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.

After three or four minutes, I broke the solemn silence: "It's weird that it's not flailing." Then it did flail, but just for a few seconds. Blood splattered on my pants and on Daniel's face, which made him, in a hooded sweatshirt, look like a murderer.

When we could no longer feel a heartbeat, we untied the chicken, cut off its head, and submerged it in the pot. That made plucking easier, and we sloughed off the feathers in handfuls, flinging them off our cold, wet fingers. With the downy feathers gone, hairlike pin feathers remained, and we tried to pull out all of those, too. By that point, the carcass looked more or less like what you see in the grocery store. Feathers: animal. No feathers: food. I didn't feel sentimental anymore.

We took the chicken into the kitchen, chopped off its feet and neck, and slit around its "vent," or cloaca, the all-purpose lower hole. We followed instructions and a diagram on a laptop screen; I made a ventral T-shape cut and reached into the warm cavity to pull out the organs. (Because of the prior slit, the intestines came out with the vent attached.) The whole process reminded me of my anatomy lab in college. But I hadn't expected the eggs. The next dozen or so were inside the chicken, no shells yet, just yolks in descending sizes, waiting. I accidentally punctured one and have since been a little queasy about over easy.

Otherwise, it wasn't so bad. I tried to feel regular, not righteous about it, especially after a friend forwarded me Jennifer Reese's funny disavowal of chicken-slaughtering virtue on Slate's Double X blog. She cites the prophets. Michael Pollan: "It seemed to me not too much to ask of a meat eater ... that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat-eating depends." Barbara Kingsolver: "You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened, or you can look it in the eye and know it." And the founder of the Institute of Urban Homesteading: "The level of appreciation for nature and life when you slaughter your own meat creates a kind of ethic that I think is what we need to save the world." Reese rolls her eyes; she kills a rooster and calls it messy and mundane.

I hear her, but I'm still glad we did it. I confirmed my weird personal right to consume chicken, and I do feel more conscious about meat-eating in general. Dare I sound new-age? I feel more mindful. Our little chicken was very much on my mind as we ate her. We'd planned to make coq au vin, which Julius Caesar's cook supposedly prepared with a tough rooster from conquered Gaul, but Daniel got bronchitis, so I simmered some good old chicken soup. Laying hens don't have much meat on them, but the broth and the few shreds were savory and satisfying.