This morning, we helped a good friend here in Alamos butcher six young roosters. He has a large flock of egglayers, plus he incubates fertile eggs and raises his own chicks. Hence, he occasionally has to reduce the number of males in his flock because of the roosters’ unfortunate habit of harassing hens. We met at 7 am in his family’s outdoor kitchen, where a large pot of water was heating on the wood-fired stove. The approach of butchering this morning was basically identical to how we butcher in Minnesota. There is the sharpening of knifes, the assembly of basins and buckets, the heating of water in which to dunk the birds to loosen the feathers for plucking. We sat for awhile around the big table on the patio, drinking coffee and talking. This is what I call the time of mental preparation for the task at hand. We then rounded up the roosters and began to butchers. The only differences in the work today from my prior experiences: The language was Spanish, not English. The water was heated on a wood stove, not propane. The chopping implement was a machete, not a cleaver. And our friends showed us the practice of making a cross in the dirt, where the headless chicken is placed to alleviate thrashing. The first rooster was placed on the cross. The others were placed around it. There were seven of us working, so it took less than an hour to dispatch the six roosters.
The following essay appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on February 7, 1999:
“The Savage Life”
Every few years I butcher chickens with a friend named Chuck who lives near the farm my husband and I own in northern Minnesota. Chuck buys chicks and takes care of them for the 10 weeks it takes them to mature. I share in the feed costs, but my main contribution — for which I get an equal share of birds — is to help slaughter them.
One day last fall, Chuck, two other friends and I butchered 28 chickens. We worked without stopping from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. By the time it was over we had decapitated, gutted, plucked, cleaned and swaddled each bird in plastic wrap for the freezer. We were exhausted and speckled with blood. For dinner that night we ate vegetables.
Butchering chickens is no fun, which is one reason I do it. It is the price I pay for being an omnivore and for eating other meat, like beef and pork, for which I have not yet determined a workable way to kill. The first time I caught a chicken to chop its head off, I noticed, as I cradled it in my arms, that it had the heft and pliability of a newborn baby. This was alarming enough, but when I beheaded it, I was not prepared to be misted in blood or to watch it bounce on the ground. Headless chickens don’t run around. They thrash with such force and seeming coordination that they sometimes turn back flips.
When I first saw this, three things became clear to me. I realized why cultures, ancient and contemporary, develop elaborate rituals for coping with the grisly experience of killing any sentient creature. I understood why so many people in my largely bloodless nation are alarmed at the thought of killing anything (except insects) even though they eat with relish meat other people process for them. I saw why a small subset of my contemporaries are so horrified by the thought of inflicting pain and causing death that they maintain people should never kill anything.
One risk I run in this self-imposed food-gathering exercise is leaving the impression, or perhaps even furtively feeling, that I am superior to the omnivores who leave the killing of their meat to someone else. I don’t think I am. Slaughtering my own chickens is one of two opportunities (gardening is the other) where I can dispense with the layers of anonymous people between me and my food. I have no quarrel with them. I just don’t know who they are. They are not part of my story.
Killing chickens provides narratives for gathering, cooking and sharing food in a way that buying a Styrofoam package of chicken breasts does not. I remember the weather on the days we have butchered our chickens, and the friends over the years who’ve come to help, who have included a surgical nurse, a cell biologist, a painter of faux interiors, a Minnesota state representative who is also a logger, a zoologist, a nurse with Head Start and a former Army medic who now runs the physical plant at a large hospital. I can measure the coming of age of my partner’s two kids, who were tykes the first time we butchered chickens 10 years ago, and who this go-round were well into puberty with an array of pierced body parts.
My mother, who was born in 1907, belonged to the last generation for whom killing one’s food was both a necessity and an ordinary event. Her family raised chickens for the purpose of eating them, and her father taught all his children to hunt. My survival does not depend on killing chickens, but in doing so I have found that it fortifies my connection to her. It also allows me to cast a tenuous filament back to my feral past. In 1914, Melvin Gilmore, an ethnobotanist, wrote, ”In savage and barbarous life the occupation of first importance is the quest of food.”
Having butchered my own chickens, I now feel acquainted with the savage life. As exhilarating as this may be, I do not thrill at the prospect of beheading chickens. Several days before the transaction, I circle around the idea of what my friends and I will be doing. On the assigned morning, we are slow to get going. There are knives and cleavers to sharpen, vats of water to be boiled in the sauna house, tables and chairs to set up, aprons and buckets to gather, an order of assembly to establish. In their own ritual progression, these preparations are a way to gear ourselves up. I feel my shoulders hunch and my focus narrow. It is like putting on an invisible veil of resolve to do penance for a misdeed. I am too far gone in my rational Western head to appropriate the ritual of cultures for whom the bloody business of hunting was a matter of survival. But butchering chickens has permitted me to stand in the black night just outside the edge of their campfire, and from that prospect I have inherited the most important lesson of all in the task of killing meat: I have learned to say thank you and I’m sorry.