It's not uncommon for me to roast a chicken for my family. I do it throughout most of the year for dinner and soup. But, today, I'm roasting a chicken that I killed with my own hands. He was the first kill of my life. In an instant fueled with fear, challenge, respect, and a bit of something I've yet to name, I became a different person. The goal was to eat local, and to look into the eyes of the animal I would eat.
My chicken, a rooster lovingly named Colonel Mustard With a Knife in the Chicken Coop, was completely free-range, and lived his whole happy life only 50 minutes from my Louisville home on RiverSong Farm in Taylorsville. Each month, or more often due to public interest, RiverSong holds a Chicken Dinner Workshop, where participants learn to humanely kill their own chickens, process them safely, then take their chickens home for dinner for their families.
Tom Scanlan, one of RiverSong's farmers, began the demonstration by tying his rooster upside down on the kill tree. Scanlan explained how to hold the chicken's head, where to cut on the neck, and how to avoid cutting ourselves. Even though he's been humanely processing chickens on his farm for nearly 2 years, Scanlan still has a difficult time with his first few birds on a kill day. He took a deep breath to settle with the enormity of taking a life, before slicing through the bird's neck.
Feeling squeamish? Consider the alternative.
A factory bird in the typical grocery store weighs roughly 4-6 pounds, and has spent its entire life, only about 6-8 weeks, crammed wing to wing in a cage. Compare that to Mustard, who weighs about 2 1/2 pounds, and has spent the full 17 weeks of his life running free.
Today's commercial meat chickens have been bred to grow twice as fast and twice as large as the natural genes their ancestors would allow. As a direct result, chickens grow far too large causing their legs and internal organs to be overburdened. The birds routinely suffer heart failure, heart attacks, and leg problems that cripple them under their own weight. In fact, many birds die from these, and other conditions, such as infectious disease and even cancer before reaching their very young slaughter age. They've known nothing but suffering.
But, things work differently at RiverSong farm. Each animal is treated with respect, which is easy to see by Tom's calm demeanor. He holds himself (and his chickens) quietly, instructs with intention, and speaks clearly and honestly about the entire process of RiverSong's chicken farming, from chicks, to eggs, to dinner planning.
I nearly chickened out, as it were. Tom's first kill of the day was the first kill I'd ever witnessed. I winced as I watched, and when it was over, as the chicken flailed in the air at the end of its rope, I soaked it in, questioning my reasons for being on the farm in the first place. But, I never lost sight of what led me to the farm on Saturday--a need to see the face of the food I eat. It was during the eviscerating of the internal organs that I began to lose my nerve.
Tom came over and talked to me while I sat down to watch the chickens (who were then fighting for rogue innards meant for the gut bucket), where I collected myself. He was there to see me through, step by step, from kill to Ziploc bag. "I haven't had anyone back out yet," and with that challenge, we walked to the coop, and Tom handed me a rooster.
My memory of the minutes that followed are fuzzy, but I recall gently petting my chicken, thanking him and apologizing incessantly, and feeling a drive to continue that I can only liken to the sensation to push while in the final stages of labor; there was no way to stop.
I held Mustard's head in my left hand, and my knife at his throat with my right. Then, I noticed him looking at me. I apologized again, and Tom helped me turn his head so my chicken couldn't see my face. Then, I killed him.
There was a moment of difficulty getting through the neck, which was the most intriguing moment of the entire experience. The intensity is indescribable, but for just a moment, there was no chicken, no knife, no spectators, no tree, no noise… I was just an animal killing for food.
As human animals, we're so far removed from nature that most of us would starve if our grocery stores disappeared, but I learned that I'm capable of killing for food. What was once a method of basic survival, killing a chicken is something most of us have never considered. And, because of our distance from the faces of our food, we overeat, are wasteful, and promote abuse simply by spending our dollars.
RiverSong Farm's Chicken Dinner Workshop helped me to explore my desire to eat responsibly. I may attend and kill again. But, I also may not eat meat again until I do. I found it to be such an important personal experience, and I would urge anyone interested in sustainability, at any level, to at least attend and observe.
RiverSong's next workshop will be held sometime later this month. Stay in touch by visiting their website, RiverSongFarm.com, or catch up with Tom Scanlan and Sarah Fauber on Facebook. Space is limited for the Chicken Dinner Workshop, so be sure to let them know you're coming. RiverSong also sells brown eggs from pasture-raised, non-medicated, antibiotic-free chickens; chickens; and produce. You can even find them at the St. Andrews Church Farmers Market on Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., or at the Taylorsville Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. until Noon.
Photo of Mustard, by Rachel Hurd Anger, moments before his end.