If you eat meat, hopefully you are aware that it is not created in a factory and it does not originate in Styrofoam packages. It was once a living, breathing, animated life walking this earth. So if you are willing to eat it, you must be OK with its life ending for that purpose. But are you willing to take its life yourself? And if you eat meat, should you be willing to take that life yourself? When my husband and I (meat eaters) reflected on this, we came to the conclusion that yah, we should.
(WARNING: Though I strive to be tasteful in the photos chosen, there are some photos below that could offend sensitive readers.)
Did I mention that this is urban farming, so we live in a neighborhood. We are actually the only ones on the block with chickens and doing the whole urban farming thing (that I know of). But we are carrying on the style of our landlord who lived in this house before us. When we moved in, and our neighbors saw that we also got a goat and had chickens, they stated, more than once, “You aren’t going to kill your animals like (fill in name) did, are you? Our kids would go over and pet the animals and get attached to them, and it was traumatizing when they realized they were eaten.” I didn’t know how to tell them that we were not totally opposed to doing the same thing. I also didn’t know how to respond to their request. I can almost guarantee that these same neighbors who are super eco-friendly and locavores prefer to purchase meat from local farmers who “have a relationship with their animals”. Do their children not know what this meat looked like before it ended up on their plate? And being a mother myself, I had to wonder, what is the appropriate time for them to know?
My 86 year old German grandmother, Oma, grew up in rural Yugoslavia in a largely self-sufficient farming family. When I shared my reflection with her, she said “You know, I was responsible for butchering chickens by myself by the time I was 12, and it was not traumatizing to me. It was completely normal because that was how I was raised.” This makes so much sense to me. If eating chicken is normal, shouldn’t it be normal to participate in this process and understand that the meat was a chicken? It’s like we want our meat to have had a good life and have had a relationship with someone, but with someone else. Not us.
And yet, when it came time to consider butchering our own chickens, I did not feel right about having our nearly two year old present. To see death and blood at the hands of his parents. I didn’t want him to see it either. So then, at what age does it make sense to introduce this (really, any comments on this would be interesting to me)?
When I was in early grade school, my Opa (Oma’s husband) taught me how to fish for trout and how to clean them. It was not traumatizing to me; I felt very proud of my catch and my ability to do the grown-up task of cleaning it. Here is a picture:
I do think that having this experience as a child made the thought of butchering our chickens more tangible. I am thankful to Opa for that experience. And yet, it was a pretty big and overwhelming task for me. Here we are in our early thirties, having eaten meat most of our lives, and this was the first time for both of us to kill it ourselves. How ridiculous, really.
We decided that if it was too gross and sad for us to think that the thing on our plate used to be alive, then we need to become vegetarians. And if we are not going to become vegetarians, then we need to participate in killing and processing our own meat. On an intellectual level, I do not have a problem with being an omnivore. This is how the entire ecosystem functions: everything must consume other things in order for the whole system to work. If I don’t eat the chicken, one day something else will, such as a raccoon or hawk. If it lives to old age and one day its heart stops, once it is in the ground worms will eat its body. Just as worms will eat mine. I think our culture likes to pretend that death isn’t normal; like it is shocking when something dies. We talk about death in a whisper. And yet, the only thing that is guaranteed is death. Everything will die. Every plant, every animal, every human, every star. And its carbon and energy will be repurposed into something else. We are all just a bunch of spirit-filled carbon waiting to be consumed.
And yet, to be the hand actually taking a life raises all kinds of other thoughts and feelings. My friend shared the story that someone she knows routinely butchers her own chickens, and she cries every time. But she does not feel that means she should not butcher chickens, she feels that is the correct response. It is correct to feel emotion about it, and to be reverent about what is happening, and to understand the cost of that meal. It is more correct than getting a package that no longer resembles a chicken and consuming it without any reflection or any emotion.
Well…enough reflecting. The long and the short of it is we decided we were OK with butchering our own chickens to eat. Here is the story of us meeting our meat:
Last May I had two hens go “broody”, meaning their natural instinct to sit on a clutch of eggs and hatch them kicked in. This instinct has been bred out of most modern chickens because we want them to produce eggs for us to eat, and if they sit on the eggs, we lose a month of production. However, if a chicken does go broody, this is your chance for free new chickens. So I bought a dozen fertilized eggs from a woman who had copper marans, Easter eggers, and olive eggers, hoping I’d get some new egg colors in my flock. Ten hatched, seven made it to maturity. Of those seven, four were hens and three were roosters. We already had one rooster, so that meant we then had FOUR roosters. As soon as that became obvious, we decided that meant we would have at least three roosters in our freezer one day.
Roosters are big enough to eat at about 4 to 6 months of age. But we just never got around to butchering these roosters until last weekend, 9 months old. It seemed an overwhelming, messy task that we never made time to do. A month or two ago they all found their crowing voice. Every morning at 4am all FOUR roosters had a crowing contest. Did I mention we live in a neighborhood? Most city or county ordinances about having farm animals within city limits have some clause about “unless the neighbors complain”. If that happens, they can come take it all away. So an important part of URBAN farming especially is being respectful of the neighbors. A few weeks ago a neighbor that lives three houses down the road called my husband and asked if he could buy the roosters and kill them himself. I objected to raising the roosters that long, and paying for their feed, for them to end up in someone else’s freezer. But we realized it was time.
(An aside is that a few weeks ago one of the roosters almost got killed by the other three, but I saved his life. He recovered and rejoined the flock. Part of the reason I saved him was so all my previous efforts would not go to waste. If he was going to die, shouldn’t he provide for my family rather than the scavengers?)
