Cooking from the coop

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 fiancĂ© 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.

colin-the-hen-crop

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.

colin-the-chicken-3

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.

colin-the-chicken-2

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.

Wondering about that coq au vin? Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all the details of how to make it in my next post….

25 comments:

Sue said...

Can't we just go back to cake? Or vegetables?
Guess I should have heeded the 'sensitive' warning! (If they didn't have names, maybe I could feel better about this chapter...)

Stephfret said...

Well, cake and vegetables are great, but I also am a meat eater and as such feel that I have a responsibility to think more carefully about what goes into the production of my dinner. Every piece of chicken I've ever eaten came from a once-living animal that could have had a name. Just because I wasn't there to witness the animal's death doesn't change the fact that it happened.

sasasunakku said...

I think this is awesome. It's really important to be willing to kil the meat you eat - even if you can't always do it, I think it's good to have done it once so you get perspective. Well done.

Sue said...

I agree completely and am in NO WAY criticizing. I too think it was an amazing piece, excellently and bravely 'executed!?' ( Much 'food' for thought, as they say.) I love meat of all kinds and eat a lot of chicken (maybe not so much in the future), but I AM 'chicken' and don't want to think about the process involved, much less actually do it, tho' I can't wait to see the coq au vin recipe! (By the way, my nephew kills ALL of his meat and my freezer is FULL of interesting products from rabbits and deer to gosh-knows-what!)

Stephfret said...

Thanks sasasunakku- It's not something I would want to do regularly, but I'm glad I had the chance to see what is involved. I don't think it's an experience I'll forget!

Thanks Sue- I hope I haven't ruined any chicken dinners for you, but glad you found this thought provoking!

slish66 said...

I really dont know how you could stand by and watch the defenseless animal be killed, for no other reason than you & your family's greed! and you even took photos.
Sorry to leave a bad comment, but i am disgusted. I dont know how you could sit down and eat an animal that you gave a name to.
Horrible!
I came on this site to see recipes, and not how to murder animals.

Noelle said...

I think it was really brave of you to make this post. It really does provide a perspective on the process of eating flesh (something many Americans do every day) that we so often forget exists. Even though my kneejerk reaction is to feel horrified, I definitely have respect for you for writing this down. It's not what I expect out of every food blog, and in this case that's a good thing.

Stephfret said...

slish66- I understand that it isn't for everyone to participate in the killing of their dinner, but it is a fact that millions of people eat meat every day, including me. You don't mention if you are a vegetarian or not, but I would feel hypocritical as a meat eater to be unwilling to see (or read about) how my dinner has died. In fact, I feel that this experience has been an important part of my journey to ethical meat-eating. This blog is about my experiences with food in all its forms, not just recipes.

Stephfret said...

Noelle- Thanks so much. It isn't an easy thing to watch (or read about), but I really hope that by being honest about the process of eating meat, I can be a more respectful consumer. I'm so glad that you found this thought-provoking.

Orchid64 said...

I grew up around chickens, and saw this happen many times. I also saw deer slaughtered during hunting season and fish caught and cleaned. It isn't "fun", but this is the reality that we are often insulated from. People have no right to eat meat if they can't handle this, and vegetarians should at least have respect for your willingness to live with your choices.

Christie said...

I can safely say as an ex-vegetarian of 8 years (yep, one school-year of meat in a catered halls of residence at university has a lasting effect) and having got into the whole affair and the politics that surround it (not to mention acquiring a fellow vege boyfriend for over 4 of those impressionable years, who was 3rd generation vegetarian and had never eaten meat) thatI find it extremely difficult of people – both meat-eaters and non – to discount where meat comes from, and I know he did too. As you say Steph it’s all too convenient and very clinical in the supermarkets, we’re very well protected from seeing any of that and consequently have a complete lack of consideration for the life of the animals themselves. Eating meat again was a big decision, and consequently the little meat I do now enjoy, I like to know has been reared and treated correctly and I never take what’s on my plate for granted.
Aside from all this, I may be alone here but I didn’t find this offensive, disgusting, or off-putting in any way (and that’s despite my delicate constitution)! That and I thoroughly enjoyed your writing and appreciate you putting yourself through this experience for our benefit, so thank you.
I realise too that you have received some flak for this post, so I wanted to extend my congratulations to you (and Peter, Mandy and ‘the little voice’) for all being prepared to do this, even if it was only just the once.

