, suddenly, it was done. Mainly it just felt easy, as though the ability to kill an animal for food, although buried deep in our DNA, is seamlessly activated when standing there knife in hand, hunger in belly.
Later that night we had one of those chickens, roasted, for dinner. It was the best I’ve ever eaten.
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