For a while now, I've belonged to a chicken-and-egg CSA from Soul Food Farm, a pasture-based chicken farm in Vacaville, California. I do this for a number of good reasons, from the altruistic (supporting a small farm and local, sustainable agriculture) to the greedy (these are the freshest, best-tasting chickens and eggs I've ever had.)
My pastured chickens come with their heads and feet still attached which means I've had to teach myself a few basic chicken butchery tricks. The mechanics aren't that difficult, but it is a very different experience emotionally when I cut open the wrapper and find a chicken head staring back at me.
I've read many accounts of this experience now that more and more people are taking up raising their own meat animals and learning about butchery. The responses have ranged from absolute indifference to abject, vegan-making disgust. But mostly it is somewhere in the middle, a complex cluster of squeamishness and fascination and hunger, all of which, when you think about it, are appropriate. In my opinion, what you feel is what what you feel and there is no right or wrong here. People are wired differently and some folks will have the stomach for this and some won't.
Does it make your food experience more authentic to be in touch with the whole animal? Does it make you a better person when you are reminded that what you are about to eat was once a living, breathing thing just like you? Should you eschew meat if you cannot bring yourself to kill or butcher it? Again, I have to say no. Some of us may need (or at least not mind) that very intimate, up-close experience that the killing and butchering brings. And some of us just aren't up for it. It has almost always been this way with human beings and is why some folks become butchers and others makers of hats or schoolteachers.
Of course, purchasing a cut-up chicken wrapped in cello does make it too easy for people to sidestep the fact that what they are about to consume was once alive and flapping its wings. And we pay a big price for this aversion, both individually and collectively. Our current, critically broken food system is based in part on this lack of concern for the suffering of animals and for that reason alone it needs some serious fixing.
But what about on an individual level? For me, dealing with a whole chicken has taught me a lot about respect and responsibility. By that I mean I can never become indifferent to the sacrifice behind what I am about to consume. I try to deal with this by always saying, either quietly in my own head or out loud if appropriate, a form of grace or thank you before consuming my food. I also try to purchase and consume well-raised meat, which usually means pastured-raised and therefore quite expensive. So I eat less meat and use up as much as I possibly can when I do.
And every now and then I try to touch that edge where I challenge my complacency. The Soul Food chickens helped with this recently when I pulled a collection of heads and feet from the freezer to make broth. I looked down at that jumble of odd and fascinating feet and the be-combed heads on my counter and was startled into being aware of their once-aliveness. My first instinct was to pull away but instead I leaned in even closer, examining and admiring the little toenails on the feet and the texture of skin on the neck, discovering a whole world of appreciation and fascination and beauty. Then with a deep breath I straightened up, said my thank you prayer and reached for my knife.
P.S. It's kind of hard to read in the photo above but the label also says "For Buddhist Religion." Neither the owner of Soul Food Farm nor her butcher knows why that is or what it means except that it is a USDA regulation to label chickens sold with their heads and feet intact in this manner. Does anyone know why?
Related: On Why I Pay $7.50 for a Dozen Eggs
(Image: Dana Velden)