Tuesday, July 7, 2009

For whom the dinner bell tolls

Disclaimer: this post is not for the faint of heart.

During my first afternoon helping out at Green Meadows Farm, the farm manager (Andrew) had proposed that I stay for chicken processing day. I had intended from the outset of my journey toward a greater understanding of food on its way to my plate to participate in one of these events, I explained, but hadn't planned to investigate this piece this early on. I'd read about the whole process in some detail in The Omnivore's Dilemma -- a method considerably more humane than traditional slaughterhouses, but something which would nonetheless require a good bit of psychological preparation on my part beforehand. Also, I offered, I was planning to leave Monday morning, the day scheduled for slaughter. And... I balked. But Andrew ultimately convinced me to stay. And it wasn't just the friendly conversation and tasty food on Saturday afternoon (or, as Andrew jokingly referred to it, "the lobster payoff" technique, though the local lobsters were delicious). As I got to know the knowledgeable and friendly crew at the farm, I felt more comfortable with the idea. If I meant to really learn about what goes into sustainable food production -- all of what I eat, including animals if I am to continue consuming them -- then this farm, modeled closely on Joel Salatin's methodology and managed by thoughtful, compassionate folks was the place to face the prospect of taking full responsibility for my food (including taking its life).

I was still pretty anxious on Monday morning when I showed up for the chicken crew pre-brief. Perhaps in an effort to help me mentally prepare for the event, or perhaps to utilize my kitchen prowess, the farm manager asked me to sharpen and sanitize the knives. Good, I can do that. Sharpen knives. Yes, just like a regular run-of-the-mill day in the kitchen, no problemo. A bit later, over iced coffee and muffins -- not a bad idea in case I lost my usual appetite later -- Andrew talked the assembled team through each station, each role. There was the chicken wrangler (who chased the chickens around the yard and brought them to be processed), the killing cones (where chickens clucked their last cluck), the scalding tank (that loosened feathers of the expired birds), the defeathering machine (kind of like a kinky washing machine with water jets and lined with rubber fingers), the chopping block (where each defeathered bird lost her head and feet), and the evisceration table (after which the chicken is identical to what you buy at the market). Evisceration?! I opted to be on scalding and defeathering. Pretty innocuous, considering my other options.

The group of six -- half experienced, half newbies -- formed a circle and held hands as Andrew offered thanks to the animals for giving their lives to nourish us. Then we got started. I watched as Jim brought a bird to each of the four cones and pulled their heads down to cleanly, swiftly sever their throats. At least I knew the knives were razor sharp, so the animals didn't suffer. I got a little choked up watching Jim's steady but compassionate hands take each life and hold each bird's head so that it didn't flail and alarm the others while it lost consciousness and bled out. Once he gave me the sign that each bird was ready, I transferred it by its feet to the scalding tank. The scalding was harder than I had anticipated, as too short of a dunk time didn't adequately loosen the feathers but too long would melt the fat and begin to cook the bird. Had the full impact of the life-taking not been so omnipresent, the next step -- the defeathering process -- would have been downright comical. As it was, I did catch myself laughing when I once started to say something while switching the machine on and dripping chicken feathers flew into my mouth. Talk about centrifugal force. (Or is it centripital? I mix them up. Anyway: feathers everywhere.) Muddy, sopping feathers tasted pretty bad.

Near the end, after watching each of the other stations, I knew that I wouldn't be able to handle the killing cones, but I did want to try my hand at the task most akin to my cooking experience. Andrew had mentioned that my hands, relatively smaller than those of the rest of the crew, would be well suited for evisceration. Previously, the word "eviscerate" always conjured up images of velociraptors disemboweling their prey. This process hasn't really dispelled that association: to be honest, it was pretty gruesome, especially since the birds were still warm. Sarah talked me through the process of removing all of the internal organs and we practiced together. I did it, with only one major intestinal-slicing mishap, and found myself oddly proud of making it through without an emotional meltdown or nausea. Am I more callous than I thought? Could I do this every time I had the urge to eat poultry? Would I ever have the urge to eat poultry after this? I wondered.

As each crew member parted with thanks and a freshly processed, free-range organic chicken, I decided to make a curry dinner for my wonderful hostess and her grandson Ingmar who was visiting from Germany. Ingmar was an amazing assistant chef and merrily chatted away as I sipped a beer and assembled an impromptu chicken curry, chickpea curry, rice, and raita with fresh mint from the garden. (Aha, all of those spices stockpiled in my pannier came in handy!) It was a delicious end to an intense day learning about the meaning of life (and death) and I was elated to share it with my new friends. I don't know that I'll be eating a lot of chicken from here on out, but I now have a very real understanding of what it takes to bring it to my plate.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. I'm glad you didn't chicken out...
    I'm considering making my first Polyface Farm purchases and deciding between brisket and "broilers".
    How many people does a 4-5.5 lb chicken feed for dinner?

  2. I cut up the whole chicken I cooked (umder 4 lbs. I would guess) into 8 pieces, and had a few other small dishes. This is not usual American super-sized portion, mind you, but you're not a super-size kinda guy, so for a 5 lb. bird I would guess you could feed 6 people and maybe have a bit left over.

  3. I love everything about this post.


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