Each afternoon there is a chore that someone in the house must do without fail. It normally happens late in the day, dusk in fact. An old metal colander is plucked off the wall and, with high hopes, the individual, (often one of the older girls) walks out to the chook pen to check the eggs. There’s a sense of excitement, hope and anticipation, a full bounty of eggs is the prize. Some days it’s a good score and others it’s fairly lame. Of late the older hens haven’t been as productive as they once were, a fact that’s been on my mind. It’s that time of year when old hens must be replaced by the young hens (pullets) which have been maturing over summer and are now at the stage of laying.
We eat eggs, truth be told we eat a lot of eggs. Be it in baking, for breakfast or in traditional staples like tortilla espanola. So when the productivity wanes we need to make the call. The old girls have to go. It very much hinges on balance of feed cost versus egg return, simple back-yarder economics really. I can’t afford to keep the non laying chooks in the pen, it costs too much for the supplementary feed of grain. This weekend was the time to act. We telephoned a few places, but I think most people that live the lifestyle we do, have had the same idea of late and most of the pullets across the region had been sold. With a little perseverance we came across a lovely Hungarian couple who had loads of chooks for sale. I think they variety was ‘Gingerhams’… I don’t really care for breeds, as long as they lay eggs for us, for as long as possible, hopefully all the way up to the coldest depths of winter. That’s all I’m really interested in, it’s all about getting food to the table.
As we pulled into the driveway back home I knew the inevitable activity would take place that afternoon. Years ago in my previous existence I never once questioned the process involved to get that chicken meat available for my consumption. Now when I cut that jugular and break the neck of a bird, I not only concentrate on the task at hand but I can’t help but think more about where we are as a culture. How far removed from the reality of food production most of us are.
For most people in the western world, the reality is that every single piece of food that is eaten has been touched, in some way, by another human being. There is no escape from that reality. From the coffee you sip of a morning, the banana you eat at work, the pasta you cook of an evening. Everything. When it comes to meat I reckon we ought to have a very real connection with the processes necessary to get a living animal transformed into butchered meat for our kitchens. Hundreds if not thousands of chickens have been raised and killed for my consumption over the last 36 years, I ought to have cared more about how that was made possible.
How has this been achieved? What techniques were used to kill the animal? What were the birds living conditions? What were they fed? What treatment has the meat had? These questions need to be asked. Unfortunately I can’t answer these questions, I doubt anyone other than the insiders to the industry could. Like many, most facets of the food industry, it wasn’t always like this. In days of old, and not too far back (as recent enough for my parents to remember in fact) chicken was a treat. Now it’s almost an everyday food for some people. That demand for chicken meat requires a lot of chooks to be raised in an efficient manner of large scale and intensive production. To keep up with demand the birds need to be ready for processing with a fast turnaround time, (30 – 60 days I believe). That’s phenomenal. That’s scary. I’d rather apply the approach of the old days and eat chicken less frequently. Sometimes I eat it when I’m on the road, when there isn’t much choice, but the reality is that it’s not often on our menu. I’m talking about a whole chook cooked so rarely that we can recall the moments we’ve cooked it during the year on our fingertips.
As a result of choosing a reduced chicken menu, we have to kill the birds ourselves. It’s never an easy task, but it’s something that just has to be done. The chickens we eat are usually a breed that’s selected for egg production, not meat development, so the birds are very different in physiology to a commercial meat bird. They taste significantly different too, but it’s unmistakably chicken and it’s delicious.
Warm blood hits my boots, the wall, the cone. The bird will wriggle. The last bit of living electricity exiting the body then falls limp. It’s a kill, there is no bullshit about it. Some TV shows talk about the humanity of the dispatch but the reality is, you’re killing another animal in order to balance your omnivorous diet. I don’t deny that.
It’s just the same as me catching a fish, shooting a rabbit or quail on the run. It’s us animals killing another animal to get that essential protein that our bodies have evolved to expect. The sad fact is that process of a kill is nowhere advertised or communicated to the billions of people that eat a chicken subway, Macca’s burger or a million processed chicken nuggets consumed every day. That pisses me off. I lament that we have lost that connection with how meat is produced. So much so that when I show someone how to kill a chicken they predictably cry. Tears will slide down cheeks as they hold the neck of the bird, blood starts to flow and the animal dies by their hand. It’s bloody and gory and it’s something every meat eater should know or they should stop eating meat. Opinionated? Bloody right I am.
You imagine for a minute if there wasn’t that John Smith working on the killing floor at the factory that kills your animals for you. Would you still eat meat? I asked myself that question years ago and find myself here. Taking care of the dirty work myself. It doens’t make me a better person. It just means I’m a true omnivore.