Pacifism and dead chickens: Another contemplation of where food comes from.
By way of explanation…this is a bit of recycling, a blog I wrote a month or so back on dailykos, where it spun into the oblivion rather more quickly than even I anticipated. I’m sharing it here by way of, well, remaining present, as I’ve just come off the production deadline for the third ND bookazine, and, while I have one or two things to say about Ian Hunter and Patterson Hood, I’m in no mental shape to write anything much worth reading. And, anyway, the house needs cleaning. And the beans need stringing. So I’ll recycle this (and rewrite, a tiny bit), see if anybody’s interested.
I can hear the washing machine spin in the next room, and maybe the blood will come out of my jeans, maybe it won’t. It wasn’t a lot of blood, because I’m generally a careful fellow, and we only killed three chickens. Still, it’s only the second time I’ve been around the harvest, and the first time I haven’t been able to pretend I was simply cutting up meat.
This is a strange journey.
My mother and her family got through the last Depression raising and eating chickens, and she won’t touch one, nor an egg, to this day. She and her twin sister were born less than two weeks after the market crashed in 1929. My daughter is six. I did not much know my grandfather before he died (I was all of four), except to know that he didn’t go to medical school and he didn’t get to play professional baseball, and that he did fight in World War I. And that there were an awful lot of people at his funeral.
I have always been a pacifist. I have no explanation for this. Well, maybe I do, maybe one will present itself below. Killing things is new to me, and if you’ll stay with me, I’m going to try to work it out in public, because that is apparently what I do.
Let me begin with the chickens. When we moved back to Eastern Kentucky, where my wife grew up, she began to agitate for chickens. We live in town, her father lives on some acreage out of town. I read William Howard Kunstler. My father-in-law read the tea leaves, and we started planting an orchard. He ordered in chickens, a couple years back, and we built a nice little condominium complex for the birds on one side of his barn, where he briefly held cattle when his father-in-law died and somebody had to tend them.
Our first batch were called the Bar-B-Q Special in the catalog, some kind of white hybrid chicken that is good mostly for meat and grows breasts that would make a stripper proud, so large they can barely walk if you wait too long to kill and eat them. We traded a half-dozen of them for layers, and, as they began to produce, I came to understand the difference between store eggs and the ones you collect every afternoon out at the barn. Farm eggs have flavor, and it took a little while to grow accustomed to the difference.
They — my wife and her dad — killed off the dumb white chickens. (Incidentally, and I know I’ve typed this before, but if you’ve never been around chickens you have no context to understand the schoolyard insult hurled at the timid.) He bought a batch of Silver Laced Wyandottes, which are a smaller mixed use breed. They turn out not to handle captivity well — that whole pecking order thing? they peck each other featherless, and it looks like it hurts — and so we are slowly phasing them out in favor of Buff Orpingtons (I haven’t yet succumbed to the Dommineckers’ of Billy Joe Shaver’s song). Meanwhile, we bred the whole lot, ended up with a cage full of mixed breed hens (you can only have one rooster at a time, so the roosters went into the pot as soon as they were old enough) that are now laying, as well.
We made the mistake of putting the Wyandotte at the bottom of the pecking order in the cage with the juvenile Orpingtons, and she killed three of them overnight.
We’ll eat her tomorrow, for mother’s day. (See, I did write this a while back. Father’s day is coming up. Which reminds me, I need to go to the Post Office, and soon.)
I don’t…kill things. Until the phone rang, there was a cat on my lap, and as I’ve typed before in my family we understand cats far better than we understand humans. I have been a pacifist since my brother taught me the word, back when he was a student leader opposing the Viet Nam war in high school, which phase he outgrew when his lottery number came in right and he got a summer job at the Boy Scout Camp as a rifle range instructor. He’s a lifetime member of the NRA, and, at one point, owned several hundred firearms.
Watching my daughter grow, I have come to understand that we all enter the world with a capacity for anger and, sometimes, for violence. I do not come from an especially functional family, but our dysfunction was passive aggressive and mostly under wraps. Mostly denial. But I felt the fury within, and knew what it sounded like, and it scared me. It still does. I have built complicated emotional structures so as to suppress that anger.
