Saturday, February 13, 2010

Do you eat chicken? Could you kill one?

The recent story from the UK about the teacher who was pressured by parents to resign after slaughtering the school's farm lamb because their children were 'traumatised' provoked exactly the outrage you probably expect from me on this topic. The same week, Jamie Oliver spoke of the importance of teaching children where their food comes from, focusing primarily on health rather than culture, sustainability and competence.

So here's the story of the Jonai family raising chooks for eggs, and slaughtering and eating them when they stop laying.

A little background: we've had chooks since about 1997, primarily for the eggs, but also because of their contribution to a healthy garden system – they dig, eat insects and weeds, and fertilise extremely well. We move them around the garden, planting out the spot they vacate to great effect. Our system is based on the principles of permaculture, though we are fairly unorthodox in most of our gardening efforts. The one aspect of permaculture to which we are totally committed is to maintain a closed cycle – no organic waste leaves our property, which is an average sized suburban block in Melbourne.

The first few years we had chooks, we lost them occasionally to foxes or disease, and continually replenished the flock with new pullets. Then came the year Antigone brought home nine chicks that her kinder had hatched – our first time raising them from so young. Of course, probability being what it is, we ended up with a few roosters, which you're not allowed to keep in the suburbs. The dilemma of what to do with them had an obvious, if not easy, solution – we would have to slaughter and eat them. Neither of us had ever killed our own meat, though we'd always said we should be willing to do so if we were going to be meat eaters. At last, here was our chance to practice what we preached.

The first time was definitely the hardest, but each time since has not actually been a great deal easier, insofar as it's difficult to take a life. Roosters are truly magnificent creatures, and it seems a shame to cull them so young and glorious. But of course, all those carefully wrapped breasts and thighs in the supermarket were once lovely young (mistreated, usually) creatures, and they're tastiest while they're still young.

Stuart slaughters them by laying the chooks gently on a chopping block, patting their head all the while so they remain very calm and content. And then quickly, down comes the cleaver, the chook is beheaded, Stuart holds its wings so the nervous system's reaction doesn't result in that awful sight of a headless chook running around the yard, and then the bird is hung from the monkey bars to drain the blood.

We've experimented with both plucking and skinning, and unlike the intrepid Zoe's preference, we prefer plucking so that we still have the luscious fatty skin on, which is especially important if you're roasting a younger bird. But even with boilers, we pluck as neither of us really likes the sensation of skinning a still-warm animal.

We both find the eviscerating quite unpleasant, especially if we're trying to keep a whole bird to roast, which requires that someone reach inside and pull the guts out – it's rather blech. With the boilers, we cheat and cut them open at the breastbone with sharp Chinese scissors and then sort of scoop the organs out. The kids are fascinated by sorting the organs and feet on a piece of cardboard, and we either save those bits to feed to the neighbour's dog or compost them, though we have eaten the livers from some of the roosters.

With the young roosters, I make roast chicken, chicken arrabiata and other such tasty dinners, but the old girls aren't called boilers for nothing. And so Australia Day 2010 was our first experience of culling non-layers and making the most of them. We explained the plan to the children, who were initially a bit sad that we were going to kill the chooks, but after we reiterated the rationale for keeping, slaughtering and eating our own animals, with details they've heard before about the horrors of factory farming, they were back on board with the project. They feel sad about killing the chooks – I do too – but I think it's irresponsible for omnivores to use that sadness as a justification for not exposing children (and ourselves) to the realities of what's behind meat eating. I really think only vegans have a reasonable position from which to oppose exposure to animal slaughter.

The killing went as usual, and this time Atticus was game to help me pluck them, which made a mother proud. :-) The evisceration was interesting as we'd never seen the eggs inside a chook before. Zoe's got great photos, but you can see in mine that there were some large and small – we worked out that one of the chooks was in fact still laying once or twice a week but had set up a secret nest in a little-seen corner. We were a bit sad about this discovery, but figured she would have stopped completely like the other two soon enough.

