This post has been a very long time coming but most of the delay has been due to the extreme sensitivity of the subject.  This is simply a post about taking a live chicken, killing it, prepping the carcass and making a meal of it.  This is not a sermon on how we feel others should behave.

The majority of us do it every single day, but instead of doing the actual slaughtering ourselves, we rush into the grocery store and seek out the least expensive option of perfectly packaged, no mess meat products.  We have no idea where it comes from, what it comes from and what the experience of the animal was on the way to becoming cuts of protein on our dinner table.

It is almost impossible to gain access to unbiased information concerning the production of farm animals, birth to death.  I steer clear of documentaries which boast celebrity cameos or are endorsed by PETA or any particular animal rights organizations.  I can immediately spot when the background score becomes ominous and the lighting is changed to give the scene a gruesome, almost horror movie-like atmosphere.  Those techniques really get me fuming and that particular director/organization/celebrity face loses all credibility with me.  And as Steve can tell you, once  you get on my shit list, you ain’t never coming off.

But it also goes the other way.  I’ve viewed several videos distributed by farming corporations trying to convince me that factory farming actually improves the welfare of animals and provides them with food fit for royalty.  In fact, they tell me, simple farming where animals are kept out in the open is quite cruel as the animals are exposed to fluctuating weather, parasites, predators and, God help us, dirt.  All of this with a score fit for a light and happy cartoon and brightly lit colorful scenery.

Steve and I decided to take advantage of an opportunity to actually slaughter our own meat for dinner.  We’ve never done anything even remotely close to this.  Aside from picking strawberries back when we were children, we have never gone out and caught our own food.

Meet our hostesses, Ms. Nikki Tapp – former traveling punk gypsy, current urban hippie, future veterinarian.

Along with her is the only known feline chicken wrangler, Miss Molly Possum.

Nikki is serious in her plans to live a sustainable lifestyle and has begun with her very own organic veggie patch complete with truly free-range poultry to be grown for meat and eggs.  She mentioned that her chooks (Kiwi for chickens) were now at the age for slaughter and invited friends to take part.  A few of us vetties jumped at the chance.

As Steve and I pulled into Nikki’s place, we were anxious and nervous and scared and feeling queasy.  We weren’t excited to kill anything, it’s hard to describe what you feel when you know you’re about to kill something.  Most of all, we just wanted to make absolutely sure we were going to do this right.  We wanted the chickens to feel no anxiety, pain or suffering of any kind.  We were immediately relieved to find that another vet student and expert hunter, Ryen, was going to teach us what to do.  Ryen doesn’t step foot in the meat aisle at the grocery store.  If he needs meat, he goes out, hunts it, cleans it and fills his fridge.  This entire experience it old hat for him.

First thing to do was to reach in the chicken coop and grab a chicken.  The men held theirs by their feet, hanging them upside down.  The girls, for whatever reason, opted to hold them snuggled up under an arm.  Maybe we felt it was a more comfortable and respectful way to hold them.  I just couldn’t bring myself to hold them like you would a sack of inanimate potatoes.

Then came the upsetting part.  Ryen gave us a demonstration.  You hold the chicken just below the skull and swing it in a circle with all your might.  You feel the neck break instantly.  In a swift motion with a very sharp blade the head is severed and the chicken is set on the ground where it then does back flips, actual back flips, and runs through the garden until it is deep in the capsicum plants and has finally stopped moving.  There is shockingly little blood.  You don’t have to remove the head as the chicken is now brain dead but if we hadn’t I would have been absolutely convinced these chickens were conscious and running through the garden trying to escape.  It’s one thing to know the physiology of rendering an animal brain dead and to know the resulting involuntary electrical activity contracting the muscles, but it’s another to stand there watching an animal run after you’ve broken its neck.  It’s awful.

Backflips, actual backflips

Each one of us took a turn at breaking the neck (with Ryen close at hand to step in if it looked like it wouldn’t be an instant kill).  I had a very strong urge to give my chicken to Steve and ask him to do it for me.  But that would have defeated the entire purpose of this task – if you’re going to eat it, you need to know how it’s killed.   I did it and I hated it.

The chickens were dead within seconds and we were cleaning the carcasses within minutes.  First thing to take care of was the feathers.  You have to get over the fact that the carcass is still warm and this bird was alive and in your arms two minutes ago.  You pluck hesitantly as if you’re trying to keep the chicken comfortable.  You could see the frustration beginning to build up with poor Ryen.  Oh, but the guy still had a lot to suffer through because now it was time to remove the innards.

Pluck, Pluck, Pluck, Pluck

For food safely reasons you have to be extremely cautious when it comes to removing the digestive tract, making sure the contents aren’t spilled into the cavity of the carcass.  Everyone else could do it successfully but me and the mighty hunter had to step in.  I felt like I was back in anatomy lab.  Speaking of lab, as we were a group of vetties, we got off task and started spreading out all the contents, identifying and examining each and every bit.  Ryen had to put a stop to this or we would be there all night comparing the size of each chicken’s lungs with the others.  The American Southerners divvied up the gizzards and promised to bring them to class the next day for nibbles and to gross out the other students (mission totally accomplished, by the way).  Fried chicken livers and hearts do not hold the same reputation anywhere but in the Deep South.

Half and hour later, we were hosing down the carcasses.  They now perfectly resembled what you find at the grocery store and nothing like the birds that were in the coop just thirty minutes ago.  You can eat them right away but should give it at least 24-hours for the temperature and pH level to decrease.  We normally associate rigor mortis with CSI and crime dramas but it’s an important part in preparing meat so that it is as tender as possible.

Once home we decided how we would prepare the chicken for the next day’s dinner.  I won’t lie, there was a definite ick factor we were battling.  There’s a certain disconnect with our food when we get it at the grocery store; a false sense of security that experts with nothing but your health in mind prep the meat for sale.  We were afraid that if we made a soup or stew, we would have to let the veggies touch the meat.  But what if the meat wasn’t clean?  How do you make dinner if you don’t want the main ingredient to touch the others in the finished product?  I was more worried about a carrot being exposed to the meat that me eating the meat.

We went nice and simple – salt and pepper with the cavity stuffed with onions, carrots, celery and garlic cloves and put it in a slow cooker for the day.  Still too timid to cook the veggies with the meat, we roasted carrots and potatoes in the oven.  Once ready, the chicken was removed from the bones and the juices were used to make a gravy.

It was lovely.  Not necessarily as tender as store bought and nowhere near as much meat.  But that’s the compromise you make.

We felt good knowing that this bird didn’t suffer the experience of being grown in close quarters with other birds to a carcass size that its bones could not support.  It did not suffer the anxiety of being transported to the processing plant. It was not slaughtered on a massive assembly line by overworked, exploited workers where it is not unheard of for a bird to be unsuccessfully stunned but still continues down the production line.  We all know it happens.  How could it not?  On such a large production scale, the probability will always be there.

He was grown naturally in a backyard where he had a coop for shelter and protection, a backyard where his food and water were made available and an adjacent cow pasture for free roaming with the other chickens.  Yes, he was outside when it rained, when it got very cold, and when it got very hot.  He occasionally got muddy feet and was susceptible to mites, illness and parasites.  He got to scratch around, pick at bugs in the grass and give himself a good dust bath.  And then one day he was sitting in his coop where he was scooped up by a person and simply was no more.