If you've been reading Whirly Bird for a while, you know that I am passionate about food, where it comes from and what it means, and while slaughtering animals isn't usually part of my whimsical, sing-songy repertoire, I hope you'll find this particular account relevant to who I am or who I am trying to be. Beneath the unsavory details, I promise that my motives are thoughtful and sincere.
One cool thing about being vegetarian for nearly ten years, is that when you stop being vegetarian, you are welcomed by an entirely new world of cooking adventures. In the vegetarian world, I thought I was a real big deal, gloating over my homemade seitan noodle soup or flawlessly pan-fried tofu. These days, I'm eating birds. Until recently, I didn't really know what to do with a bird. Especially a featherless one with it's severed neck up its ass. It's a little daunting.
Nevertheless, I feel that if I'm going to commit to eating an animal, I must also endure all of the gory details. I need to recognize that it was once living and breathing, which may easily be lost on someone when today's meat often comes pre-cut, boneless and shrink-wrapped.
I wonder, if I'm okay with eating this chicken, shouldn't I also be prepared to kill one? Now that I feel comfortable eating a chicken, wouldn't I rather kill and eat a happy, healthy one from my backyard than the mysterious chicken from the grocer's freezer section? Yes, I think I would have the nerve. I hope. If I lacked the gumption, then maybe I should stick with tofu.
Now, peering into the chest cavity of this carcass, I swallow hard, realizing that I have to make this good. To come half-stepping with a hasty, ill-conceived plan would be a disgrace to the bird. This chicken died to be eaten - the least I could is fish the soggy bag of guts out of it's rear, stuff it with a lemon and prepare a cozy bed of aromatic vegetables. (Read the whole post, here.)
Fast forward to last weekend. I've long surpassed the squeamishness that went along with dressing my first chicken, and I'm now bravely preparing to answer the question I posed to myself months ago - Could I play a direct role in the death of my dinner? It wasn't easy or enjoyable, but the answer is yes. I can and I did.
For a long time I decided to not eat animals for two reasons. At first, eating meat just gave me the jeebies. Early signs of vegetarianism crept in first as a child (a princess, I'd argue), who was severely revolted by anything greasy, slimy, sinewy or otherwise suggested the slightest hint of flesh. Food with bones was a definite no-go. I claimed that meat was "grody." For years I had the habit of biting down on my fork when I ate, because if I closed my lips around the tines, I was terrified of getting sauce on my lips. Then I'd be a spaghetti-faced heathen like my pig brothers, and I refused to lower myself to their grubby standards, however fun or delicious it might have been. What a little brat I must have been. I would only willingly eat meat if it didn't resemble it's original form - things like chicken fingers, fish sticks, hot dogs. I followed this act until I became a teenager, but then the lines between my finicky palate and social conscious began to blur. Instead of writing meat off as being "gross," I began to call myself a vegetarian, on the grounds that meat from factory farms was unhealthy, derived cruelly, and that the industry had a destructive impact on our environment. Nowadays, my palate has come a long way. I'll try anything once. My stance on factory farms, however, has never changed.
When I decided to try meat again, I finally came to terms with what I always feared as a child - that my burger once had a face, a pulse. As an omnivore, I think that is important to internalize. If I can't handle that part of it, then I don't think I have any business eating it for supper. So many of us passively consume boneless, skinless meat from shiny sterile packages, wrapped in plastic, stuffed in boxes or outfitted in pretty paper wrappers from fast food restaurants. I want to feel connected to everything I eat- not just the vegetables we grow in our garden. Choosing to buy local, pasture-raised meat is one way to shorten the steps from farm to fork. In this case, the farmers offered us the opportunity to learn how to slaughter, pluck, gut and clean our own chicken.
Kurt with the farm's pet mini potbellied pig, Hank. He was just the cutest little guy,
and he followed Kurt around the whole time. He also liked to hump things.
Kurt, an avid hunter and fisherman, jumped at the chance. I was nervous to commit, but tried to hide it, feigning enthusiasm. Even as an herbivore, I've always admired his compassionate views on how and what he chooses to eat. He admits that he's cried every time he's shot a deer. While the killing is the worst part of it, he feels rewarded by cutting industry out of his personal food chain. He takes comfort in knowing the intimate details of the animal's death: One moment, they're roaming around happy and healthy in their natural habitat, the next, lights out! That's a happier death, he reminds me, than what most people experience. Our chickens met a better fate than most of the animals Americans eat on a daily basis. Kurt's last concession, one that resonates with me most, is that taking part in the food system in this way enables him to feel a greater sense of appreciation and respect for the life that he's responsible for taking. Ultimately, these are all reasons why I signed up for the chicken dinner workshop. To feel connected.
***Riversong Farm in Taylorsville, KY. I am standing in a grassy open field along the wooded bank of the Salt River, surrounded by hundreds of lively, squawking chickens. There is a small neighborhood of chicken coops - handsome A-frame establishments built from a hodge-podge of plywood. Chickens peer out from the little doorways and perch on rooftops. They don't seem to care about us. Some strut around the field in little gangs while others inspect the grasses for insects or saunter blithely across the gravel road to nose around the farmer's yard. I watch three chickens chase a fat orange cat named Meathead. Clearly, the chickens rule the roost here.
Farmer, Tom Scanlan, raises Rhode Island Red and Barred Rock chickens according to the belief that the animals should lead happy, healthy lives. They are non-medicated, antibiotic-free, hormone free and pasture raised, meaning they've never been trapped by fences or cages. He sells the live chickens and their (delicious, extra yolky!) eggs for $3 a carton. The workshop cost $10 per person, which included the price of a live chicken of our choosing. Tom plans to host more workshops in the future. If you're interested, information will be posted on their Facebook page or website.
I realize this sort of thing may not be your cup of tea, so I took the liberty to bundle up all the gory details and technical tidbits into a dandy little slide show with captions. Not intended for the faint of heart, so consider yourself warned!
Whew! Well if you clicked the link, thanks for braving through the most graphic photos in Whirly history. (I promise, I won't make it a habit.) Have any of you ever killed an animal for food? Would you be able to do it? I'd like to hear your thoughts.