Three chooks filled my biggest stock pot, and after simmering for about six hours, we had a deeply flavoursome 18 litres of clear stock. I pulled all the meat off and finely minced some, mixed it with prosciutto, ricotta and reggiano, and the kids and I made masses of tortellini for that night's dinner & to freeze. The resulting feast included tortellini en brodo, and a tomato and bread salad made with a variety of cherry tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden and the stale remnants of my last loaf of homemade sourdough, dressed in olive oil pressed from last year's harvest with the Binks. For starters we enjoyed that day's fresh loaf of sourdough with Stuart's olives and a tapenade. The sense of homely virtue and connection to the natural world as we enjoyed this dinner was profound, and I reflected on the fact that it's only fairly recently in our history that we've lost these daily rhythms, skills and ensuing satisfaction.

Our society will almost certainly never go back to the majority of us raising our own meat. However, probably more of us than realise could do the sort of small scale livestock raising that we have in our backyard, and growers could certainly go back to or redevelop sustainable models of production, such as if egg producers were to slaughter unwanted roosters and sell them for the meat, and then sell the old non-layers as boilers, as well as the obvious need to raise chickens (and pigs) in free range environments. In the meanwhile, it's a very simple decision to refuse to buy factory farmed meat of any type, which gives producers the message that these systems will no longer be tolerated by the public.

As for squeamishness about the killing of animals, and especially about children witnessing or taking part in the slaughtering and butchering processes, it's obvious we have this backwards. In the UK case where children witnessed the slaughtering of the lamb, some parents actually claimed their children would need therapy to overcome the trauma. I would argue the high rates of people seeking therapy is rather about not witnessing the food chain, it's about our lost connections – to the land, its plants and animals, to each other, and to the past. People who are engaged each day in creating things for their basic needs – by gardening, raising and slaughtering animals, cooking, building, repairing and maintaining a home and its contents – by and large enjoy a strong sense of competence, sometimes mastery. (My interviews to date support this claim across class, culture and generational differences.)

And it's not just a sense of competence that is gained by working for your food in this way. The respect engendered by having to face your dinner and take its life in order to sustain yours cannot be overestimated. Again, my research around frugality has certainly highlighted the strong drive to waste nothing that arises from both a fear of scarcity but also a true understanding of the value of what you've got. And of course my own experience has been precisely that. Understanding and respecting our food sources is a great motivator to reduce our consumption – especially of the high impact foods like most meats.

Yet we've drifted so far from this basic principle of living thoughtfully in the world that too many people think it's reasonable to insist that they should not be exposed to the realities of food production. It is indeed sad to kill animals. But the majority of us choose to eat them, and to eat them we must kill them, and so we must learn to do so in the most humane and sustainable manner. If every omnivore killed a chook even once in their lives, we might not be facing the serious ethical and environmental issues we have today as a result of overconsumption, and we might not be suffering the sense of disconnection and isolation that is the real trauma in our society.

Bring back competence and mastery in the everyday.

(This post is a part of Fight Back Friday @ Food Renegade)

21 comments:

Aikande said...

BRAVO! Love your blog. I grew up on a farm, and was involved in all levels of our farm grown meat, from birth to slaughter. I firmly believe the horrific practices of mass meat production comes from the increased distance we've created from what we eat. The bizarre, extremist behaviors of our civilized cultures is because we have forgotten the circle of life that has been around since the beginning of time. When that order is out of balance, the existence of all living things is at risk.
I didn't appreciate as a child the skills I learned - from helping a ewe give birth to gutting a chicken, but I see now I was given rare and precious gifts. Thanks for passing to your children such great wisdom.
-Celia Hansen

naomi said...

Beautiful post Tammi, particularly your acknowledgement of the sadness of killing animals. I believe animals deserve to be honoured, and cared for with respect at all stages of their lives alongside us.

One day I will have to work out what to do with my girls, but until then ... however, a sense of competence is indeed something I get from my garden, and my girls.

stinginthetail said...

yes, bravo :) hiding the real world from children is simply stupid - as a child i witnessed sheep being killed - it was fascinating, and the sheep was treated with respect. (This was on my uncle's farm, not an abattoir.)

I am personally sick of the exported US obsession with political correctness, which has been hijacked by the twee and the overly religious and is strangling the language.

I am amazed at how many people who eat meat get quite hysterical if you try to say, but meat treated in abattoirs has a horrible time - seems they prefer not to even think about things like that.

Ed Charles said...

