We plan the perfect meal. A chicken dinner, with potatoes and mint tea. All fresh from the farm. Hand picked by myself and the farm runner, Cesily. Completely organic, completely healthy. There’s just one problem and it’s outside. It’s running around on the grass, pecking at the ground. From time to time it makes a noise. The noise is “CLUCK.”
The killing of an animal is one of the toughest mental obstacles that can stand in the way of someone hoping to live organically. Planting seeds, laying down mulch, pulling up weeds, lifting out roots. All of these are easy and peaceful. But killing an animal? Not just any animal, but an animal you’ve named (rookie mistake!) and cared for? An animal that you once chased around the garden in giggles? That’s not easy at all. But it’s necessary if you want to eat it.
And I want to eat it! I love chicken and I know just how tasty an organic chicken can be. But when I was faced with the prospect of killing a chicken I was also faced with something else. The sudden realisation that in the past, every time I bought a chicken from a supermarket, at some point in time an actual chicken had to die. At some point in time it was a chicken!
To me this was an eye opener. For years I’d been buying chickens from the supermarket not even thinking they were chickens. Everybody knows what a chicken looks like. It has two little feet, lots of feathers, a short neck and a beak. When you buy a chicken wrapped in cellophane it has none of these features. You don’t associate what you buy with what it was. It was a chicken. But you’re so disassociated from this that it almost isn’t a chicken.
It dawns on me that I can’t think of a time when I’ve seen a picture of an animal on a package of meat. Why not? Simple. If a person went to buy a chicken and suddenly realised they were actually buying a chicken that was killed just for them, they’d probably stop buying it. Funnily enough though most dairy products do have a picture of an animal on them, it looks happy, it’s sitting in a field. People like to know their eggs come from happy creatures, but people don’t like to know their meat is made from those same happy creatures.
The prospect of killing a chicken made me think of just how many chickens had to die for me in the past. Let’s do a little bit of mathematics. I eat a lot of chicken. Enough I’d say so that two chickens have to die each month (minimum) to feed my chicken habit. I’ve been alive for 24 years. Let’s say that I started my chicken habit at the age of 10 years old. For 14 years I’ve been eating 2 chickens per month. That’s a grand total of 336 chickens. Fuck. That’s hard to contemplate. Over 336 chickens died because of me. How many of those chickens would I have eaten if I had to kill them myself? Maybe zero.
All of this popped into my head when I was faced with the problem of having to personally kill a chicken to eat it. I decided I’d be unable to look myself in the mirror if I didn’t do it though. It was a personal test, a test of my ethics. How could I ever let another chicken die in my name if I couldn’t at least kill one of them myself? How could I ever truly understand what I was eating unless I’d truly learnt how a chicken makes it from running around the grass to being a piece of meat in a package?
Immediately I started to research chicken killing on the internet. I didn’t want the chicken to suffer at all. I wanted it to be quick, easy and as painless as possible. Humane. There were a dozen techniques at my disposal, ranging from the barbaric (chopping its head off with an axe) to the weird (hypnotising the chicken before killing it.) The technique I decided on was simple, effective and – from what I’d read – almost fool proof. You would simply pick up the chicken, place its neck and head on the ground, place a broom over the neck, then stand down on the broom while pulling up on the chicken’s body. Snapping the neck and killing the bird immediately.
At the start of the day I have the chicken pointed out to me by Cesily, a large white hen with a few black feathers. Cesily tells me it’s been laying defective eggs for a while now so it would make sense to eat it. Then abruptly Cesily leaves for the day, a hopeful look in her eyes, a “good luck” on her lips. Then I am alone. Just me and the chickens. It’s up to me to kill it. I stare at the chicken for a while, thinking about that moment when I will have to put the broom over its neck. I shudder. A part of me fears it will be wrong, that I’ll simply hurt the chicken. The fear holds me back, so I put the ritual off. “Ok. I’ll kill it…..after breakfast.” Two slices of French toast later. “Ok. I’ll kill it…..after lunch.” Two fried eggs later, I decide it’s time. “Ok. I’ll kill it….now. Yes…now.”
