Ever Wonder if You Could Kill What You Eat? We Did the Other Night
Last night, we had fourteen people over for dinner. And they wanted chicken. Good thing we had some...but they were running around. And so it was--all in the name of well balanced meals--farm life came down to its grittiest.
I live and work on a farm in central Vermont, and there's always family around. That means a lot of emotional turmoil (and joy, ehem), a lot of secretly chugging whiskey in the closet (not really, but really), and best of all--extra hands. No one visits without pitching in. And now that it's late August, the farm work is at its peak. Harvesting, preserving food for winter, and chicken killing.
While some may balk (bawwwk) at the idea of taking a life on the grounds of a homestead, we do it for the sake of food--not sport--and when it comes down to it, for the sake of the chicken itself. It's not indulging in sadism, nor for power over an animal, nor an image of something hardcore and awesome to impress the neighbors. It's about being connected to the very foundations of self sufficiency, and understanding that meat does not simply fall from the sky, packaged on a shelf in a supermarket; it comes from a living, breathing being. Chicken killing at home is deep. Emotional. Ethical. As Joel Salatin says in his book Pastured Poultry Profit$, it's necessary:
"Animal rights activists, for all their misdirection, are right on target when pushing for animal slaughter as close to the point of production as possible. Not only does it relieve [the chicken's] stress, a direct cause of tough meat, but is far more environmentally sensible."
Joel Salatin is at the forefront of the farming movement. His name is becoming household, and his practices are emulated across the country. He's the farmer who changed Michael Pollan's life, in The Omnivore's Dilemma, remember? He's the farmer young farmers want to be; he makes money farming, but he does it right--his animals live according to their "ness", which means closest to their nature. And while most chicken producers send their birds long distances to slaughter houses (which really stresses out the chickens in their final days), like us--and many other small farmers in Vermont--Salatin supports the at-home processing method. To him, it represents the very foundation of his respect for his animals. He says:
"We have customers who occasionally like to come out and 'get connected' to their food...If one of our ultimate goals is to reconnect the urban and rural sectors of our culture, on-farm processing affords us a technique to accomplish that goal."
My fella's stepmom was intent on killing one of the two broilers for last night's dinner. She's a foodie from Brooklyn, and wanted to honor this chicken by taking its life as sweetly and quickly as possible. She wanted to get more connected to her food. She was nervous, but determined. We all gathered to watch, including Clara, the seven year-old aspiring artist/farmer, whose eyes were glued to the scene. It's not an easy thing to watch a chicken slaughter. While it may be common knowledge there's post-mortem thrashing--ever heard of "like a chicken with it's head cut off"?--seeing it live can be a bit gruesome. But unlike a public prisoner execution, we were there to celebrate the chicken's life, and what it had to offer us. And what better way to experience death for the first time. There was no: "take that, you sucker!" No proving our cultural masculinity, nor prowess. Therese was as careful and as kind as could be as she cooed to the bird, and quick as a wink in her execution with the knife. There was no suffering or stress on the bird, and it died in a habitat it's come to know quite well, with familiar smells and familiar views. Frida the dog sat quietly through it all, and afterward buried her treat: the feet.
Were we traumatized? Did we feel sorry for the chicken? Are we dreading this weekend, where (without family around for help) we'll have to kill 150 more? Here's why not.
I've been feeding, pasturing, watering, and talking to these guys since the spring. They wander around all day in grass, pecking for bugs. So I know they've had a good life when they make it to that cone; as far as a chicken goes, they've seen the best there is to offer. Of course there's something to say for one being taking another being's life--and to be honest, I'll probably be dealing with that emotionally for the rest of my life. It's not easy.
Did we feel more connected to our dinner, because of the kill? Surprisingly, the guests' reaction varied. Clara was ravenous for the meat. Another young woman couldn't touch it: "Too soon!" And Therese didn't wind up feel a closer connection to her food, the opposite of what she thought would happen. Perhaps it was her adrenaline, or maybe the ambiance of "this happens every day" farms tend to have. But maybe feeling connected to her food, in the end, wasn't as important as being connected to the animal during its life and final moments. Which is the nobler goal for us local food eating, small-scale farm supporting folk? I know since moving to a farm, I'm much less concerned with labels like Organic, Local, and Farm-Fresh. I want to know how that animal lived, not just what it ate, or where it came from. Local chicken could come from next door, and been raised in a cage. Organic chicken could have been pumped with feed, and not a blade of grass. Foodie labels don't excite me anymore. I want to know the amount of sun, fresh air and forage that animal got during its life. Organic, shmorganic, in other words. Give me the backstory.
I ate up the meat just like any other dinner--I felt no urge to pat myself on the back. It was almost like being numbed, until I realized--farming gets you as close to death as one can get. We see the composting of bodies, of soil, and the process by which an animal is born and leaves the world. We facilitate their birth and their death. We offer our animals a good life, in exchange for their bodies. And in time (the amount of which we'll never know, for we will never be able to control it), we'll offer up our own to the earth. But, at the same time...what if robots descended upon earth and decided to farm us? I might not like it.