Great post. Killing seems brutal to some people but if you want to eat meat I believe that you should be prepared to slaughter. I wish I had the space to have such a sytem. Maybe soon.

Zoe said...

It's a great post.

I think it's really important for people to see you don't have to do the full move to Tassie and become a farmer thing to be more involved with your food, and more responsible for your life (although I have been very much enjoying Matthew Evans' "Gourmet Farmer on SBS!). You can do it in the suburbs and you can do it in a rental house. You don't have to be self sufficient, there are massive benefits from just moving closer to that idea.

Arwen from Hoglet K said...

Good post Tammois. You're very brave to put your principles into practice.

Tammois said...

Celia - great to see you here. :-) I agree that sometimes we don't appreciate what we learn as children until later, and yet that is certainly no reason for parents to keep us from such learning.

Naomi - it sounds to me like you're already giving your girls a great sense of competence as well. I'm not sure it's really practical for everyone to kill their own meat, especially if, like Ed, you don't have space. However, as per Zoe's point, a small suburban backyard is indeed sufficient to engage fully in these small but significant engagements with our food systems.

Silverbeet - although I agree with what we don't like about our society's backwards values, I may disagree that it's just a problem with the US (take the UK lamb example, for one). I think it's more symptomatic of modernity and overpopulation, which is happening everywhere. But whereas the industrialisation of agriculture was designed to feed a growing population, it has resulted in the abysmal ethical and environmental outcomes we see in factory farming and other destructive practices. It's time to turn it all back around.

Arwen - thank you for the affirmation. I'm often told that these principled actions (in our home life or in my political activities) are brave, but I don't always feel they're that brave - simply the only ethical choice to make. Killing chickens is always sad, but the alternative in our case would be to give the roosters to someone else (who would kill and eat them), and we just think that's abrogating responsibility. Perhaps it's brave, but I like to think that increasingly people will just think it's obvious, as they did not so long ago. :-)

And a side note - after posting this, a number of my Twitter followers (about 12 maybe?) 'unfollowed' me immediately. Some were so-called 'foodies'. I find this rather disappointing, if somewhat predictable.

Kim (frogpondsrock) said...

We ate most of the children's pets. Jacko the sheep, Charlotte and Wilbur the pigs, Oscar the super chook. Now I am busily explaining to my 3 year old Grand daughter that eggs come out of the chooks bums and that there are two holes one for poo and one for eggs.Heh it is a circle.

Tammois said...

gah! sorry - I said 'Silverbeet' earlier when I was addressing 'Stinginthetail'! Apologies!

essjayeats said...

Great post Tammi, I'm sorry some of your twitter followers can't stomach where food comes from. What are you supposed to do with them? Waste them? Let them run free? I suppose you shouldn't have had chooks for eggs in the first place...eating all those leftovers and bugs, turning them into delightful eggy goodness.... *sigh*.

Very proud of your efforts. After working in a chicken factory for 6 months when I was desperate, I was vegetarian for 16 years. Related? I think so. Industrialised food production is one of the most horrible things we humans have produced.

gardenclub2015 said...

wow. what a wonderful post!

daiskmeliadorn said...

nice post. i love the picture of your daughter with a bloodied cleaver. (is that creepy? :)

i'm vegetarian, so i don't have to feel guilty or incompetent, right??

Aikande said...

Being a big fan of Garrison Keillor, I came across this youtube (audio only) from one of his Lake Wobegone stories. What rings so true is the 'respect and ritual' that surrounds slaughter--the keen sense that a life is being given to sustain another. This vital respect is what we have lost in our industrialized mass production of meat. We can only again attain it by involving ourselves in the completely process. Cheers to more back yard farms!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLv9I-rCfGc

Angie said...

