Dear readers, today I’m excited to share a thought-provoking guest essay. Below, Jen Boylan Sessa, a New York public school teacher who leads an innovative high school class on gastronomy (awesome facebook fan page here), writes about how she reacted the opportunity to actually take her dinner from farm to table. In reading about Jen’s experience, my own mind swam with questions. I eat meat, and, like Jen, try to stick to organic or local purveyors because I worry about the safety of mass-produced meat and I want to know the animal wasn’t grossly mistreated. Also like her, even with those provisions, I’m not sure how well I’d hold up to the opportunity of meeting my dinner face to face. Let alone being the one to seal its fate. Read on, to see how that moment played out, and enriched the way Jen thinks about her food:
I have taught a high school gastronomy course in NYC for the past three years. The goal is to educate my students on how good food is produced. We examine many of the implications of factory farming and the sustainable choices we can make to be more mindful global citizens. It’s Food Awareness 101. In the cavalcade of commercials, cheap food and convenience, young students don’t realize they have choices. And that they’re more than just KFC or Taco Bell.
We have a hefty reading list, weekly taste workshops, and often I invite guests into the classroom or I bring my students to farms, producers, or purveyors who espouse a similar philosophy. So when I was invited to Farm Camp at Flying Pigs Farm in Washington County, NY, I jumped at the chance to gain some hands-on experience to take back to share with my students.
Hands-on it was. Among the farms we were to visit that weekend was Garden of Spices poultry farm, where, according to the program itinerary, we would have the chance to slaughter our own chickens.
For the weeks leading up to camp, I fixated on the task of slaughtering (or “processing,” in industry-speak) a chicken. I was nervous. I brought it up in conversation whenever I had the opportunity. I mentioned it to friends and perfect strangers, students, chefs, vegans, bartenders, public transportation employees, my coffee guy, my mom, my French husband (“What is the big deeel?”) trying to solicit a good reason and a little confidence to kill the chicken I would later eat.
I didn’t quite know how to feel about the ethical implications of this task. I eat chicken, but I won’t if I don’t know where it’s from (though I’m not always perfect). I have even eaten chickens from Flying Pigs Farm. “What’s the difference if “they” kill it or I do” I reasoned.
The truth is, I have never felt 100% comfortable with any argument I have made. I’m hungry around omnivores and guilty around vegans. Everyone else always seems so certain. Me, on the other hand. I’m in no man’s (or, in this case, chicken’s) land.
To complicate the matters more, in the weeks leading up to the kill, I was teaching a unit on the ethics of eating meat to my students. We were reading a little bit of Michael Pollan, Peter Singer, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Safran Foer. In Foer’s text, Eating Animals, he argues:
“Some have tried to resolve this gap by hunting or butchering an animal themselves, as if those experiences might somehow legitimize the endeavor of eating animals. This is very silly. Murdering someone would surely prove that you are capable of killing, but it wouldn’t be the most reasonable way to understand why you should or shouldn’t do it.
Killing an animal oneself is more often than not a way to forget the problem while pretending to remember. This is perhaps more harmful than ignorance. It’s always possible to wake someone from sleep, but no amount of noise will wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.”
I felt a bit shameful when I read this and I started to wonder if what I was about to do would make me a hypocrite to my students. Inevitably, one student asked me, “Ms. Boylan, by killing the chicken, are you pretending to be asleep?” Good question. I shared my honest reservations but in the end, I didn’t have a perfect answer. Ultimately, I decided to go through with the experience and let my class decide after.
How to kill a chicken:
Catch and Box it. On the jam-packed schedule it said 9:30-10p.m.: Box chickens. My brain couldn’t compute whether “box” was a verb or an adjective, I ignored it. We arrived at the farm in time for dinner, and as the evening lingered on and we were coaxed into a warm stupor by the chef’s superb preparation of local foods–roast leg of pork, potatoes au gratin, kale salad, cheeses from Consider Bardwell and apple pie–I just assumed we didn’t have time to box anything (whatever that meant). That we would be escorted to our accommodations where I would promptly fall to sleep.
Then our host, Mike, jarred us awake with some brisk hand-clapping and an announcement that it was time to box. Verb. Damn it. With that, we were loaded onto a pickup truck that would take us to the field where the chickens were sleeping. To us city folk, the logistics of catching a chicken in a field–at night with no lights–seemed at first like a joke.
