M. Jane Ross
Among my favorite food stories collected in SCN’s cookbook–anthology, Kitchen Table Stories, are the chicken stories, tales of learning about life from Grandma’s backyard chicken flock. For two of our contributing authors, Pat Flathouse and Theresa May, witnessing the death of a chicken at the hands of sweet, beloved Grandma was an event that seared itself into the young consciousness—a loss of innocence they would never forget.
Like most consumers of chicken in urban, 21st Century North America, I had never witnessed the moment of truth when a live bird becomes poultry. As Barbara Kingsolver made us all aware in Animal Vegetable Miracle, this disconnect between the eaten and the eater is not a good thing, for the animals we consume nor for our own health. As a writer, foodie, and locavore (one who favors foods that are raised and grown close by), I knew I needed to fill this gap in my experience. What, I wondered, would a dignified end to a chicken’s life really look like and how would I deal with witnessing it?
When I received an invitation last spring to the Chicken Workshop run by master chef Jesse Griffiths, owner of the Dai Due Supper Club, I saw my chance to find out. Jesse puts his skills to work here in Austin, TX, to demonstrate the when, what, and how of eating close to the source. In the class we would participate in preparing a sumptuous chicken dinner, beginning with the “first, catch your chicken” stage.
In fact, we didn’t catch our chicken; the bird was brought forth to us with a quiet reverence by local, pastured-poultry farmer, Jeremy. I won’t go into the details of the chicken’s demise except to say, it wasn’t violent and it wasn’t gory. And though we witnessed the bird’s after-death spasming, there was no headless chicken running around the farmyard, terrifying young children, dogs, and squeamish urbanite adults.
Within less than a minute of the sharp butcher’s knife sliding home, the live chicken was poultry. Although still and now lifeless, it retained a certain kind of aliveness that would translate into the liveliness of “real food” on the plate, food that is harvested by the cook and brought to the table with care and gratitude. It was this paradoxical aliveness-in-death that made Grandma’s fried chicken unbeatably good, despite her ad hoc slaughter methods.
I had borne witness, and though my Buddhist precepts teach against taking life, omnivore that I am, I could live with what I had seen. As long as I am able to buy my poultry from a farmer like Jeremy.
A writing prompt: Getting to the roots of the food we eat takes our food writing to a deeper place. At the moment of harvest, we come face to face with the issues of life and death, of survival and regeneration, that are at the heart of eating. Make an intention to learn something of where your food comes from and write about the experience.
See my Flickr photos of the Chicken Workshop. (PG rated.) All photos in the Food for Thought category of this blog were taken by Jane Ross (except where noted).
And read “Chicken and Dumplings” by Theresa May and “Grandmother’s Fried Chicken” by Pat Flathouse in Kitchen Table Stories, available from Amazon or direct from SCN.