Bearing Witness


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.

The chicken. Photo credit MJ Ross

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.

6 responses to “Bearing Witness

  1. Dear Jane,
    This takes me back to my childhood in SW Illinois when we routinely participated in moving our chickens from aliveness to poultry…in a long tradition. My great grandfather was an early user, without knowing what it was called, of the principles of solar energy to build a chicken house on the hillside with a sort of solar storage wall where the spring chicken could be raised for early market.
    We also routinely went to my grandfather’s to participate in butchering and had our own locker.
    I, too, believe that any farm experience that gives an urbanite direct experience of the realities of life and where our life comes from…if we eat meat or even if we eat vegetables…is a good thing.
    Janet

  2. Food is such a huge part of women’s stories, isn’t it? And not just because getting meals is our “job,” I think. Seems to me that food is one important expression of nurturing our families and friends. Now, in our industrialized-agriculture age, we are so far from the roots of that nurturing. Thanks for bringing us a little closer to home, Jane!

  3. I couldn’t agree more, Susan. The kitchen, usually presided over by the woman of the house, had always been the heart of home. It’s so gratifying to know that, with help from the Slow Food movement, the value of the food prepared there and the love and wisdom dispensed by the cook are once again being recognized.

  4. Aha, a fellow locavore! I’m trying to do my part here in Wimberley, to remind people where their food comes from, and learning so much myself while I’m at it. A handful of people here have launched a website called The Bountiful Sprout that matches up local growers, raisers and producers with people who want to eat locally. For the first pick-up, we had to delete eggs from peoples orders, because a snake had got into our supplier’s hen house. The next order we had to delete flower bouquets, because an early freeze wiped them all out. It’s a real eye-opener, to see what farmers deal with on a daily basis, and makes you so much more appreciative!

  5. Hi Becky, Hooray for fellow Texas locavores! Sounds like Bountiful Sprout will be a much needed connector for foodies and food producers near you.
    For more CenTex producers, do check out “EdibleAustin” magazine. Their website has a huge resource list of growers, some of whom might be a great addition to your service. The magazine is part of http://www.ediblecommunities.com, which has helped found similar mags and websites all over the US connecting local farmers to motivated locavores. Good luck with Bountiful Sprout!

  6. Hi Jane,
    Your description of the process was so vivid and gentle at the same time. Anyone reading this will surely be inspired to ponder the sources of their food. I especially enjoyed the pictures from the chicken workshop, although I missed seeing you there.
    I look forward to hearing more about food from you.
    Danelle

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