Indigo said...

I also thought this was a really great post - I've been watching Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall's River Cottage programs recently, particularly the things about chickens, and there's no way I'd buy (or eat - even from takeaway outlets or in ready meals) a factory farmed chicken even again.

The comment about 'watching a defenceless animal be killed' for 'greed' so hypocritical that I can hardly believe it. That's what ALL meat-eating is. The difference here is that you've demonstrated your principles, you've treated the chickens as well as possible, and you've taken responsibility for your decision to eat meat, rather than being content to settle for chickens you don't have to SEE being killed. I think that moral responsibility is really brave, and really laudable.

Kelly said...

What a great post! I grew up eating animals that came from our own farm and many had names, so it's not alien to me. I really think very highly of people who take responsibility for what and how they eat. I know too many people who are "too sensitive" for this sort of thing yet think nothing of buying meat that is produced in much more horrific ways.

Amazing how choices in what and how we eat can have such political ramifications, isn't it? Anyway, great post. :)

kastinkerbell said...

A local chicken/egg farm had a processing workshop that I went to last week and here are a couple of things that I learned that might help you next time:

We killed the chickens by placing them into upside down traffic cones that had been trimmed down. We slit their neck veins on other side. They started to bleed out and passed out before dying. It was all pretty quiet until the last nervous system jolt, but even that wasn't too bad. They then completely bled out.

After they were dead and bled, they were scalded. You want the water to be at 140 (not boiling) and have some Dawn in it to permeate through the feathers down to the skin. If you hold one foot and dunk in and out of the water several times in a minute, you'll have the optimal situation for pulling feathers out (which will then just take a couple of minutes).

Stephfret said...

Orchid64- Thanks for your comment and for sharing some of your experiences. You make a great point about the process not being 'fun', but a reality nonetheless.

Christie- Thanks! It's interesting that even though you've gone back to eating meat, you don't eat alot of it. That reminds me of something my 'little voice' said to me after chicken-day, that it made him feel like meat is better consumed in smaller quantities and less frequently-- probably just as our ancestors would have done.

Indigo- Thanks! I've watched Hugh too (I love him!) His programmes really do put you off factory produced chicken, and seeing the process in person does even more so.

Kelly- Yes, it's amazing how each decision you make about what to eat really does have an impact beyond your own plate! Thanks so much for the comment.

kastinkerbell- Wow- this really is incredibly helpful information and I will definitely share it with Peter and Mandy and any other chicken-owners I come across. Very inventive use of traffic cones! Thank you so much!

slish66 said...

wow, you people are obviously 'made up' differently to most.
I am still diesturbed from reading this yesterday.
Everyone to their own opinions of course, but i believe that animals of any kind have the right to live on earth just as much as humans do, and killing them for food is very wrong.

Jessica said...

Slish- dude. I hate to be insensitive, but please get over it. Man has slaughtered it's food since it could walk upright. Any denial or "disgust" you may have does not "redeem" you from being a part of humanity, and it does not lessen the fact that you were born into this world through your ancestors, who I daresay killed and ate their own foods.
No society on earth flourished on a vegan diet, and very, very few societies on earth (Vedic priests were part of the few) were strict vegetarians. Without the sustenance of animal flesh, your ancestors likely would have died and you would not have been here.
So, try as you (and many others, similarly delusional) might, you simply cannot deny that animals have been, are, and will be the foodstuff of man.
I, particularly find this woman to be quite brave- when in modern times, some people are afraid to eat meat off of a bone. A bone! Everything must be skinless, boneless, and sanitized. And, what's more, I find it rather piquant for someone who is evidently an "animal activist" to criticise a woman who is advocating humane treatment of animals- whether they become our foodstuff or not.

