Home » 2013 - 14 Academic Year » Making the Connection Between Food and Animal on the Farm

Making the Connection Between Food and Animal on the Farm

By Claire Benning, V Form–Currently Attending Chewonki Semester School

{Editor’s note:  The following piece is graphic in its real, intelligent, and vivid portrayal of the writer’s experience of slaughtering a chicken.}

This is not something that we usually do at Chewonki. Legally we are not allowed to slaughter our own chickens to then serve to the dining hall; we have to send them to a slaughter house. This was a one-time opportunity that was made available to us by one of our faculty members who works in the woodshop. He had three roosters who were causing him some trouble and were dangerous to keep around both his hens and his baby daughter. He asked our farmers to slaughter them for him and so the farm manager, Megan, asked for volunteers from the semester. There were a lot of people who wanted to do it but only seven of us were allowed to participate and none were allowed to watch. It would not be respectful to the animal if there was a whole crowd of people there watching and taking pictures, so there are no pictures of the event. This opportunity was amazing for us to try and make a connection between food on our plate and the animals they come from, and it is very likely that I will never have this chance again.

I could hear the noises from all the way in the pig pen: Megan, Veronica, and Liza were catching the three roosters. I stayed with the pigs and scratched behind their ears, tickling them as they chewed on my shoe laces. We weren’t going to start yet because the water had to get to 115˚F first and we were only at 90˚F. A few minutes later, Nick was helping me climb out of the pile of manure in which the pigs reside and into the opening where the bucket was hanging from a long piece of rope. Megan quickly ran through “the process” and we divided up into groups of two or three to work together. There were only three chickens; so Kessa, Nick, and Liza stepped forward and each took one. One by one they placed their chickens into the buckets head first. The head came out of a hole at the bottom so that the neck was exposed just enough to see where they needed to cut. Their partner would then hold the chicken from up above. Nick went first. It wasn’t what I expected. I thought it would be one clean swipe but it wasn’t. With the first stroke came some feathers and with the next some more and horrible ripping sounds, like scissors cutting fabric. Nick kept slicing and slicing until a splatter of blood came pouring out into the bucket below and all over his hands. The blood was a shocking bright red. In comparison to ours, we had a deeper, more purple red blood color, but the chicken was a true Crayola bright red. Nick then severed the head and dropped it into the bucket. The eyes were glazed over by the lids of the chicken only halfway so you could still see the shiny beady eyes.

Liza was next. Her chicken was rough and didn’t cut open. It took her several tries until we had to get a new knife. She was sawing away at the neck, open and exposed. It didn’t splatter or bleed; it didn’t even shake.

Kessa was next and so I held the chicken down. I wrapped the feet around my fingers and could feel its blood pulsing through its scaly rough skin. I looked down into the bucket of sawdust underneath the hanging bucket where I was holding the chicken and saw two heads looking back up at me. I put my other hand on its side, pinning its body against the bucket. The chicken fought and shook, but Kessa only took a few slices before the blood drained into the bucket of sawdust below us. The chicken started to shake in my hands. There was an intense vibration going all throughout its body like it was having a seizure. The chicken’s neurons were firing and causing it to spaz. Twice it shook violently, spraying my legs with hot bright red blood. I stared at the feet and waited for the quivering to stop. The muscles were shaking and I could feel it pulsing through my hands that were entangled in the warm feathers. The vibrating eased out of the body as the chicken left us and I placed the body in a crate.

Megan demonstrated how to swirl the body in the water that was at 115˚F. We had to open up the pores so that we could rip the feathers out. Lenoir grabbed the first chicken and dunked and swirled it 15 times, then Veronica followed. I proceeded to do exactly what they did with the third chicken. The water was hot and steamy. The extra blood turned the water a murky brown, and I pulled my soggy pathetic looking bird out of the water, bloody water dripping from its neck. We hung them up and proceeded to pluck. The feathers came out easily as I ripped, especially the long slender tail feather. I tucked a few into the waistband of my shorts; Megan said we could keep a few if we wished. Hanna, Liza, and I worked at our bird for a while getting every last little feather. The skin of the bird was warm and dry, and where we ripped a feather away we left a bumpy pore. We were wiping our hands on our clothes to try and get the sticky wet feathers to fall from our hands so we could pick more. We spread out the wings and legs to get at every inch of skin. Roosters have a special thumb on their wing that they use to attack other chickens with, and we didn’t notice it until we got all the wing feathers off. They were around twice as long as the actual wing, obscuring a lot of the bird and making it appear a lot bigger than it was.

