This essay was originally published in Local Banquet in 2015.
With both hands, I reach into the crate of chickens.
“I’m sorry!” I say to the chicken as it flaps in my less-than-confident grasp. The butcher just showed me how to properly handle a bird: two hands on their legs, chest down, and pick up. They won’t flap this way. I put the bird’s chest on the ground until it calms and hand it to the butcher.
“No need to apologize to them for that,” he says, easily putting the bird upside-down into the cone and, with a sharp knife, cutting its head off in a blink.
“I hate picking up chickens,” I tell him. “I like eating and raising them, but I’m not good at this part.”
“Eating is the easy part.”
I take a deep breath. I’m a farmer—aren’t I? How many times have I raised chickens, how many birds have I moved from pasture to trailer? Still, I don’t like handling the birds. It’s the scaly-ness of chicken feet that make me squirm. That and their nails. Taken apart from their bodies, chicken feet look like relics from a prehistoric era, imparting a wildness to the birds that I cannot fully trust. Which makes chicken processing day all the more stressful.
The weeks leading up to this day are filled with advertising: Pasture raised chicken for sale! 10% off when you buy 10 or more! We excitedly talk to our CSA members about the fresh chicken soon to be available, saying, “We’re harvesting chickens on Saturday,” or “The chickens will be processed this weekend.” Harvest? Process? I can’t remember where I first heard this language, but in the last few years I’ve noticed farmers dropping the words slaughter and butcher in favor of harvest and process, and so we follow suit. I wonder, though, are these words really interchangeable?
Harvest. Slaughter. Process. Butcher.
Words that simply mean: kill, clean, break apart. And yet they each hold a different weight. Look at the synonyms for slaughter: kill, murder, massacre; and the synonyms for harvest: crop, yield, produce. As we talk about death in the open and search for a connection to the animals we eat, what kind of language are we prepared to hear?
Have these words—harvest, process—appeared just to help farmers sell meat? Or are they here to better reflect the relationship we have with living animals? Does humanely raised meat ask for language that sounds more humane, or have we become so far removed from the realities of livestock farming that we are too squeamish to use the more literal words to describe the process?
The dictionary tells us to use slaughter for killing livestock, and harvest for grain, vegetables, or wild meat.
A former vegetarian, I myself once shuddered at the word slaughter, and perhaps some vestige of those meatless years comes out in my word choice. But since I’ve been farming, I’ve come to know slaughterers and butchers; I’ve brought sheep to a slaughterhouse, watched an itinerant slaughterer kill a pig for my wedding reception dinner, and handed chickens into a mobile-unit.
I’ve met people who hold respect for the animals and take pride in doing a clean and efficient job. Through these relationships, I’ve come to know that slaughter doesn’t have to invoke its synonyms, but can instead be grounded in the vital traditional skills that transfer food from pasture to plate; and I’ve come to know that whatever word choice you use, blood is involved.
I’m better at handling processed birds, or to be frank, dead birds.
They come out of the mobile processing trailer and go into a large water-filled drum for a rinse, and from there we move the chickens into an ice-bath to cool for a few hours before bagging, weighing and labeling.
At this point the scaly legs are removed, and there are no flapping wings to test my resolve. On this particular slaughter day I’m exhausted, putting the last birds into the freezer at 9:00 pm. We don’t eat chicken tonight; instead we eat ice cream and fall asleep. Tomorrow we’ll grill a chicken and get some of that energy back, and next week we’ll get the second round of chicks and start the cycle again.
When this day comes around again, what will I say?
Harvest doesn’t make us stop the way slaughter does, and perhaps that’s why we use it—to take away the possibility of discomfort and talk more easily with customers about meat. But maybe we should stop.
If it’s connection that localvores are looking for, we owe it to the chicken to pause and say thank you. The literal wins out for me, then, not just for the correct definition, but for the pause and connection it demands.
So. We slaughtered our chickens today.