Last Clucks: The Death of a Chicken


Photo by Johnath/FlickrCC

When I told people I was leaving the city for a farm last year, several asked what animals we kept and whether I would get to kill any. My friends heard "laying hens" and looked disappointed. And pulling a carrot doesn't confer nearly the same legitimacy as slitting an avian throat.

I gathered eggs once in a while, filling in for our regular collector, and ate egg sandwiches all the time, usually with Brandywine tomatoes and whatever cheese we'd traded for at farmers' markets. I didn't think about the chickens much. At some point I discovered that our neighboring farm, where I'd met my boyfriend, gave each of its interns a hen at the end of the season. Our friend Miranda had her eye on Tina, the only bird distinctive enough to be named, and planned to expand her mother's flock. My boyfriend, Daniel, wanted to kill his hen, quietly and respectfully, and eat it. If I couldn't participate, I told myself, then I couldn't eat chicken anymore.

After three or four minutes, I broke the solemn silence: "It's weird that it's not flailing."

Our friend James caught our hen and put it in a hay-lined waxed-cardboard box. It calmed down and sat quietly in the box, on the floor of my car's backseat. I sat reading in my farm's greenhouse, waiting for Daniel to come back from a trip to the city, and the chicken waited with me, its head sticking through a gap in the top of the box. It was funny, maybe even cute. I tried not to get attached.

We took the chicken to Daniel's parents' house and left it in the box in the garage overnight. No hawks or foxes in there. And we'd read about imposing a 12-hour fast (advantage: a cleaner digestive tract), so no food. In the morning, our chicken looked content. It had just laid an egg, which made me very sad. It wanted to coexist with us. To feed us, if we fed it. Daniel reminded me that in the winter, without a flock, the hen's laying rate would probably drop significantly. I sighed. He was right.

So we bound its feet with a rope—it was surprisingly calm—and hung it upside-down from a tree limb. We'd heated a large pot of water to 150 degrees and set it on the ground nearby. We were ready. The hen was asleep, or unconscious, or hypnotized, depending on which Internet biologist you believe. In any case, an upside-down chicken is a chill chicken.

Daniel held its head in one hand and took a straight-edge razor to its throat. In retrospect, a knife would have been better. More leverage. With just the blade, the first cut drew blood, but it didn't go far enough. Daniel sliced again, and a stream of blood dripped to the ground. The sources we'd consulted recommended leaving the head on at first, to prevent a surge of adrenaline that might toughen the meat. The chicken opened its eyes every minute or so, fluttered its lids, and closed them.

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Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she lived and worked on a farm in Virginia, and this year she is starting a school garden in Maryland. More

Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students as a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she was an intern for The Farm at Sunnyside, in Washington, Virginia, and this year she is starting a vegetable garden at the Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland.

Sara formerly interned at The Atlantic and has since interviewed authors about Roe v. Wade, libido, and settling. She graduated from Duke University summa cum laude in 2001, then spent a year in Chile as a Fulbright fellow, researching political theater.

An avid cook, Sara usually travels with a tiny bottle of truffle salt and keeps trying to concoct new combinations of ingredients. She has worked as a papergirl, camp counselor, umpire, and cashier at the Cosmic Cantina, in Durham, North Carolina, where she never got sick of the guacamole.

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