Where are we doing it?” asked Michael*.
“Over there, away from the other animals.” The horses were moseying off to a back field; Pixie, the pot-bellied pig, had already run into the barn. The animals knew very well what was going on. Karine tied rope to the metal fence facing her neighbor’s property. She pointed at a cockerel with white-tipped black feathers who was pecking around the yard. “We’ll do him first.” Lisa and I looked at each other.
“Can you catch a chicken?”
“It’s not a chicken, it’s a rooster.” Karine bent down and tucked him under her arm. “You people are useless. Who’s going to kill him?”
In theory, I have little problem killing an animal. It’s true I used to be a vegetarian, a choice made when I first learned about modern hog farms’ brutality and impact on surrounding environments and was duly horrified and outraged and in college.
I also grew up poor in Montana, which meant that the only meat we had was whatever deer my parents had hunted, killed, skinned, cleaned, cut up and froze themselves. They took my older sister hunting when she was old enough to get a license, but by the time I was ready to hold a rifle they’d run out of time for tracking down their own meat. Even then, we usually got our winter’s venison from a hunting friend. So my knowledge of the death required to eat has always been, if not intimate, at least familiar. My parents’ example served me well when I moved to farm-rich upstate New York and floundered into self-sufficiency with gardening and canning before the term “locavore” gained traction. After the vegetarian stint, I decided I should at least be willing to face any animal I’m going to eat, a philosophy I assumed I’d never have to adhere to in practice. Personally slaughtering poultry was never on my self-sufficiency bucket list. I don’t even have a bucket list.
But theory had just turned into practice with frightening speed. A moment ago my friend’s rooster was scratching for bugs and getting his morning crows out; now he was upside-down in a traffic cone—a grimy traffic cone, I might add—about to die.
Karine had come over the evening before to drop off some eggs still covered in poop and hay, and stayed to drink a glass of wine with my college roommate Lisa and her husband Michael, who were visiting from Minneapolis.
Karine had been looking for someone to kill two of her roosters for over a year. “I don’t want to kill my own animals, but they’re pecking the chickens to death,” she said. “Someone has to do it.” Karine’s lived in America for nearly thirty years, but still has a stiff Dutch accent and can say things like alstublieft and make it sound like an actual word. I tend to think of her as hard-core, the kind of competent, no-nonsense person I wish I were, but when it comes to her animals she betrays a pretty soft candy center. Fortunately for her, both Lisa and Michael had, as kids, watched their parents kill and process chickens or rabbits.
Lisa and I had known each other a long time, ever since our first week of college. We’d dealt with the consequences of too much vodka chased with mega-packs of Twizzlers and then grown up together (for the most part; the wine we were consuming didn’t speak well of our judgment). So while the back-to-lander practices I’d been cultivating up to that point had dwindled to canning peaches and growing herbs, with a minor foray into rustic woodworking and a class in beekeeping, by the time the second bottle of wine was empty I’d been pulled in the wake of Lisa’s Karine-like no-nonsense competence and agreed to walk over to the barn the next morning and watch them do the deed. My husband, wisely, offered to stay home with our kids.
I was limiting my participation to providing the knives. And if some twirl of the future requires me to kill and clean my family’s food (a post-peak oil apocalyptic existence, say), I will make sure my knives are actually sharp.
When Karine drove up in her yellow pickup truck, the three of us were slumped against her barn watching the donkeys and rabbits and pot-bellied pig and trying to figure out which roosters were destined to die. Karine stopped next to the sign that read Cowgirl parking. All others will be crushed and melted and pulled a dirty orange traffic cone out of the back. “It was in my landlady’s basement,” she said of the cone before chopping the top off with a pair of rusty hedge loppers and tying it upside-down against the back fence.
I stretched out my hands and the rooster scooted away, which was when Karine told us we were useless, and she handed him to Michael while she caught the other one.
The rooster flipped and flapped as Karine directed him headfirst into the traffic cone. This part I knew about. I’d watched Food, Inc. from the safety of my living room. A quick nick in the neck and it’s over in seconds, nothing like the terrifying footage of major poultry slaughterhouse operations, with abuse and mistakes and overcrowding rampant. Of course I’d watched those smuggled-out factory farm videos and been horrified and outraged and, again, in college.
So that was us. Free-range. Quick. Humane.
Lisa held my broad-bladed chef’s knife, her arms crossed, and looked at the rooster. The plan was for her and Michael each to do one.
The expression on her face reminded me of the time we’d entered the house that my rugby-playing boyfriend shared with his rugby-playing friends the morning after they’d thrown a large, disgusting party.
“You don’t want to do this, do you?” I asked her.
When it comes down to it, sliding a knife across an animal’s neck, while the morning is still stretching and yawning around you, shady trees overhead and a pastoral little scene of chickens, donkeys, horses, and a pot-bellied pig—a scene that is complete on its own, without willful, cold-blooded death in the mix—looks worse in person than when contemplated the night before, or from the distance of a Michael Pollan book.
“I’ll do it.”
What happened next can be blamed on the dual facts that none of us had a good enough understanding of bird anatomy to sift efficiently through the surprising amount of feathers covering a rooster’s neck, and that I had never learned to sharpen knives.
