When I first started hunting, I still used to buy all kinds of meat at the store. I needed to - it's not like I was actually hitting many ducks that year.
But at the end of my first duck season, I read The Omnivore's Dilemmaand was so horrified by what it revealed that I resolved to do everything possible to avoid buying industrially-farmed meat.
When we buy meat for home consumption at all (which we rarely need to do because we have so much wild game), we buy pastured animals, usually pork, often just the fatback so Boyfriend will have enough fat to make wild-game sausage.
But that leaves a gaping hole in our inventory: chicken.
I don't care what anyone says: Pheasant - even farmed - is not as good as a nice fat domestic chicken. And no, nothing else out there - not rabbit, not squirrel, not anything - tastes like chicken. Chicken tastes like chicken. And chicken that's been allowed to eat real food - bugs and grass, in addition to "feed" - is the best-tasting chicken of all.
So I was overjoyed when I found that my friend Carina - formerly editor of California Waterfowl magazine - had returned to her family farm to start an organic/free-range farming operation with a friend, and their first product would be chicken.
Carina was on the same airplane to Baja that Boyfriend and I were on two weeks ago, and that gave us the chance to catch up on her operation. The organic feed that supplements bugs and grass was ridiculously expensive, she told us, and the price of her first chickens was going to be steep: $5 a pound.
"I'll buy one," I said without hesitating. Lord, if the only way I could get chicken like that is hunting, I'd pay way more than $5 a pound for the opportunity to hunt one.
I also offered to do photography at her farm from time to time, and it just so happened that this past Wednesday would be my first opportunity: They'd be slaughtering their first batch of chickens. I could shoot photos to my heart's content and come home with a fat, juicy chicken. It was totally worth having to set my alarm for the first time since summer vacation began.
With help from some friends and fellow young farmers in a neighboring town, Carina and her partner CarolAnn had a pretty good little operation: There was a stand with four cones for the killing (more on that in a bit), a pot (turkey deep-fryer, actually) of hot soapy water for dipping, a home-made plucker to speed a tedious process, a table for evisceration and cleaning, and two barrels full of icy water for cooling.
Here's how it went:
Almost all of it was fun to photograph (and no, I did not help - I just spent $1,500 that I didn't have on a new cameraand I'm not going to get fat, soap or guts on it).
Did you notice I said "almost all of it"? The killing was actually really hard to watch.
It's worth noting here that the first animal I ever watched being slaughtered was a backyard chicken my family had when I was a youngun in the tony Southern California town of Thousand Oaks (before we'd gone totally feral and moved to the country). We were raising chickens for eggs, and the rooster - Henry VIII - had become a problem. He attacked me when I went in the chicken pen, and I had big long scrapes down my back to prove it. That and a couple other incidents convinced my folks that it was time for him to go.
Dad took him out of the pen, laid his neck across a chopping block and whacked his head off with an ax. Because the saying about a chicken with its head cut off is true, blood was flying everywhere, and a headless chicken was running around our yard.
I cried. It was pretty upsetting.
But Mom made chicken pot pie that night, and oh my God it tasted amazing! We raised a lot of animals for meat after that - more chickens, rabbits, pigs - and I never cried again. In one brief lesson, I was shown the connection between animals, death and food.
At Carina's farm, they were using a different - and vastly preferable - method of killing. You turn the chicken upside-down in a cone so only its head sticks out. Because it is held close and the blood is rushing to its head, the chicken calms down. Then you find the vein in its neck and cut it (you actually stick the knife through the neck to sever veins on both sides) and all the blood - and life - drains out of it. Generally, the chicken doesn't even squawk because a sharp knife does its job well. And because it's held in a cone, there's no running around spraying blood all over everything in sight.
I'd say the chicken is dead in about a minute, which in my world of hunting is like a quick death from a heart/lung shot. I can only hope to be so lucky as to have my life slip away that quickly when my time comes.
But damn, it is really hard to watch. Unlike in hunting, where the animal is usually some distance away, you get to stand there inches away and watch it die. Because I am a pretty emotional and empathetic person, I always put myself in the shoes of a dying animal, and it was the same with these chickens. And because I feel the obligation to take personal responsibility for the meat I put on my table, I felt it would be wrong to turn away. So I watched.
Ethan - one of the brothers from the nearby farm who helped with the operation - apologized to each chicken before he stuck the knife through its neck, and that comforted me. I and so many hunters I know do the same thing when we must finish off an animal at close range. And when I reviewed my photos from that day, I found that Ethan's expression in most of them was a grimace. It is not a pretty business.
So why do we do it? Because we are omnivores. We are blessed with huge brains that have allowed us to hunt and farm animals. Animal meat nourishes us, just as our human bodies will feed a multitude of plants and animals when we die. It's simply the cycle of life.
(And if you want to read a really great book on this topic, I can recommend The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainabilityeven though I'm only on the second chapter. Hats off to Tovar Cerulli at A Mindful Carnivore for mentioning this book - it's riveting reading that's keeping me up late at night.)
But is that really why we do it, or is that just the 30,000-foot view? Are we all sitting around singing cycle-of-life songs when we slaughter chickens? Hell no. We do it because chickens are good food. I doubt any of us would go to the trouble or grief if chickens didn't taste good.
At the end of my morning on the farm, I asked Carina to pick out a chicken for me and I handed her $24. I was proud to be her first buyer.
"How do you want me to cook it?" Boyfriend asked when he saw what I'd brought home.
"Roasted," I said. Like wild ducks, chickens are so inherently delicious that salt and a hot oven are all that's needed to bring out the best in them.
That bird tasted unspeakably good, way better than the industrially-farmed chickens I'd been buying until my Omnivore's Dilemma conversion.
It used to be that whenever we roasted any kind of bird in our house, Boyfriend's cat Paka would go wild. She loved roasted bird, and she always circled the dinner table like a shark when we'd eat one.
Ever since Paka died in March, that just wasn't happening in our house anymore. My sweet little cat Giblet prefers Fancy Feast, and her tough indoor-outdoor sister Harlequin would rather just go outside and kill her own bird.
But something about this bird made my little Giblet go all crazy and do something she'd never done before:
I loved the intense, mesmerized look on her face so much that I took several photos before reminding her that cats are not allowed on the table.
But I totally understood her reaction. I love chicken too.
© Holly A. Heyser 2010