practicing what I preach
Anyone who's spent time around me when the subject of the ethics of meat eating comes up knows my stance on this: if you're not willing to appreciate, understand, and even take responsibility for the fact that an animal had to die to provide you with your chicken satay or steak or whatever, then you probably shouldn't be eating meat. I just finished reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan and he came to pretty much the same conclusion. Moreover, he agrees with me that people's lack of willingness to explicitly be a party to the death involved in meat eating has led to the horror that is factory farming. In our eagerness to slough off responsibility for death to a third (or fourth or fifth) party, we also give up control over how that death, and the life that preceeds it happens, tacitly allowing innocent animals to be deprived of anything resembling the life they were developed for and permitting countless lives to be lived filled with disease and suffering.
The Omnivore's Dilemma is an absolutely fantastic book, by the way. You should go buy it, or borrow it from me if that's feasible.
Anyhow, in this fabulous book, Michael Pollan goes to Polyface Farm and takes part in an ethical, humane chicken slaughter. He gets pretty freaked out and overwrought, part of which is probably a touch of literary hyperbole, and part of which is likely due to his unfortunate city-boy upbringing (a liability to which he readily admits). But he does it, and he eats the chicken afterwards, and life goes on.
In a weird coincidence, just after I finished reading that part of the book (which conveniently details exactly HOW to slaughter and process a chicken) my friend Richard called to tell me that their four young roosters were getting to be a huge nuisance and a danger to each other, and they needed to be turned into food. Which was mine if I wanted it, I just had to do all the dirty work. Since I was pretty sure that at some point I'd made some comment to Richard and Nancy about being happy to foodify some of their chickens, I agreed, thankful that Mr. Pollan had seen fit to provide so many relevant details about how the offing of chickens happens.
Because, you see, while I am all for taking personal responsibility for one's food, to be strictly honest, I hadn't done much of that since high school. Which to be even more strictly honest, was around 20 years ago. And then, it wasn't chickens, it was ducks and rabbits, and I didn't have to get up close and personal, I had a gun. The only foodstuff I'd been personally responsible for since then was fish. And killing fish isn't exciting or traumatic or anything so much as something you have to do to stop them from flopping back into the water and swimming away.
So, off I went to Sooke today, armed with a newly sharpened knife and my new digital thermometer (for the scalding water) and recently obtained knowledge - from a book never intended as an instruction manual - to kill some chickens.
A bit about the chickens: they are an egg-producing hobby and pets for Richard and Nancy. These particular roosters were the result of letting their original rooster have a little fun, in hopes of obtaining more egg-producing birds. They are also not exactly *real* chickens, they are bantam chickens. Kind of like the toy-poodle version of the chicken. So I was not expecting to get much in the way of a real meal out of them. Also, as non-productive and annoying members of the flock, they'd been pretty much banned from the coop and left to their own foraging devices, which was good in that they were entirely "pasture-raised" (har har) but bad in that they'd spent, as young males are wont to do, far too much time fighting, yelling, and being bad-asses, and not nearly enough time eating. So they were a little on the skinny side.
Fine. I renamed them "quail". They were nice big quail.
Richard and I got set up with our equipment: a knife, a bucket, and a scalding tank. The first rooster was retrieved from the box it was in, in the garage (they'd been banished earlier that day after waking Richard and Nancy at 5 am, crowing enthusiastically outside their bedroom window.) I flipped it upside down, handed it by the feet to Richard to hold, gently grabbed its little head, exposed the bit of the neck I needed and gave a quick slice. This had the desired effect of opening the carotid artery nicely and blood started spurting, then dribbling out, with surprisingly minimal fuss on the part of the chicken. Unfortunately, my efficient slicing action also managed to include the fleshy part of my thumb. Richard and I took a quick break to add some additional equipment to our arsenal: gloves and band-aids.
The remaining chickens were dispatched quickly with minimal drama. They didn't have a lot of blood in them, didn't struggle against their fate, and really didn't even flap until their autonomic nervous systems kicked in with the message that the blood pressure was getting dangerously low - at which point the flapping was largely moot and ceased quickly. I was prepared for some kind of angst or difficulty or SOMETHING (thanks mostly to Mr. Pollan's own difficulties) but honestly, killing chickens is no harder than killing fish, and they stop flopping a lot sooner. When I think about how calmly and easily they died, then I think about what happens to a chicken caught by a racoon, a bear, or an eagle (all of which would have been likely ends for these birds - in fact, one was missing its tail as a result of a close call with a racoon, which resulted in the only named bird of the bunch (Bob of course)), I can't even bring myself to feel the slightest bit of regret for causing their demise. It was clean and quick, even from my unpractised hand.
What was not so clean and quick was the whole plucking and eviscerating bit. Richard abandoned me at this point to go off fishing, so I was left to my own devices. It was tedious, reasonably unpleasant work. Mr. Pollan had a plucking machine do this bit for him and I spent about an hour envying him. Then I spend 2 minutes on the relatively fun task of scorching off the little bitty feathers remaining with the propane torch. Then I spent another hour envying Mr. Pollan some more as I tried to tease the guts out of these wretchedly small little birds. (Pollan had nice big birds.) The actual process of removing the guts is not really much more involved than gutting a fish, except you get a nice big opening to deal with on a fish whereas with a bird you're working with the space between the rib cage and the hips. On these birds, that wasn't even two inches wide, and I could barely squeeze one finger in to run it around the cavity and loosen all the bits from the surrounding membrane. Not fun.
But, in the end, I had four basically clean (a few feather bases left stuck in - I'll either deal with them later or assume that once the skin has a layer of bacon roasted onto it, nobody will notice) nice-looking quail. (YES they are quail. They're the same size, they ate kinda the same things... they're quail, dammit.) And I was exhausted. Pollan was all "I couldn't eat chicken for a few days afterward" and I wondered if I would be the same way... not so much. I could happily cook and eat those little buggers except that I was just too damn tired (the table I was using to gut them on was a little higher than my knees. My back is soooo not amused with me right now.) So yes, I ordered take-out for dinner tonight, but if someone else had offered to cook the birds, I'd be all over that.
I'll post part 2 of all of this when I actually cook Bob and his buddies. I'm going to brine them and slather them with bacon, because they're skinny little things who had lots of exercise, and stuff them with something tasty because we need some extra calories out of them to call them a meal. I'm planning to feed them to my mom on Friday night. We'll see how that goes.
Anyway, mission accomplished: I have food that I took ultimate responsibilty for, and Richard and Nancy can sleep in tomorrow morning. And in the end, except for being tiring, back-hurting work, it wasn't such a big deal. I suspect I have my childhood to thank for that - probably if I'd been raised in the city getting food from the grocery store like 99% of the rest of North America I'd have the same quibbles and ick that Mr. Pollan did.
Anyone reading this and getting grossed or weirded out should probably reconsider his or her eating habits. Yes, I firmly believe that meat is an important part of a healthy diet. But if you can't stomach what goes into it, you shouldn't eat it.