When we finished, we dunked their naked bodies into cold icy water and placed them on a makeshift table made out of a metal board on top of two sawhorses. This scrawny bird, sprawled out on the table, looked extremely pathetic compared to the feisty animal that had been screaming and thrashing no more than ten minutes ago. We picked up knives and proceeded to cut off the feet and neck. The slippery neck went shooting out from inbetween my hands, not unlike a stereotypical bar of soap. There was a blood clot because I had the rooster that hadn’t drained properly, and so it spilled all over the table. The clot was the size of a cotton ball and we threw it into the bucket underneath the table. We had to peel back the skin and make initial cut, bend and break the neck, then make more cuts. The bone broke easily so it wasn’t too hard to get through that; it was just hard to maintain a hold on the neck and the body and not cut my finger off. I handed the knife over to Megan and she showed me how to handle it properly and the neck snapped right off. We then cut the legs at the “knees” and that was it for those. The endocrine glands were next, and those were funny to get out. They are in charge of producing hormones for the chicken and so are right underneath the tail. We had to grab the tail, which is just a little nub about the size of a dollar coin but triangular shaped, and basically slit it in half to get the two round glands out that were a fatty yellow color. Once that was done we slit open the back and proceeded to remove the giblets. We slit up along the rib cage and then reached in to find the end of the intestine. We grabbed it to ensure we wouldn’t cut it and when we grabbed it, stuff came bubbling out of the horrible mangled chicken butt. It smelled like what it was, chicken poop. We cut a triangle around the cloaca, and then could see into the chicken. It was tightly packed with a lot of connective tissue. The cavity was dry and sticky to touch like nothing I had ever felt before. I stuck two fingers in and tried to pull out the intestines. I was too gentle. Veronica took over and yanked pulling the whole dry entangled mass out. It was sticking to itself and I spread it out over the table–over a foot long of yellowy white tube. I then took the bird back and reached in to get the next thing. The whole table stunk of bird intestines, which smelt remotely like wet chicken poop. I grabbed onto a solid round mass and started to rip at the connective tissue around it. I eventually pulled out a gorgeous blue, white, and yellow stomach. Imagine a circle with a fatty yellow line running down the middle of it. The center was a bright white that fuzzed out into a brilliant blue that ran around the edge of the flat side of the stomach. The edges were a maroon soft flesh. I placed the gizzard on the table and dove back in pulling out a gall bladder that was a deep turquoise and kidneys that were milky white laced with bright red veins. I ripped the lungs and liver in half, but the heart came out perfectly. While we were pulling and tugging, the air inside of the intestines made noises as it escaped that at the time was a terrifying sound. It sounded just like the clucking of a chicken, which to hear coming from a bird that was alive an hour ago was simply haunting. We shoved ice into the cavity and placed the bird into water for around a minute. I ran to get Ziploc bags while Megan shook the ice out and laid the birds out to dry slightly.

We placed the limp, scrawny birds into the bags and put them in the freezer for the owner to pick up. The clean-up process was simple; we placed the heads and giblets in the compost and turned it so that they would be buried. We picked up all of the feathers and threw them on top of the heads. We sanitized the buckets and tables. We took down the ropes and scrubbed the floors. Within 20 minutes the place was empty of any slaughtering equipment. There were a few blood splatters on the floor accompanied with some down feathers. We thanked Megan and walked away picking at the blood embedded in our nails. We heard the sheep and the cows baaing and mooing; we heard the laying hens clucking. Two hours ago we also would have heard the call of three roosters that were now on the top shelf of the freezer in the back corner of the barn near the milk room.

Claire Benning is a V Former who is spending her spring semester at the Chewonki Semester School in Wiscasset, Maine. In her free time both in Maine and at St. Mark’s, Claire rows, runs, plays basketball, goes for walks in the woods, hangs out at the waterfront, does farm chores, and hangs out with her friends.

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