Warning: this post contains descriptions which may upset sensitive readers
7am, Saturday morning. I am full of nervous energy, running through the possibilities of what might happen today. I can hear Peter stomping around the kitchen, so he must be ready to do it. Getting dressed to go downstairs, I suddenly realise I’m a total moron and have only packed nice clothes to wear this weekend. What if I get blood on them?
‘About time,’ Peter says when I get downstairs. ‘We’re ready. Colin’s in that box.’ He points to a cardboard box sitting on the lawn, which used to contain some kitchen appliance, but now contains a hen named Colin. There is a large rock holding it shut. Peter is visibly nervous. He bounces from one foot to the other and takes a few deep breaths, shaking his arms and stretching his neck like a boxer about to enter the ring.
As many people do, Peter dreams of living self-sufficiently. One day he hopes to build a smallholding with enough land to keep a sustainable garden and some livestock, but that is years away. For now, he and his fiancé Mandy live in a town, in a row of terraced houses with fenced-in backyards. They’ve been keeping chickens in the garden for about a year, getting up early in the morning to feed and water them before leaving for their office jobs, and selling eggs to colleagues. They try to keep their little dog from pestering the hens too much, for fear that the barking and clucking will disturb the neighbours.
Peter removes the rock and opens the box, and gently lifts Colin into his arms. Colin clucks and flaps a few times, then settles down. We take a photo for posterity.
It’s a far cry from my usual process of acquiring dinner. Normally I would find myself at the supermarket on a Saturday, running through the crowded store in a mad rush to get out of there before I go insane. But always, ALWAYS, they are missing one thing I really need. Usually it’s free range chicken thighs. Sometimes it’s free range chicken anything.
We seem to have an awful lot of choices as consumers. But when I find myself staring down a long aisle of parcels of pinky flesh, clean and hermetically sealed from the chaos of the supermarket, I can’t see if this chicken lived well, or if that meat is of higher quality. I can only see labels which have been carefully designed to appeal to different demographics. Were the chickens happy, well-fed, comfortable? What about the ones labelled ‘freedom food’—what the hell does that mean, anyway?
‘Just get the factory stuff,’ a little voice (who shall remain nameless, you know who you are!) says over my shoulder. ‘It’s cheaper anyway.’ He’s right…but…I’m not sure. I know logically that I don’t want to support factory farming, but I’ll be honest with you, I’m not a terribly political creature. Sometimes I cave in and get the cheap stuff, and sometimes I stand by my principles and decide to make something else for dinner.
Back in the garden, Peter is ready to go. He has only done this once before, and his biggest concern is that the bird will be hurt but not killed. We all agree that it’s better to pull too hard than not hard enough. He takes Colin’s feet into one hand, and lets the bird dangle upside down. Very gently, he reaches for Colin’s neck with the other hand and fits her throat between his first two fingers, like he’s holding a cigar. He pulls quickly and firmly, as if he’s trying to straighten the bird out into a single taut line from foot to neck. Colin dies instantly, pooping and flapping as her nerves react automatically. Peter pulls so hard that the head comes off, which is kind of awful but at least we know there were no half measures.
He hangs the dead chicken over a bucket to collect the blood, which in my enthusiasm for using the whole animal I had planned on incorporating into our dinner. But with the flapping and feathers and dirt flying around, it’s clear that as amateur chicken killers, we won’t be using the blood after all.
Sherri is next. This time it’s a little cleaner and quicker. Peter pulls her neck just hard enough—he is getting better at this already, not bad for an accountant. He sits down with a garbage bag and the first chicken while Sherri has her turn over the draining bucket, and begins gently pulling the feathers out one tuft at a time. He’s much more relaxed now that the big moment is over.
Feathers are still flying in the early summer breeze. Breakfast will have to wait until the chickens are completely finished and the house and garden are clean. Unfortunately Peter’s struggling with the feathers—some come out easily but others hold fast. If he pulls too hard the skin will rip, which we want to avoid. We try dipping the second bird into boiling water for a few seconds to loosen the feathers’ grip. Unfortunately, that just leaves us with wet feathers, still stuck to the bird.
It takes well over an hour, but finally both birds are plucked. Strangely, they are already looking more and more like meat and less and less like Colin and Sherri. We take them into the kitchen and begin the process of ‘dressing’ them- that is, taking out their organs, cutting out their necks, trimming their wings, and generally making them look like they do when you find them in the store. Frankly, it’s rather disgusting and all I can think about the whole time is how dirty the whole process has been. Can we really eat these pieces of meat, just like we would a sterile supermarket chicken-pack? Will we not acquire some disease from the blood and guts and dirt and feathers that have been flying around all morning?
Of course we won’t. The only difference between these birds and the ones I find in the supermarket is that I’ve seen the dirt and blood and shit with my own eyes, instead of it happening behind the scenes somewhere. That, and I know without a doubt that Colin and Sherri were well cared for while they were alive.
Three and a half hours of hard work has gone into producing the two small chickens we will make into coq au vin for our dinner, and that doesn’t include the months of care they received from Mandy and Peter. It strikes me as completely ridiculous that any supermarket chicken should only cost a few pounds. How can that be possible? How can all of the energy and resource put into raising, keeping, killing, plucking, gutting, and cleaning a single chicken be reduced to £3? It just seems unnatural.
After the kitchen and garden are cleaned and disinfected, I start getting ready for a day of cooking- I want Colin and Sherri to taste their very best after all they’ve been through to give us a meal. As I chop onions and garlic and gather my ingredients, I wonder to myself if this experience will change the way I think about meat. I’m not about to begin raising and butchering my own (it is just too much work,) but I will stop and consider where my meal has come from—not just some of the time when I’m feeling virtuous, but every time I sit down to eat. Because the luxury of shovelling food into my face without thought just isn’t worth an animal’s life. Next time, the little voice over my shoulder will be out of luck: I’m buying the expensive stuff.