by Slow Food USA staffer Cecily Upton
As the Slow Food in Schools Coordinator, you can usually find me sitting at my desk in Brooklyn, writing emails and talking on the phone. I spend a lot of time thinking about where food comes from and how it gets from our farms to our plates. And while I feel pretty comfortable with my knowledge of the process, there’s far more to it than that.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to experience the process, in a very real and visceral way. I was invited by my friends at Awesome Farm to help slaughter 104 pasture raised, organic chickens. As it says on their eggs, their chickens are “really, really free range.”
Now, I think it’s important to know a few things about me so you can understand my perspective on the whole slaughter thing.
- I am more carnivorous than omnivorous. I like meat, and I eat a lot of it.
- I’m not in the least grossed out by blood or guts. In fact, I think they are beautiful elements of organic life that we rarely appreciate as such.
- I’ve spent time on farms, watching animals that I cared for be slaughtered and helping to butcher the vast quantities of meat that they gave us.
That said, I’ve never killed anything bigger than a very large cockroach with my own hands.
Last saturday, that changed. Before the actual kill day, I’d spent weeks telling any and every one within earshot that I was going to be slaughtering chickens. I was excited. Desk bound most of the time, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to be out on the farm. And, even though I know that slaughtering = killing and that there would be lots of death that morning, it wasn’t until I was traipsing through the dewy, overgrown barnyard and hearing the first low coos of the 104 chickens just awakening from their last night of sleep, that I realized, truly, what I was about to do.
There were five of us: Owen and KayCee, the farmers; their friend Tracy, who works at neighboring Hearty Roots Community Farm; Amy, a fellow Brooklynite, and myself. We were solemn, but not in a mournful kind of way. I think we just all realized that we had a long morning ahead of us and that a lot of creatures who were now alive would soon be dead. And then we just began.
Ok, from here on out it gets a little graphic, so if you’re not into blood and guts, you might want to stop reading.
The slaughtering set-up looks a little like this: there are two metal cones with the small end down nailed to the wall about face height. The bottom of those cones is cut off, kind of like a large pastry bag. The chickens go in here, head down. Below these are 5 gallon buckets to catch blood.
The first two chickens went, hesitatingly, upside-down into the cones and, without much ceremony, Tracy and Owen cut off their heads using small knives. The decapitated bodies slammed around against the metal chutes and in Owen and Tracy’s hands the beaks kept opening and closing on the severed heads. Deep red blood splattered against the rough wooden barn walls and dripped into the buckets below. After a few minutes of bleeding, we took the bodies outside and scalded them to loosen the feathers. After defeathering them using a large machine with stiff rubber fingers, we cut off their feet and oil glands, eviscerated them–being careful not to pop the bile bag (bile is BRIGHT green!)–and plopped them into a pool of icy water to cool.
While I hadn’t thought about it in the days leading up, at some point during the morning I knew that I wanted to kill one myself. After about an hour of chopping off feet and separating livers from bile bags, I turned to Owen and told him it was time. We went together into the holding pen and I grabbed the first chicken I could get my hands on. She was warm and dirty. She flapped around a bit as I carried her by the feet to the slaughtering station and put her into the cone. I reached in for her head and stretched it down through the hole in the bottom. Owen instructed me to pull back the feathers on her neck and to cut through her trachea right below the skull. “Don’t hesitate,” he said calmly.
The knife wasn’t as sharp as it had been first thing in the morning, and I had some trouble breaking the skin. I was shaking a bit. It wasn’t as clean a cut as I wanted it to be. It was difficult to saw through the tough neck. The chicken flinched and blood oozed down my hand. It felt like it took longer than it should, but before my mind could settle on one of the thousand thoughts going through my head it was over. And I had a chicken head in my hand and blood was dripping into the bucket.
Afterwards, I walked back out into the sunlight and over to the evisceration station. There was more work to do. Later, though, when things slowed down, I thought about what I’d done–killed something for food. For my food. Looking back, it’s not something that I want to do again, but it’s not something that I don’t want to do again either. It is part of a process that I believe in and support and I’m proud of myself for participating. I feel good about the way those animals were raised, I feel good about they way they were killed, and I feel good about eating them and sharing that meal with others. If I’m going to savor the smells and tastes of freshly roasted chicken, I should also know the fell of that chickens neck in one hand and a knife in the other.