On the chosen day, I kept watching the roosters out scratching around in the sun, enjoying life, thinking, “I’m about to end all this for them. Little do they know that this is their last day.” Then I thought, “How different will it be on my last day, whenever it comes?”
We waited to feed the chickens until we were ready to butcher them. In my research, it seemed that the two best ways to kill a chicken were to either slit its jugular vein with a quick slice while it was upside down in a killing cone or other way to restrain it, or chopping its head off on a chopping block. Trying to hold the chicken still on a chopping block and getting a clean swing seemed difficult, so we chose to try a quick slice. As recommended, we tied the bird by the feet upside down, which calms them. We used a razor blade. I was too shaky (I actually don’t do well with blood), so my husband gave the slice while I held the bird so it didn’t move. There was a cut and bleeding, but not as much as it seemed there should be. We didn’t get deep enough. I started saying, “Oh God, oh God, oh God…” But the rooster actually didn’t seem too bothered. He didn’t squawk or anything, he just cocked his head and looked at us like, “Is that all?” I yelled at my husband that this wasn’t working and we needed a chopping block. He ran and got something to chop on and a good, sharp hatchet while I held the rooster. We took the rooster down and put him on the block. He held remarkably still, and with one quick, decisive chop it was over.
Then I went to get a second rooster. We chose the one whose life I’d saved a few weeks before. (We chose the two loudest crowers). That was a little difficult for me. And yet, I had to think, that this was why he was alive. Without my intervention, his egg would have been an omelet instead of stuck under my hen to be hatched. All of his experiences of being alive and running around in the sun were due to that action. And I’d saved him from being pecked to death, a much more painful and violent death than this would be, for this purpose. Now it was time.
We went straight to the chopping block method for this one. I held him and talked softly while my husband did one quick, decisive chop. And it was over. I felt a little shaky.
I thought about shepherds who live intimately with their flock and care deeply for each sheep. But who are ultimately raising them for slaughter. How do they deal with that? I also thought of Hemmingways’ “The Old Man and the Sea” that I recently read on a vacation. The old man talks about his great love for the fish, and how unfortunate it is that he was born a fisherman and life required that he must kill the fish.
After the killing part was over, the rest of the processing was relatively easy for me. Once the chickens bled out we dipped the carcass in hot water (“scalding”) so the feathers could be removed easily. Plucking them was then pretty quick and easy. Once the carcass was naked it looked more like something from the grocery store and less like an animal. I followed the step by step instructions in a book for how to clean it. We froze one bird and cooked one bird that night for dinner.
I first soaked it in a brine for a few hours. The brine was a jar of salt and other spices (including garlic and juniper berries) meant for a turkey at Thanksgiving that we never used. I then simply rubbed it in olive oil and baked it at 350 until it was done. Both my husband and I admitted that cutting into the bird to eat it felt a little strange, a little different. But let me tell you, that was the most amazing tasting chicken I have ever eaten. I ate the dark meat of the leg. Maybe the brine had something to do with it as well. But that meat was so tender, and the flavor was slightly gamey, like mild duck. The gamey flavor was probably due to our chickens ranging freely over almost an acre. They eat bugs and all kinds of plants and acorns and kitchen scraps. That is a much different diet than the confined hens fed only chicken feed. This was a totally different experience than eating any other chicken I’ve ever tasted.
Photo: Sean O’Connor
I’d so braced myself for the task, that is wasn’t until that evening that emotions started seeping in. I didn’t exactly feel sad. I felt changed. Similar to the way I’d felt after I’d lost my virginity or after I’d given birth. Something was different, though you couldn’t see it from the outside, and couldn’t pinpoint how. I’d passed into some other realm of human experience that I couldn’t undo, and that separated me from all other people who had never passed into it. It wasn’t necessarily bad, it was just big.
So would I do it again?
I’m honestly not chomping at the bit to do it again, but am not opposed to it either. I think that like all other human experiences, the more I’d do it, the more normal and quick and easy it would become. I’d get sharper kitchen knives before I’d do it again. It was messy and took a long time. And back to my discussion at the beginning of this post, it might not make for good relations with the neighbors if we were slaughtering roosters all the time.
But it is economical. I made four meals from that one rooster:
Meal one: roast chicken with potatoes and vegetables (fed two adults and one child)
Meal two: chicken tacos (fed four adults and one child)
Meal three: chicken coconut soup (made from the chicken stock I made with the bones and meat scraps) (fed two adults and one child)
Meal four: chicken pot pie (made from very last chicken meat scraps boiled off when I made the stock and the chicken stock) (fed two adults and one child with leftovers)
And there is a second in the freezer. In the interest of trying to feed my family fresh, organic, non-hormone, local food on a tight budget, raising our own chickens for meat makes a lot of sense. At the farmer’s market, whole birds cost $4 to $6 a pound; so $12 to $30 a bird. Say we raise enough to eat just one of our own chickens a month. That saves some money and is high quality meat.
There are local slaughter houses that will butcher chickens for pretty cheap. (Someone recommended one that charged $2 per bird awhile back, but now I can’t remember the name of the place or find it again). However, if we are only butchering a few a year, the cost of gas and driving them over might be more trouble than it’s worth? Plus, it might be more traumatizing to the chickens to be boxed up and transported and handed over to someone else than to have a quick end here.
Are we really going to make this a part of our urban farming lives? Jury is still out. I’m not sure. I will keep you posted.