Saturday, March 20, 2010

Killing a chicken (Wednesday, March 10)


**Editor's note: We included pictures of two different killings in order to show a complete picture of the process.

You have been warned.

I have maintained for a long time that if I can’t kill an animal, or at least participate and engage in its death, I probably shouldn’t eat it. I have no issue with eating animals, and I have no problem being at the top of the food chain. I think there are respectful and humane ways of raising and slaughtering animals for food, and I support businesses that do so. But I’ve always been bothered by the fact that I had no idea whether or not I could take a life. Being a city mouse, I haven’t had a ton of opportunities to kill my own meat – but here I find myself, 30 years old and a devoted lifetime carnivore, on a working ranch in rural Colombia where what we raise is what we eat. And so I learned.

Yes, I can kill a chicken.

Here she is, in the halcyon days of Monday and Tuesday. She walked through the house and courtyard, nibbling on arroz, maiz, guayaba, and whatever leftovers we threw her way, obviously unaware of her fate.

Gabe and I joked that we’d make her into sancocho, a traditional Colombian stew of chicken, corn, plantains, yucca and potatoes. Patricia’s response: Okay, let’s do it.


So this morning, after a breakfast of chocolate and arepitas, we caught the gallina easily enough. Patricia held her between her knees as she tied a string around her feet. The chicken was surprisingly docile through the whole process. Then, with the help of one of the workers, we killed her by grabbing its head, twisting a little, and then pulling hard until her neck broke.

At any rate, for us, the actual killing was the least disturbing step in the process. We then hung her upside down, in order to collect and coagulate all the blood in her head and neck.

The next step is to pluck the bird. It’s done by dipping it into boiling water over and over, which loosens and separates the feathers and makes it easier to pluck.

She’s starting to look a bit more like a bird in a supermarket, though only on the outside.

Now, butchering. The whole birds that Gabe and I buy in New York are already pristinely clean, with the gizzards, if they’re included, packed into a vacuum-sealed bag. So this was a hugely new experience for us.

First, we butterflied the bird, and opened up her chest to start removing the internal organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, and intestines.

The stomach was still full of undigested corn kernels, while the gizzards, when split open, showed a cakey mess of partially digested bits and a bunch of tiny little pebbles, which help process the food. Chickens don’t actually chew anything.

The heart, you know, looks like a heart.

You have to be very careful with the intestines and colon, so that waste doesn’t spill out and contaminate the meat.

One notable difference in the meat compared to what we normally see was the puny breasts – nothing like the 1-lb gargantuan monsters that come from commercial birds. These were slim and muscly, with little fat.

And then, the hardest part for me. Our soon-to-be lunch was once a laying hen – we had been enjoying her eggs for days already. And I LOVE eggs. I’ve been known to eat a dozen eggs in a week. But this was almost more than I could handle. In butchering her, of course we found eggs both ready to be laid, and some still in formation. Makes sense, right? I don’t know why this was such a stunning discovery for me, but seeing these tiny, budding yolks blew my mind, turned my stomach, and just generally freaked the shit out of me.

In the end, we put all edible parts into a pot, including the meat, the yolks, the feet (which were first skinned), and salted them. The unusable parts were fed to the dogs. Nothing goes to waste here.

A day later, Patricia cooked her into a magnificent sancocho, which we ate for a leisurely lunch, with rice, guacamole, and strawberry juice, giving thanks and cheers to the gallina. She lived a happy two years with us before we took her life.

Salud, gallina. Gracias.