Friday, August 21, 2009

Like that Chorus Line girl, I felt nothing.

In a San Francisco Chronicle article about urban homesteading earlier this week there was this quote from a woman who raises her own livestock in Berkeley:

"The level of appreciation for nature and life when you slaughter your own meat creates a kind of ethic that I think is what we need to save the world. That's why I do this -- I want to live with a deep gratefulness and appreciation for what the world provides me."

This passage -- which I read in the wake of Arlene's slaughter -- made me want to pave over our garden and get a Costco card. 

Let's start with sentence one, in which the woman (who is probably very nice, sorry to jump on her passing remark to a reporter, but I must) asserts that if more people regularly slit the throats of animals it will "create a kind of ethic" that is going to "save the world."

I know what she's getting at in her fuzzy way. She's suggesting that if we take less for granted, if we understand the cost in blood of every burger, if we are more in touch with the realities of food production, we will be better, more soulful people. 

A nice idea and complete nonsense.  Throughout history people have slaughtered their own meat and also slaughtered each other. Moreover, the places in the world where people regularly butcher their own animals today are places those of us accustomed to democracy, universal education, and clean drinking water would prefer not to live. Slaughtering your own meat is not barbaric, but it is not ennobling. It's like snaking your own toilet.

Now, sentence two. More well-intentioned nonsense. Slaughtering, plucking, and trying to choke down Arlene gave me "a deep gratefulness and appreciation" for what grocery stores provide me.
Enough preamble. Here's the story of our chicken-slaughtering. Please skip this if you're highly sensitive or tender-hearted. 

Husband and I woke up the morning after we came back from Guatemala and heard crowing from the henhouse. One of our hens turned out to be a rooster, and boy chickens are not allowed in this town. We went out, identified the crowing bird -- it was brawny, butchy Arlene, what a surprise -- who continued to crow intermittently throughout the day. 

My father, who worked at a slaughterhouse in high school, came over in the late afternoon. Owen helped us catch Arlene, then went upstairs and turned on the TV really loud.

I placed Arlene on a tree stump and held him down while my father put the bird's neck between some sharp garden shears and took off his head. Arlene thrashed for about 25 seconds and then went limp. My hands were covered with blood. 

I wasn't sure how I was going to feel -- I've never intentionally killed a living creature more evolved than a Dungeness crab.  I didn't feel bad, and I didn't feel good. I didn't feel empowered and I didn't feel enlightened. I felt nothing. He was a chicken. I washed my hands. Critics often suggest that here in the United States we don't appreciate the connection between the living animals that run around and the shrink-wrapped filets at Ralph's. I used to accept this on faith, but after killing Arlene, I no longer believe this is true. As it turns out, I understood the animal-meat connection perfectly from the get-go. 

We hung Arlene upside down for an hour in a garbage bag to drain his blood while we had dinner. Then I boiled water, dunked him in there for a minute, and plucked him. He smelled like wet cat. Plucking was both messier and easier than I'd anticipated -- the feathers came off in fistfuls, but they stuck to my hands, which was annoying. I also pulled off big chunks of skin, which made for a really ugly chicken carcass. See photo at top.

After plucking, I sliced open the body and scooped out the innards -- puffy intestines, liver, tiny heart. This took about three minutes. Some undigested grain spilled out, and this did make me a little sad. Arlene was cut down in his prime with a gullet full of cracked corn. Poor guy. I rinsed him off, placed him in the fridge.

Yesterday, I put him in a pot with an onion and some water.
After taking the macabre photograph, I cut off his horny green feet. I know chicken feet supposedly enhance stock, but I didn't have the energy to skin them.

I let the chicken cook for three hours, strained the broth, cut the meat off the bones. There wasn't much, and it was swarthier than usual. I put it back in the pot with some rice.
Now, we get to the mysterious part of the story. I understood there was going to be a problem when I kept postponing tasting the broth for salt. It dawned on me that I really did not want to eat this soup. 

But I tasted it, salted it, added lemon and egg (avgolemono), served it. 