I head out to the chicken pen where around 20 chickens run around happily, most of them chicks that are a few months old. I look through the chickens to find the one Cesily pointed out. Then I realise there’s two white chickens with black feathers. I’ve no idea which one to kill. A little too quickly I decide to just kill neither. I’ll just wait for Cesily to come back later, so we can kill the chicken together. Deep down inside I’m glad, I know I’d be unable to do it alone.
When Cesily arrives back that evening she immediately asks with a smile “did you kill the chicken?” When I tell her I didn’t know which to kill, the smile disappears from her face. She realises that now she’s in on the killing, she can’t escape it either. We’re in it together.
We go out to the chicken pen and chase the chicken for 10 minutes, eventually catching it.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know. If you grab a chicken by the legs and hold it upside down, it stops moving and goes rigid immediately, so you can pretty much do anything with it. It wont struggle. I held the chicken upside down in my hand and showed it to Cesily. Pulling the neck down gently I told her how we’d kill the animal. “You step down on the broom, I’ll pull the chicken and break it’s neck.” Cesily looked like she wanted to run away, I didn’t blame her, then she started to make excuses. “Doesn’t look like it’d make much of a meal…” I started to agree “Yeah, once we’ve plucked all those feathers out there’ll barely be any meat.” “…seems almost pointless to kill it…” “…yeah…” Then my brain clicked into gear, remembering my pride was at stake. “We’ve got to kill it, Cesily! We need to do this. How can you ever eat meat if you’re not prepared to kill the animal yourself? Plus… I bet there’s enough meat on there for a feast. Here, let’s feel its chest to see how meaty it is.” Another rookie mistake. The only way to “feel” a chicken to see how big it is, is to stroke it. Once you start stroking a chicken, feeling its soft feathers in your fingers, it suddenly ceases to be a chicken, it’s just a cat with wings.
Holding it in my hand I started to realise what a beautiful creature a chicken actually is. But still there was that voice in my head. The voice that said “you have to do this.” The voice was getting quieter and quieter now, silenced by another voice. A voice that said “you may hurt it” and “why do you want to kill something so beautiful.” It’s hard to kill something you love, but I knew I had to.
Cesily and I discussed it for about 10 minutes. Constantly changing our minds. We’ll kill it. We wont kill it. We can do it. We can’t do it. Then I took a deep breath. I stopped asking “shall we do it?” and I simply said “we’re going to do it.” I’d made my decision. I told Cesily to go to the house and get a broom.
I waited in the pen for five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. With each minute I started to dread the house door opening, knowing that would mean killing the chicken. Then the door opened. Cesily stepped out, not a broom in sight. “Where’s the broom?” I asked. “We can’t kill it.” she said. Happily I sighed, making no objections. But deep down I felt disappointed with myself, I failed the test. There was no perfect dinner.
A few weeks earlier I visited a farm run by an old-fashioned cowboy and his son. The farmer had an old, wrinkled face and his voice seemed to come from the past. He was a cowboy, through and through, modelled on John Wayne, with a swagger and a distant smile. A real man.
The farmer showed me how to milk a cow and a little sadly he told me that the cow was getting old now. Pretty soon they wouldn’t be able to milk her anymore. I asked what they’d do with her. He smiled and said “well, she’s served us well through the years, we’ll put her out to pasture, she can sit in the field all day and eat as much grass as she likes.” I enjoyed the thought. Almost romantic in a way. The cow had been with them so long it had earned its right to a peaceful retirement.
We took the milk into a barn and gave it to a dozen calves who drank it up greedily. The old farmer stroked each calf, spoke to them gently. “These cows are being bred for meat” he told me. I admitted to him that I was going to find it hard to eat chicken after raising them. I asked him “do you find it hard to eat your own cows” He shook his head and looked a little confused, although the question made no sense to him. He said simply, “Nope. I treat my cows well while they live, they treat me well when they die.” And that was that.