I have no church. We had no church growing up. I remember watching the Alvin York film with Gary Cooper playing the East Tennessee churchgoer so simple he believed the Bible’s admonition that Thou shalt not kill, but was turned around to become a war hero, and I remember cheering for York as he shot those Germans like it was a turkey hunt. I also remember wishing he had followed his first instinct and claimed conscientious objector status.
I was not of fighting age during Viet Nam, but I was old enough and read enough to have fought out the way I would respond to being drafted, for I knew that I would not and could not fight, and I knew that the fact that I attended no church meant I did not fit the known regulations. (I also knew that I was probably 4F, given my eyesight. Or I thought I probably was; I never had occasion to ask.) My choice, though I think it was a fool’s choice based on what I’ve read subsequently, was to to to prison rather than to serve. I was ten or twelve then.
This all still troubles me to some extent.
Men fight. I happen to enjoy watching men fight, for mine was the age of Muhammad Ali, and I remain fascinated by the UFC (my defense: the ability to concentrate and think strategically while another man is trying to beat you senseless reflects a calm and focus that, as a writer, I envy). I used to enjoy professional wrestling. I have always been a pacifist. These things do not make sense, and yet they remain true. Men fight and patriots fight for their country, and I defer to nobody in my faith in this country, though I tend to be increasingly less comfortable believing the United States to be inherently better than any other place, any other system. I used to date a girl from the rival high school. We both turned out OK, though last I heard she was living abroad.
For a long time I wouldn’t even kill bugs, would as gently as possible escort them from the house. (This was before I came south and met chiggers. And ticks. And black widows.)
The economy sucks and I don’t really have a job and I’m not really going to have another job doing the thing I spent my adult life learning how to do. Mine is the scuffling generation.
I worry what kind of world I leave my daughter, what prospects she will have.
And so I am learning to raise food.
This is not a survivalist project. Nor do I wish to be counted among the locavore movement, because that’s a trend. This is a hobby which allows us to eat well, cuts our Kroger bill to shreds, and gets me to exercise. It is my particular hedge fund against a grim future which I hope does not materialize.
This is where food comes from.
My father-in-law used an old fishing net to catch three of the bottom-of-the-order Wyandottes, one at a time. He cradled each hen gently, and I’d bet — though he’d never admit it — that he said a kind word or two as he walked away from the barn with them. Then he withdrew a cheap .22 pistol from his back pocket and shot them in the back of the head. Tossed them in the grass to flop around. Walked slowly back to the barn, did it two more times.
(There are other ways to kill a chicken, obviously. This is what works for him. For us.)
We heated water to 130-150 degrees, dipped each chicken in the water for 60 seconds, hung them from a rope and cut their necks to bleed them out. There is comparatively little blood in a chicken. We did. He did. I watched. He plucked the first one, sitting on a five-gallon bucket. I plucked the next two.
I am not comfortable with death. One of the things I learn in these middle years, in this small town, is that death is inevitable. That it is present in our lives, in ways that it was never present — except as a big red nasty thing that happened to friends who took to many drugs or to Mia Zapata, who was murdered in an alley back in Seattle — back when I lived among the hipoisie.
And so picking up the dead chickens, it gave me pause.
But if I’m going to eat them — and I like barbeque far too much to give up meat — this is the fair thing. I have to accept complicity in the process.
Plucking them, pulling those first feathers, I kept watching myself, waiting for weakness or conscience or something. Then it became simply work, another methodical challenge. I had thought the featherless parts on the backs of these chickens, where the other chickens had so mercilessly pecked away until the skin was exposed, would make them easier to pluck. Quite the contrary. It was thick, hard skin, and you couldn’t get a purchase on the ends of the feathers.
Meanwhile, my father-in-law cut them up on a table fashioned from an old gas grill, tossing the finished pieces into a styrofoam container filled with ice.
That’s it, I guess. Basic stuff, if you were raised on a farm (and I would here like once again to recommend the new book Coop, by Michael Perry, who once write for our little magazine), but I wasn’t. I was raised by the first generation to go to college, by people who assumed their children would never need to use a hoe except against weeds in a flower bed.
I taught myself not to believe in violence.
And yet one of these days the .22 will be in my back pocket.