Bravo for this post! I'd like to see people confront the facts more often. We must return to the ways of our ancestors, if we are ever to return to good health, and if our food is ever to be wholesome again.

Stephfret said...

Well put Jessica, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree that a return to the past is the way forward- we (Western, affluent) humans are doing ourselves a disservice by rejecting the cluinary crafts and traditions of our past...we're several generations removed already, and if we aren't careful to retain or relearn what our ancestors knew, we could be facing a terrible impact on our cultures, rural communities, farmers, bodies, the works. I'm all riled up now! :)

souleating said...

I think this is an extremely important post. Most of us do not have the stomach to undertake such a task, but I think everyone needs to sit and think about where the stuff that sustains us comes from. I often run out of the meat isle, overwhelmed by all of the unhealthy, uncared for meat, culled in a mechanism that has turned high-volume killing into an art form. While I do not think that I could take the life of my meal into my own hands (if I were starving...maybe) my virtual cap goes off to you and others who choose to experience this. Kudos.

Sue said...

Death is a fact of life. Humans donate various organs so that others may have better lives and nature donates certain animals for the better nutrition of all other animals, humans included. Its all part of the food chain! I for one, hope that my death will be as quick and painless as these chickens experienced... and that I'll still have organs worthy of donating for the betterment of others' lives. The important thing is to live well while on earth, whether your a human or a chicken!

Stephfret said...

souleating- thanks so much! It is disturbing to think what the process must be like for factory chickens- I for one will no longer support that industry.

Sue- thanks! Yes, here's to living a good life, no matter what your species!

RCakeWalk said...

It is indeed, infinitely better to eat an animal that lived a good life and was well cared for. It had dignity in death, and you may quickly find that the whole experience changes you forever. It's good to be connected to what you eat, and to appreciate the cycle of life. £3 supermarket chickens are just that: poorly raised and generally raised in a sorry state. Our factory farms in the US are terrible, and I personally don't think buying "organic" or "free-range" is much better since the animals can still live in too close proximity to one another, and labeling laws allow free-range to mean like 12 inches of random space...

How lucky to know exactly where your food comes from!

Stephfret said...

Thanks RCakeWalk! It would be good to learn more about what qualifies as 'free range' and what exactly that means in terms of quality of life. You are right that I am already thiking differently about what kind of meat I eat, how often, in what quantities, and where it came from.

bobhill29 said...

In 1950’s England in chicken was rare, expensive luxury.
Then many more people kept garden chickens, a hang-over from the recently ended war when it was a necessity to supplement the ration of one egg per person per week. We saw the birds alive and scratching , they felt the wind, rain and sun on their feathers and they enjoyed a reasonably normal life.
At the end of their productive egg laying days (or years) they were killed and prepared at home as Colin and Sherri were. We all hated to see the killing, plucking, gutting. But at least these birds had a life, and we were grateful.
Compare this with the sad forty day lifespan of hundreds of millions of battery hens today. Jammed into disgusting battery sheds where they can hardly move because of overcrowding or broken limbs. Where they die of heat exhaustion if the air extraction system fails, and where they are pumped with water and preservatives and finally shrink wrapped before being sold in supermarkets for less than the price of a bottle of designer water. Battery farms which are run by people whose only concern for the bird’s health is that nothing should happen to them which will affect the final price of the ‘unit’.
Perhaps Slish’s anger and disgust should be redirected towards these people who run the vile farms instead to people like Peter, Mandy and Steph who care enough to give the birds names and rear them in a kindly way. At the end of their lives they despatch them quickly and humanly, and they appreciate and are grateful for the meal they provide.

Stephfret said...

Thanks bobhill29! It is really important to remember that not that long ago, people didn't have the same choices we do now and in many cases had to learn to deal with these things out of necessity. Wartime rationing is a great example- it’s hard for us now to imagine living with those sorts of restrictions but that was the reality for many people for years and years. Relying on what you could grow or raise yourself was an important part of life back then, and it’s a skill that we seem to have lost touch with.

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