Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fowl to Feast

I killed a chicken. Stuck it in a kill cone and slit its throat. Dipped it in a 145 degree water bath to loosen its feathers. Hung it up by its two legs and started plucking. Finally, I took it down and put it on the table and removed its innards.

Eight of us took the workshop for various reasons. The food editor of our local newspaper was there which made most of us nervous at first. You know, what if we can't perform the function. Here we are now - failures in print. One woman, who called herself Mud, was trying to reconnect with her family roots in the midwest as well as find ways to integrate the good elements of her time as a Hari Krishna. Most of us had read Omnivore's Dilemma or Fast Food Nation.

I did it because I want to understand the depth of my food choices. I figure if I can't take direct responsibility for eating meat, then I probably shouldn't be eating it. At various times, I 've been a vegetarian - even following a macrobiotic diet. While I benefited from those diets, I found that I require meat to give me complete balance. Many of the people at the workshop had been vegetarians. Even Steve, our teacher had been one as a way to rebel against his family who farmed for a living.

I started anthropomorphizing my bird immediately. I named her Myrtle. She was red and like most chickens looked ridiculously confused. I caught her in the pen and then carried her down to the slaughtering station and I held her and stroked her for about twenty minutes. We developed a relationship. When the slaughtering started, there was a little squawking amongst the flock. What was being communicated? Some of the birds, including my Myrtle, squawked back and forth. Both Myrtle and the bird in front of me kept looking keenly at the woods next to us. A good place to escape.

You can alter someone's breathing by modeling relaxation yourself. I know this from working as a massage therapist and it comes in handy with kids. We're constantly modeling behavior - good or bad - and the people around us pick up on it and adjust accordingly. So, I tried to be calm and relaxed as we stood waiting. Myrtle relaxed and settled down in my arms. I wanted to give her a dignified death, or at least one that wasn't fraught with terror. Practically speaking, the more relaxed the animal, the less lactic acid that gets distributed into the muscles. Lactic acid makes the meat tougher - you're eating fear.

It was my turn. My voice had that deep, calm tone that means I'm scared and out of my element. I turned her upside down, holding her wings, and put her in the kill cone. With the other hand, I reached up and found her head. I pulled it through the bottom of the cone and stretched out her neck. The idea here is to slit the throat at the carotid artery. The bird loses consciousness and dies, unaware of pain. That's the theory. How do we know for sure? I turned her head to one side to expose the artery and pulled my knife across it. It was shocking to feel the blood coming out of her warm. Her body jerked. It took several minutes before she was completely bled out.

There was a continuity to the moments preceding and during the slaughter that became increasingly hard to maintain. For one thing, as I was standing there plucking Myrtle, I became insanely hungry. But the repetition of movements - the plucking - makes it easy to check out. Also, I was surprised by how quickly, just a few plucks, and the chicken starts to resemble what you buy at the store. Except it's still warm.

I live less than a mile away from this farm. The day's event promised to give "poultry eaters a deeper connection to the food they consume." What this means is that - essentially - I paid for the opportunity to butcher my own chicken. It's kind of odd when you think about it (and, of course, that's the point). People the world over either hunt/grow and butcher their own food every day. My great grandmother raised chickens in her back yard. She hung their dead bodies on the clothes line. Here I am, three generations later, paying someone for the opportunity to get reconnected to my food. I can almost hear great grandma say, "I broke my back raising chickens so that my children's children's children could pay to wring a chicken's neck?"

I took Myrtle home and put her in a brine bath - salt, rosemary, thyme, peppercorns, garlic, a bit of sugar, and water. I let her soak for a couple of days and then I roasted her in an iron skillet. Superb. Obviously, I'm not going to be doing this on a regular basis. That's not our set-up here. I have started buying less meat and have found that the little I buy goes a long way with the family.

The children have also become more aware of where chickens, etc come from. We've talked about how everything the chicken eats becomes part of us - we're made up of the sun that shone on the grass, the water that fell from the sky, bugs, gravel, etc. Carter observed that it might not be a good idea to eat so much ice cream because you wouldn't want it to become too much of you. Indeed.

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