It wasn’t. Chickens don’t have night vision, which is supposed to simplify the task. They do, however, have instincts. The first one was surprised, but it sent the rest running in explosive directions. Greg, another host, simply told us to “lunge and grab an ankle.” I faked participation. I had absolutely no intention of snagging a chicken by its ankle. There was too much flapping, too much squawking. I chased one for a few dramatic steps, lunged at nothing, and threw my hands up in staged exasperation. “Quick little buggers,” I muttered. Greg picked up a chicken by its leg and casually handed the upside down creature to me like an office file. By that point, the blood had rushed to its head and it calmed down and just hung there, kind of like a light fixture. I took its warm, sturdy, leg and carefully placed it in the crate.
Select it. When we arrived at the slaughtering facility the next morning, the chickens we boxed the previous evening sat quietly in their crates. This was the part I had anthropomorphized ad nauseum in my mind. Always with me playing the role of executioner to a falsely-accused victim. Dramatic? Maybe. But the idea of arbitrarily selecting a living creature for its death really does seem that cruel to me. I focused on the logistics of removing the chicken from the crate. Which ankle can I grab? Which one is small enough to fit in the cone? Now, this is the strange part: from this point on, I felt very little. Was I just so absorbed in the task that I fell asleep–or was I pretending to be asleep? I grabbed the chicken and walked into the processing room.
Place it upside down in a cone and slit its throat. Once the chicken stopped flapping, I was guided by the farmer to place it head-first into the cone. I reached into the bottom end and pulled its little head out. This keeps the bird from moving and allows it to bleed out quickly. If you’ve seen Joel Salatin do this in Food, Inc., you’ve seen it done before. Skillfully. As a first-timer, I had little grasp of the force and angle necessary to make this as quick and painless as possible. I stretched the neck, as directed, to separate the feathers and create easier access to the skin. The chicken braced its legs against the inside of the cone. I ran the blade diagonally across its jugular vein. Once. Twice. Still not strong enough. Stressed, I cut it on the third try. It started to bleed. The warm blood ran over my hand. (“Out, damned spot!”) I cut it again in the other direction and it bled more. I held its legs while they thrashed. The only thing I felt was relief. Relieved that it was finished, that it no longer felt anything, so maybe I didn’t have to feel anything. That I succeeded. Whatever that means.
Scald it. I dunked the lifeless bird in the scalding bath for thirty seconds. I swooshed it back and forth to loosen the feathers. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.
Spin it. The next step makes the bird look less of an animal and more like food. This is the point after all, yes? I placed it in the spinning tub and sprayed it with a hose to keep the feathers from flying out. It made a blunt sound like a sneaker in a washing machine. My mouth was closed shut. Feathers escaped to my hair. And the chicken came out clean.
Eviscerate it and clean it. The 12-year old son of the farmer took lead and showed us how to disembowel the chicken. He spoke eloquently and fielded questions maturely. He was more controlled in the process than many of us (teachers, policymakers, chefs, and nutritionists). He watched and guided as I slit the skin around its neck and slid off the head. I clipped the neck and with a reach and a prod into its cavity the innards gave way. With a quick scrape along the ribcage, I dislodged the lungs and then sprayed the inside clean. I clipped the feet and dare I say it, proudly affixed my nametag to my bird. It somehow felt like mine. Is this too sentimental?
Roast it. I leave this to Julia Child. I throw a generous bunch of fresh sage, rosemary, thyme and parsley in the cavity if I’m feeling it. I follow her recipe and massage more butter under the skin for good measure. Not so svelte, but darn good.
I can tell you how to kill a chicken, but why to kill a chicken is still a bit tricky. Did I need to kill something to realize what I was eating was once alive? No. Will it stop me from eating meat entirely? No. After had this experience, I certainly do eat less chicken and other meat. I decided to kill the chicken because I was curious, because I could. It was a one-time experience I wanted to have. This same curiosity has also driven me to learn about better, more sustainable choices I can make everyday and share with my students. More importantly, I decided to kill the chicken to stir a thoughtful–if controversial–discussion in my classroom. I may be pretending to be asleep, but this is how I can wake my students.