3.18.2010

Chicken Dinner Workshop: From farm to fork.

Rhode Island Red Rooster "Vincent"
Rhode Island Red rooster, otherwise known as coq au vin.

I have a real doozy of a post today. I must warn you, unlike my recent Tiny Tuesday rituals, there is nothing cute, or even remotely endearing about what I'm going to tell you: We killed a chicken. Two, actually. There was blood and guts, and we did it on purpose. Then we ate them.

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.

first roast chicken
My first roast chicken, last August.

Last August, after a long spell of adhering to a vegetarian diet, I roasted a chicken for the first time in my life. I wrote:
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.

***


Wandering around the chicken yard. Despite what I expected, it didn't stink one bit.

It was a cool, overcast day at 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.

13 comments:

  1. ahh i sucked it up and clicked on the link and despite the gory details it was pretty educational. this was a fantastic post and i really loved reading your point of view. i would never have the guts to kill my own chicken for dinner so kudos to you! :)
    even though i didn't kill a chicken myself, reading this makes me appreciate meat more.

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  2. This was really interesting to read...thanks for sharing! The photos weren't as gory as I was expecting. : )

    I think I would be able to kill an animal for food. It wouldn't be pleasant, but I could do it. There's a pretty big distinction in my mind between animals for food and animals for companionship/looking cute. heh. I have no problem eating animals that fall into that food category, or the fact that they have to die so I can eat them. I dunno. It just seems matter of fact, you know? As long as they live a healthful life, like the chickens at this farm, it seems right and normal.

    Good post! Made me think.

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  3. I'm glad you made it through. Processing and eating an animal you know becomes easier the more you do it. All life we know about, exempting those at the very bottom of the food chain, requires eating other living things.

    I really liked the photos. Though they can be grisly, they are very real.

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  4. Perspective: There is geological time, change on the scale of millions of years. And there is the time scale experienced by decaying Muons, life measured in millionths of a second. On a human time scale of years, the world changes. Sometimes imperceptibly over a lifetime. Sometimes dramatically!

    I'm a bit older, but not that much. Perhaps 25-30 years, but I have noted a change in our food practices.

    When I was a child, a post-WWII baby, TVs were only black and white and chain-style fast food places where virtually non-existent. People cooked their own meals, usually from scratch. Prepared, frozen TV dinners were an unusual treat, and McDonald's was just getting started. Most restaurants were owned and operated by individuals and families that were hands-on in the kitchen. Families were closer to the food sources, either living on farms, or close relations who lived on farms, and their foods were relatively "raw" and minimally processed.

    The food world has changed. As a child, I spent time husking corn, or shelling it, attended hog slaughters, and spent time with my mom, dicing vegtables, trimming beef or cutting up chickens. Boxed and pre-packaged foods, were rare. Sliced Bread and bottled milk were staples, but we had a a milk man that delivered our milk and eggs daily to the door, and a produce truck would drive by daily selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

    When I was older, I spent time doing other things that required an intimate knowledge of the food chain. We are omnivores. We can eat many things, but we are also grist for the cycle of life. Our view point is very narrow when we fail to see that we are and can be part of the food chain.

    Trying to sanitize the process by new, pretty packages and fancy buzz words is a disconnect between reality and our ideal world.

    Robert Heinlein once wrote about a world (Starship Troopers - an opinion piece here, http://www.nitrosyncretic.com/rah/ftp/fedrlsvc.pdf) where only those that served the community, usually as soldiers, were considered full citizens. The idea was not new to him. He just said it in an entertaining way that has recently been rediscovered in movies.

    However, philosophers since Plato have recognized that life is messy and hard. And human nature is to idealize certain things. It is so much easier to kill by proxy, than to do it yourself. However, life really is about such choices.

    Are you committed enough to a cause, or an ideal, or even to living, to do what is necessary to achieve that "goal".

    We eat, but are we able and willing to raise our food and prepare it? If not perhaps we should die, as an unfit participant in the food chain? As biologically and ecologically unfit? Maybe that is too Gaiian ... but we are all inter-connected, no matter how we try to hide the relationships.

    Trying to sanitize or distance ourselves from the food cycle seems to be a driving force over the last few decades, and that process also leads to dietary and ecological costs that are bad for us. Making life too easy makes us soft, unfit and careless.

    Life and survival imply a struggle, a challenge, conscious decisions, a give and take and a balance of choices. There are no free lunches, and thinking that there are leads to mental and intellectual sloth. And a subtle deterioration of individuals and the society they inhabit.

    Push button, high tech living insulates us from the true cost of life. Are we individually willing to pick up arms, travel to foreign lands and kill people whose goals run counter to ours? If not, why are we in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    And is such a question even relevant to what and how we eat? I see a connection, and leave it to you, to decide if there is.

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  5. Oh that first photo, I love it !!!!

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  6. Thanks for posting for your experience on this. When I saw these images on your Flickr I thought how brave you are because I don't think I could ever face this aspect of the food chain. I could see the live one, have the killing done for me and then deal with the plucking, but I could never take the knife in my own hand. With that said, you really make me think of how much we should cherish the food we do get and not let it go to waste.

    In the other topic, I too am anti-big farm so I am really happy to see a human farmer offering these types of classes. Thank you so much for posting this.

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  7. Sigh - I think I am cursed to always make a typo in my comments on your blog. *HUMANE* farmer...I hope the farmer is a human. Duh.

    (Also, my word verification for this comment is "boobi.")

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  8. Thanks everyone for stopping in to chat about this! I love all the comments and I think it is awesome that other people who read whirly bird are interested in some of these issues too!

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  9. I found this post through your comment on the RiverSong Farm facebook page. I have not gotten to the point of killing my own chicken yet, but I may get there. I became intrigued by the idea after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I hope to attend one of these workshops eventually. It sounds fascinating. I live in Taylorsville, KY.

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  10. Hi Deanna! Thanks for stopping by. I love that book. Even if you don't kill the chicken yourself (it's optional) the workshop is very moving and informative. I hope they decided to do it again!

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  11. We're planning on hosting more of these workshops. The next is planned for the end of June. We haven't picked a date yet, so get in touch with us through the website at http://riversongfarm.com for details and to sign up.

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  12. Johanna this was a very neat and informative post. I feel if I was to ever decide to eat meat again I'd be more apt to go this route and not just buying chicken nuggets from McDonald's. And at least now you know whenever the inevitable apocalypse dudes era happens you guys can handle getting your chickens prepped and ready to go!

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