Unlike rooster-slaughtering, learning this skill was, if not on a bucket list, definitely a New Year’s resolution for two years running, but I hadn’t yet found anyone to teach me. You couldn’t slide my knives easily into a cucumber.
I pulled the feathers back from the rooster’s wattle and tried not to look him in the eye. He blinked, calm, just as the upside-down cone method predicted. “Do I just…?” There was no answer to my question because I couldn’t articulate it. None of us knew exactly what to do. Hesitation radiated through my arms and I glanced at Lisa, who was looking squeamish. She later told me that she was so tense her jaw had locked up.
“Hurry up,” said Karine. “Don’t make him suffer.” Every meat-eating fiber in my body wanted to run away, and my willpower to finish the task as quickly as possible was the only thing that prevented the scene from turning into a complete nightmare, for the rooster most of all.
I wish I could say I made an incision, but that sounds both too clean and too professional. I cut into the wattle and blood spurted but I could still only see feathers and knew it wasn’t far enough. I cut again, hoping for sinew, a large exposed vein, and finally got it.
When he died, the vein threw blood all over the fence. I expected to get some splashed on me, too, but I was clean. My hand was cramped tight around the knife and I set it down, shaking in a way that felt, strangely, like stage fright. Or just plain fear. What, exactly, I was afraid of is a mystery. It only took about ten seconds to slice the rooster’s neck, but those moments had turned into something elongated and horrible.
Michael finished his rooster off more quickly with the carving knife and it was done. We were also meant to kill a rabbit, for some reason now lost in the tense fog of the day, but Karine nixed that idea. Lisa, Michael, and I walked back along the road with two plastic bags holding the roosters and the knives, numb and traumatized, stumbling like shell shock victims.
At the house, Lisa and I pulled out the five-gallon stockpot and my laptop—to find You Tube videos of how to de-feather and gut a chicken—and set ourselves up on a rickety red picnic table outside. When the babysitter showed up so that my husband could take Michael out for the day to visit a Revolutionary War-era fort, I yelled at her from across the lawn not to come any closer. “We’re gutting Karine’s roosters,” I said. “It’s gross and it stinks.”
Removing every single feather turned out to be daunting, time-consuming work, no matter how much water we boiled, so we eventually sliced and peeled off the skin with the remaining feathers sticking stubbornly to the birds’ flesh. I kept reminding myself that this was food, no different from the other local, family-farmed, free-range beef and pork I buy from the butcher shop just a bit further upstate. And I reminded myself of winter after winter in my small Montana town, when my parents would come home with a deer, lay it on a sheet of plastic after letting it hang in the garage, and carve it up on the walnut dining table my mother’s grandfather had built when he moved to the frontier. My mother used to slice the frozen venison very thin and marinate it with layers of lime juice, lime zest, and red chili pepper flakes, sautéing them with onions and green bell peppers and wrapping it all up in a flour tortilla, inventing fajitas that my sisters and I ate with eager, dripping fingers.
Of course, my parents faced the death of the whitetail from the distance of a 30-06 rifle, not up close with their hands on the feathers, aware of the still-beating heart. But still. They killed, they cleaned, we ate.
I tried. I put the birds whole into a massive pot, poured in several liters of a mid-range cabernet, and let the whole thing cook on low heat for two days, until I could mentally begin to separate the trauma from the roosters’ potential as dinner. Then I sliced button mushrooms, with dirt still clinging from the organic farm down the road, removed the wine-soaked meat from the roosters’ bones, reduced the sauce with homemade chicken stock and fresh thyme from my garden, and made coq au vin.
Last year a friend down the road asked if I wanted an heirloom turkey for Thanksgiving. A farmer we both buy eggs from raises Bourbon Reds, gorgeous with hefty rich-brown feathers, and sells them at ridiculously low prices.
Except that you have to kill and clean the birds yourself, which is why I’ve never gotten one from him before.
“Um . . .”
“I’ll do it for you,” my friend said. “I don’t mind. I do a whole Last of the Mohicans thing, honoring the animal, all that.” I considered. I’d always wanted to try an heirloom turkey for Thanksgiving, especially since reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and the farm where I got our usual free-range holiday birds only raised the usual Broad Breasted Whites.
“Okay, well then, sure.”
A few weeks later he told me he was going to the farm to choose the birds, and he picked them up the day before Thanksgiving. “Do you want to come over?” he offered again on Wednesday. I could hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 playing, my friend’s regular turkey-slaughtering background music.
These birds were losing their lives so that my family and I could have a feast. I thought of the farm they’d just been taken from and the side dishes I would make the next day and how the turkey would smell roasting, how much I would enjoy basting it because pouring the turkey’s juices back over itself is my favorite part of my favorite holiday. Theoretically, I should be okay with this.
But my ethics seem to have gone the way of the rooster, cut loose with that hot July day and the traffic cone under the bucolic trees and the coq au vin that Karine, Michael, Lisa, my husband, and I all had trouble swallowing, even though the flavor was good.
“No. No, thank you. I really don’t.”
*Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Antonia Malchik has written about education, parenting, identity, environment, and travel for STIR Journal, Creative Nonfiction, Brain, Child, and the Jabberwock Review, among many other publications, and has essays forthcoming from Orion and The Washington Post. A former IT journalist, she is a regular essay contributor to Full Grown People.