It’s an intimate thing, killing.
I admit, the first time I butchered a chicken was in a fit of rage. My daughter Annie, about four years old at the time, was in the run with me helping to feed our flock. We had a Blue Andalusian rooster then, who lurked in the corner and made threatening gestures whenever we came into his space. This is typical rooster stuff and I kept my eye on him.
We finished filling the feeders and turned to go. That’s when he attacked. That coward jumped on my little girl’s back and tried to stab her with his 2-inch-long spurs. I knocked him off of her and told her to go in the house. Old blue boy died that day.
Raising chickens for meat had been on my mind a while at this point, but I didn’t know if I would have the nerve. I’m not a hunter and only an occasional fisherman. I eat meat of all sorts, but had never taken the life of an animal, beside a fish, until that day.
When the deed was done, I didn’t want to waste the bird, so I did my best to dress him. I didn’t have the proper tools or skill and made a mess of it. Nevertheless, I knew that day that I wanted to butcher chickens for my family.
I went on to raise several flocks of Cornish roosters just for meat. I studied poultry butchering, acquired a proper scalding vessel, and got pretty efficient at the process. I also learned a lot about myself and my relationship with food that I would not have otherwise.
1. There is something sacred about taking a life to feed yourself.
Aboriginal peoples around the world understand this, of course, and sacred is the right word. Killing an animal is certainly brutal and there is gore, even when it is done quickly and painlessly (which is how it should always be done). But there is no denying the primordial, almost spiritual aspect of doing it.
The process—killing, scalding, plucking, and butchering—was special, meaningful, which may sound strange to a contemporary ear. You might think exercising the ultimate control over another creature makes you feel superior, lord of creation. Quite the opposite, at least for me. I never felt more connected to those animals and my place in the natural rhythm, or appreciated their lives as keenly. I now understand why humans’ earliest artistic expressions were of animals and hunting.
We modern humans have lost the special-ness of consuming animals, I’m afraid. Our loss.
2. Butchering my chickens made me less wasteful.
Remember the first car you bought with your own money? You were protective of it, caring, even if it was a beater. You were peeved when your friends left their Taco Bell bags on the floorboards. How dare they?
You cared because you were invested. Earning the freedom of transportation by your own effort heightened your sense of ownership and responsibility.
And so with food. We gardeners always think the produce of our plots looks and tastes the best. We won’t shut up about it. We take pictures of it (reference my Instagram page) and even can it to give as gifts. Is that because our veggies actually are better? Maybe, but it is more likely that our pride and tenderness grow in proportion to the work required to achieve it.
I promise that if you butcher an animal, you will not waste a single bit. You will want to eat parts of it that you would never consider ordering at a restaurant. It will hurt your heart if someone leaves even a morsel of your precious offering on his plate. In short, you will appreciate your food more, and waste less of it, because you know what it took to put it on the plate.
In a society where we throw away more than 30 percent of our food, I think a little more concern is in order.
3. Butchering my chickens made me more compassionate.
When people find out that I raise chickens, I get a few common questions. First, they ask about eggs. Do we actually go to the yard and collect them every day? Yes. Then they want to know if we hatch our own chicks. Used to, but not anymore (here’s why). Then they screw up their courage, grimace, and go for it.
“Do you … ?” as they make a cutting motion across their neck.
When I tell them that I have, most people seem a little disappointed in me, some are horrified.
“Really?! Oh, I could never …”
I ask if they’ve ever had a chicken nugget.
“Well, yeah, I eat chicken, but that’s different.”
I usually leave it at that, but consider the contradiction.
Before their demise, my chickens lead an ideal existence. They eat and drink when they want, have plenty of open space to scratch all day, soft sand for dust baths, protection from predators, scraps from the kitchen, the company of others, a poultry paradise.
Have you seen the inside of a modern commercial hen house? Honestly, which of us eats happier chickens?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but being acquainted with your food while it is still alive, nurturing it and its environment, fosters compassion for it and other living creatures. It is intimate and personal. It’s why hunters are some of the most avid conservationists.
Many others have written about this connection, including Michael Pollan and Anthony Bourdain.
The cheap food paradox
We don’t honor our food anymore, so we waste it. It’s cheap and easy to come by (a modern miracle), so we cheapen its place in our lives. We are disconnected from that which feeds us. I think we are less human for it.
Most of you will never butcher a chicken, and that’s fine. But unless you are a committed, life-long vegan, you should one day.
By taking a life to nourish yours, you elevate both.