The kids were surprisingly unfazed. Owen ate quite a bit, Isabel ate the broth and rice, but avoided the meat. My husband would not touch it. I sort of wanted to show him up, but why be a bitch when you don't have to. It was delicious soup and I would have dumped it down the drain if no one was looking. 

I'm still trying to figure out why I was so repulsed by this soup. I have some thoughts, but also some non-butchering work to attend to this morning. More later. 


  1. Killing and eating something you have raised from a baby and essentially regarded as a pet is not easy --at least the first time. You have handled it with the right balance of objectivity and unease.

  2. Wow, a complicated and compelling tale. I don't know what to think. Those photos are hard to look at. I'll be curious to read others' reaction.

  3. Thanks for the honesty. I tried a new-to-me whole chicken recipe yesterday and the one I bought still had innards in it. Pulling them out made me lose my appetite for the bird, though it smells normal (ie, good) and my kids seem fine with it.
    Earlier this week we went to a place that sold us some organic, free range chicken with pesto, mozzarella, and tomato and the meat was delicious.
    And cost keeps coming in to this. I can't believe it costs so much more for chickens to have a decent little life but the free-range, ethically raised chickens cost double around here.
    I think I'm overthinking my eating. Those feet would have done me in, though. I'll be interested to read any further analysis. And you have my frank admiration for turning something swarthy into something edible. I give up when that happens.

  4. Tipsy, I'm a long time lurker, first time poster. This is the most thoughtful, insightful treatment of the whole natural foods, urban farming etc debate I think I've ever read. Your dissection of the quote (which you're right, is the kind of sentiment that is so often taken at face-value) is so damn true and practical I just want to cut it out and read it to myself when I feel guilty for buying shrink-wrapped chicken breasts. Thanks for not just cutting through the hype, but taking a nuanced and thoughtful approach. We all want to do better for animals and the environment, but sometimes it's worth remembering why people stopped killing their own meat in the first place.
    Love your style, and the blog!

  5. I am impressed--and slightly sad.

    As long as you are eating chicken otherwise, it is just one step closer to the farm yard. Nothing wrong with understanding where food comes from and what is involved. People fish and gut their fish, they shoot pheasant and gut/defeather it and so on. It is part of the process---a bit gory but part of the cycle. Hardy realism.

    But it does make one think about the food chain---and just how you feel about eating meat. Or fish, or whatever. Not bad to think it through and accept whatever conclusion you reach.

    I for one will keep eating meat, etc. but have no plans to raise and butcher it myself! Not brave enough! Have we become hot house flowers and divorced ourselves from reality if we get squeamish over such things. Possibly...

  6. I never realized that chicken legs were so long with the feet on.

    Not to gross anybody out, but the Chinese way of eating chicken feet is to leave the skin on. Order chicken feet during your next dim sum outing and you will see. You do chop off the toenails though.

    If you didn't eat the soup, I take it you didn't eat any of the innards either. (I've always liked the heart and the gizzard myself.)

    Finally, have you ever heard the story about Ira Glass (from NPR's This American Life) and the chicken lady? She wrote every year to protest his annual Thanksgiving poultry themed show saying that if he got to know her chickens, he wouldn't want to eat them. He actually visited her and now doesn't eat chicken. Here's a video of him discussing the chicken lady on David Letterman.

  7. I'm fascinated by this. We have four 2.5-year-old hens as pets -- and for the eggs -- and people joke all the time about cooking them up. I laugh and say these old birds certainly wouldn't taste good. Or I say I'm not willing to work that hard for a single roast chicken dinner. But I also know I'd have a hard time dipping a spoon into soup I'd known as Cookie or Faye. ... Well, the first time, at least.

  8. i think everyone needs to re-read cormac mccarthy's "the road."
    the absolute best line in you fabulous post was "he was a chicken."
    that really says it all.
    and these are the most entertaining photos in the history of this blog. the feet are totally inspired.
    having said all that, i don't know if i would've eaten arlene or not, but my reservations all have to do with texture, appearance, flavor. was he any good is the question? folks in american don't normally eat a lot of rooster except in songs like "she'll be coming 'round the mountain."
    we eat hyper-processed hen-like barnyard product, even many of the so-called "free range" girls.

