Sunset

by Elizabeth Jardina, Sunset researcher

When it comes down to it, our chickens are made of meat.

They cluck, they peck, they're covered in feathers, but underneath it all, they are bones and fat and skin and muscle — dark and light meat. Suitable for soaking in buttermilk, breading, then frying.

It's an inescapable fact of chicken-raising. We have these chickens with names, chickens who are pets and who we raised from tiny babies, but all of us who care for these chicken are meat-eaters. Chicken-eaters, even.

I've been thinking about this lately, especially because of this comment we got on the blog a few weeks ago. (Reader Emily, I haven't been ignoring you.) Here's what she said:

My understanding is that you are not planning to harvest the chickens for meat, only their eggs. I can understand why, but I ask that you reconsider. If we are going to include meat in our diets, there is no better source that I know of for personal, animal and ecological health than happy chickens raised in our backyards. I think it would be a great gift to your readers if you share with us how to handle the difficult business of bringing home raised chickens to the dinner table.

When we got our chickens, we knew that we were not going to kill and eat them. This is primarily because we're urbanized, soft-hearted, lily-livered wimps. I, for one, had never even touched a chicken before we visited Jody Main's chickens last summer.

Our favorite chicken reference book (The Chicken Book by Page Smith and Charles Daniel) is even sterner on the subject:

Never make chickens into pets. ... Chickens are not pets; they are chickens; they are producers; they exist to lay eggs and be eaten. Never name a chicken. To do so is merely cute  — and silly — and an abuse of names. That does not mean that you must not enjoy, admire, and love chickens individually and collectively; it just means that you must not sentimentalize and falsify your relationship to chickens. This, for the most part, is why I feel keeping chickens should involve killing chickens as well. Somebody or some machine has to kill chickens, so why shouldn't you, especially if you are going to eat them?

I'm not volunteering to swing the hatchet or anything, but I do understand the hypocrisy of our position. I was a vegetarian for a decade. And not the fish-eating, occasional-poultry kind. I didn't eat anything with nerves or eyes. So what changed my mind? Partly, this Michael Pollan article in the New York Times magazine from 2002.

Partly the fact that I got a dog. I'm annoyingly crazy about her, but despite my devotion, she is absolutely not a person. Not a person at all. When she dies, it won't be like a person dying. (Although, trust me, I'm going to have to take a few days off from work, dear bosses.)

It occurred to me that I didn't know anything about cows, pigs, chickens, or fish. Nothing. I wasn't going to eat them, but I didn't know anything about them. And people who did know them — farmers and ranchers and such — didn't have any qualms about it. They raised them to be eaten. And I was some urban kid from Dallas who was taking the moral high ground by not.

Thus began my non-vegetarian transformation. (I also got my ears pierced. My brother joked that I should be on The Swan.)

So now — here we are, with these chickens. Their fate is not in question, but I do think about it. Could I kill one? I read the Backyard Chickens forum "Meat Birds ETC" board with some regularity. It leads me to links like this one. (Warning: If you click around, it will teach how to pull the heads off your chickens to kill them. Not for the squeamish.)

Right now, um, no, I'm not going to kill our girls. For one thing, it's so unnecessary. There's lots of food available on the San Francisco Peninsula at any of our dozens of nearby grocery stores. There's no need, no tension, no reason.

When the revolution comes, and we actually have to subsist on what we can grow? Chickens, you're on notice.

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