I agree that Andrea Charman was unfairly vilified over the lamb incident, given that the parents who complained were, for the most part, omnivores. What really bothers me, though, is the fact that very few children are actually given the option of being vegetarian or vegan. I'm all for children knowing where their food comes from, but if they are distressed by the reality of killing animals they should then be given the option not to participate in or support this killing. The majority of children that were distressed by the lamb's death (as I certianly would have been, and would still be)would be required, or at the very least strongly encouraged, to continue eating meat. My own wonderful parents were extremely reluctant to allow me to become vegetarian, but finally consented (probably out of sheer exhaustion) when I turned 11. If the school farm program was really designed to give children an awareness of the food chain, and of ethical food choices, then vegetarianism and veganism should absolutely be included within this. In much of the media debate surrounding this case, the choices presented were that of hypocritical, sentimental meat eater, or that of honest, earthy meat eater, with no real acknowledgement that children could also be taught about option 3(vegetarian/vegan), in which nothing has to die for us. So often the distress we feel at animal suffering and death is dismissed as sentiment or naivety, and children are taught to replace these feelings with a more 'practical' approach. The really funny thing about this is that veganism is about as practical a dietary choice as you can find. While it is still widely regarded as an extremist lifestyle, if properly managed (as any diet must be) it is healthy, inexpensive, environmentally sustainable, and far more humane. Children need to be made aware that killing animals is a choice, not a necessity, and be allowed to make their own decisions accordingly. Phew...sorry to be so verbose!

Chandelle said...

Came over from Food Renegade...fascinating post! I love the philosophy of the WAPF and professionally my focus is entirely on real food. I go out of my way to point people toward local farmers who raise their animals humanely in integrated, closed-loop systems. But I really don't think I could kill a chicken. So I don't eat chicken. It doesn't seem right to pass off that responsibility to someone else. Thanks for sharing!

Christy said...

We are getting chicks this weekend and will certainly get a couple roosters - we will be in the same situation as you. I know my husband can do it - he grew up on a farm, I am a bit nervous myself as I grew up in the city. Great post.

Millie said...

Excellent post!
A few years ago I would have said no. We had chickens for eggs only and my children named each of them. Now, things are much different. I currently have 7 hens for eggs and 25 cockerels that will be food. Next month I'll be getting another 10 day old pullets for eggs and 50 more cockerels (plus 10 ducks). Why the change? I am so grossed out by the way that chickens are raised for consumption in the US that we do not buy chicken from the grocery store. And living in Wyoming there are not alot of people that raise chickens for food. So I'm doing it myself. These chickens will be food for us and currently 5 other families.
I absolutely do not relish the idea of processing the chickens. I've done it twice before and it makes me sad. But I like knowing that my chickens had a very good life and are processed in a repectful and humane manner. My hens are still young (one year) but when the time comes they too will be 'culled'. I know that will be even more difficult than the chickens intended to be food from the beginning. But I'll do it. Because I believe it is the right thing to do.
Thanks again for a great post.

Rigor Fitness said...

Great post!
Incredibly cool that you tell your kids the truth about factory farming and demonstrate the reality of humane farming.

Jen said...

Wonderful post! I'm envious of your lifestyle. Give "Vegetarian Myth" by Lierre Keith a read. I think you'll enjoy it : ).

Tammois said...

Fell behind in responding to comments, sorry!

Angie – thank you for your very thoughtful response. I don't think I highlighted enough that not eating meat is a valid (and arguably more responsible) choice, though I did try to constantly indicate that being an omnivore is in fact just one choice amongst many. I was vegetarian for about 6 years, so am comfortable with both lifestyles, and have chosen omni now for reasons I've detailed on Lisa Dempster's excellent blog. Our kids are not forced to eat meat, I just ensure they have a well-rounded diet with plenty of protein, iron, etc, with or without meat. I'm always quietly proud when they complain that their grandmother always gives them meat, because at home they're accustomed to about 50% vegetarian meals. :-)

Chandelle – nicely said: “I really don't think I could kill a chicken. So I don't eat chicken.” My only reservation on this is that I don't think I could kill large animals (cows, pigs, sheep), but I still eat them. We do choose ethically farmed & slaughtered animals, but I'm conscious I'm not able to follow through completely on our belief that we should be able to kill what we eat.

Millie – a million kudos. If we manage to buy a farm (we're looking!), we would like to increase our own production & go as much off the grid as possible.

Jen – thanks for the recommendation – I'll look up the “Vegetarian Myth”!

Everyone – thanks very much for the supportive and thoughtful comments!

Tammois said...

Oops - I meant to link to Lisa Dempster's post on "Meat Free Mondays" - here it is!

http://www.lisadempster.com.au/?p=2087&cpage=1#comment-11446