  9. Once in a while my kids show a little squeamishness about eating one of our animals, but we try to couch it in terms of "Didn't you do a good job of raising Violet? You fed and watered her and made sure she got everything she needed to be healthy, and to make us healthy."

    It helps that children are fairly bloodthirsty by nature.

  10. I definitely think it is important to know where your food comes from. People should know what happens in large scale factory farms, but I wouldn't go so far to say that if everyone killed their own meat that the world would be a better place. When I was a kid we had a few pigs, and I've been fishing, seen dead dear hanging in the garage, and seen plenty of other slaughtered animals at my grandmother's farm (for their own use). It never really bothered me, nor did it turn me off from eating meat (though I was vegetarian for a while for other reasons).

    Very interesting and thought provoking post.

  11. I would also like to add that I named one of the pigs snoopy and used to feed him every morning before kindergarten. Maybe kids are less likely to get grossed out.

  12. TIpsy, I missed you while on vacation and away from wireless. I love everything about this post, and sympathize. I've never slaughtered anyone for food, beyond lobster, who I have no sympathy for (sorry DFW), but the wholeness of things can be perturbing. Even if you didn't raise them from cute chicks. Last night's dinner for us was two small Branzino, cooked in a salt crust, and entirely whole. In regards to the bloodthirsty habits of children, as mentioned by Layne, I thought my boy might be disgusted by the concept, and debated not showing him the results before filleting it for the table (aka, hacking it into bits and doing a very poor job avoiding bones). But then I did, and he poked at the head with great interest, pronounced the eye squishy and then ate it without further remark. Other than, "I'm full and can I have dessert," that is.

  13. I believe it is a better end to Arlene to eat him than to bury him and let him rot.

    That said, we're raising lambs in the spring and have chosen a non-meat breed and intend they will be fluffy pets and organic mowers and never grace our table (or anyone else's...)

    I am a sap.

  14. As a hunter I deal with this somewhat. I don't raise the animals I "harvest," but I certainly deal with the aftermath. My motivations for hunting revolve around connecting with the natural world. It is absolutely amazing to be underneath a massive flock of incoming ducks as the sun comes up!

    I eat what I kill, and kill only what I am willing to eat. As I sit in the duck blind on sunny days, doing not much more than thinking about why I'm there, I think about a fundamental question that as residents of Earth we should all be asking ourselves:

    Am I a part of, or apart from, Nature?

    What is it for you? Do you spend your life trying to escape the rain, blissfully thinking that food comes from your local grocery store? Or do you welcome the changing seasons, not sleeping well during the full moon?

    We all make choices in this life. Hopefully we learn and grow from them. I make choices every duck season. I say words of thanks to my bag of mallards. I give back at my local DU dinner, and I wait to see if I rot in purgatory because of my decisions.

  15. Tipsy: I live in the midwest and travel to all parts of the country, it is intersting what is going on out there. What your doing is "different" but not, depending on where you live and the lifestyle you lead. My wife is not a Whole Chicken buyer in the store, she likes the processed breast. We have ten acres and my goal was to raise our food and help my childern learn what good, fresh food is but also learn work ethic and that animals raised for food deserve and require respect. My 14 yr old daughter has raised pigs, chickens, goats, cats, dogs, rats and various fish for most of her life. All with respect and carring. She eats the pigs and even talks about how and what she fed it and which breed is best for eating verses showing (all have names)

    It think it is all a good education, like it or not someone has to do what you did to the chicken to feed people, sometimes, more now then before, people forget how this works.

    Thanks for following through with making the bird into food, that is what he is for ( roostes are not the best for meat production, most are soup so you got it right all the way around.

    I enjoy your blog, it is family, history, reality and the unknown, good stuff.