“The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it…” – (Genesis 9: 2-4)
An Impossible Skill
As a young adult I would, at times, contemplate certain skills as being near to impossible to acquire. These skills, being agrarian in nature, were truly far out of reach for a native of suburbia as I once was. One of these unattainable agrarian skills was the ability to kill a chicken – which was something I strangely knew to be some kind of necessary skill that surely was known by most people, if not all, in previous generations. It felt necessary to me I think because it was a historical reality. The fact is people use to have to raise and kill their own birds and animals for food.
A Creature’s Life
Today, because a majority of us no longer raise our own animals for food, we have managed to completely divorce the creature’s life from the meat on the dinner table. Abstracted into concepts like “protein unit” by the industrial meat industry, or philosophically split into a hundred cuts – it’s no longer a chicken – it’s a “wing” or “breast”. I am often jarred back into reality when my kids ask me: “what kind of meat is this? what animal was this?”. It’s not “beef” or “pork” – it was a cow or a pig. Somehow chicken meat was never fully renamed like beef or pork but nonetheless the meaning of meat has been drained by our distance from the process by which it arrived on our plates. It is a creature, made by GOD, sacrificed so we may live.
Animals As Food
For some people the idea of killing any creature is reprehensible. I’ll have to save that argument for another day. I am assuming quite honestly that a majority of people who are thinking through this reflection with me will understand the need for animal husbandry (or even hunting) that is focused on the purpose of food production for humans. Again, this may be an unacceptable practice for those of you who are vegetarians – but for me and most people I know – meat eating is a normal part of life. Still, even if you are not a vegetarian, I think we are missing something fundamental in how we think about and practice meat eating.
Life and Death At The Table
Today we no longer have to have any connection to the roots of mortality – of the cycle of life and death – nor admit that we are bound to this circle. We dare not stand on the precipice and look into the abyss – into the understanding that we are dependent creatures ourselves who, if we cease to eat, would soon cease to exist. Most of us eat for pleasure rather than to stay alive. What I mean by this is – when we are hungry it is a reminder that it is time to eat – most of us do not take it as a sign of our dependence on food for life or eventual mortality – nor is it an act of survival. And upon eating, it is often our tongues – our taste buds – that we are most concerned with. Shouldn’t eating be a delightful experience? Of course! GOD gave us taste buds for a reason. But could it be that we have lost something in forgetting that we eat to stay alive – and that the struggle to find food to eat for many people is indeed a matter of life or death.
The Meaning of Meat
I often wonder if have we forgotten that meat is not mined. It once was the muscle of a living creature. This is an unacceptable reality for many us – that the meaning of meat would go beyond a molecular nutrient assessment – that our protein could once have been alive – and that someone had to take it’s life. As Scripture says: ‘life is in the blood’. In our unwillingness to admit this – are we actually cheapening the value of life and the meaning of the meat we are serving at our dining room tables? Are we giving thanks out of rote and ritual before we eat or is our thanks born of understanding and honoring of the life that was taken. How do we go from seeing meat as a commodity to consume, to seeing it as a fundamental reminder that we are both mortal and that we are stewards of the life and death of the animals we eat. Of course then we must begin to wonder – how are we actually stewarding the life and death of this animal? What conditions was it raised in? What system has brought this meat to my plate? Is it a process that honors GOD? Is it a process that allows the animal to live how GOD designed it to function?
A Skillshare and a Potluck
Last night we held our monthly gathering focused on the local food movement and sustainable agriculture. We’ve been meeting monthly for a number of years – coming together for a community potluck along with an open forum, a speaker, or an activity. Last night we gathered far out in the county on a small family farm of our friends Brent and Anna who live in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, down long winding country roads tucked into a green valley. Around twenty adults with just as many kids showed up with potluck dishes and smiles in hand. A cool breeze swept away rain clouds that had darkened the morning skies. The chicken processing area, which is under roof, was shiny clean and prepared for a demonstration of three different pastured chicken breeds and a hands-on skillshare. I was eager to learn this art of butchering a chicken – not in a morbid sense – but as I first mentioned, because I know deep down it is an essential life skill – and there are half a dozen roosters on the farm we live on who are destined for the dinner table.
I had processed chickens once before with some other farming friends who raise pastured chickens but my memory and confidence had faded. What was the secret to doing this well? I needed more of a grasp on the essentials. First, the demonstration and a methodical walk-through. The equipment – like the scalder, the automatic plucker, etc – was on a scale that most folks wouldn’t have who just want to kill a few birds for their family. But for the serious agrarian – their setup was something to admire. There was a pause. A moment of silence to honor the life of the birds was observed. The first several birds were placed upside down into the “kill cones” and the jugular vein and carotid artery on each one were slit. The life spilled out. The birds were scalded and de-feathered. The heads and feet were removed and the eviscerating began. There was alot of detail to walk through but before we knew it – it was done. Two chicken carcasses waited in water. The birds – ten in all – when all done would be put on ice and aged 24 hours in the fridge, then placed in the freezer.
The demonstration was done and volunteers stepped up. I was one of the first. With heavy plastic aprons on we were given knives. I slit one side of the chickens neck and blood flowed down onto my hand. It was warm – almost hot. I was taken back internally. Taking life should never be done lightly. I had blood on my hands in the presence of GOD. For a moment I stood in a warp of time with knife in hand. I absorbed the meaning. I had taken life and the blood bathing my hand was evidence of this reality. The continuum between the life of the creature and the meat on the potluck table was bridged in that moment in a kind of sacred handshake – and I registered it with a humble acknowledgement – of someone who is still learning the value of life and the meaning of food.
The first time I had butchered a chicken a couple years ago it was a sobering and profound experience. When we ate the chicken that we had helped raise and had killed ourselves – it was as if the meaning of that meat rushed back into it. It was no longer a commodity and our prayerful thanks to GOD before eating was one of true gratefulness – we understood what it took to put this food on the table – life had been taken and ours prolonged.
Later, after finishing and cleaning up the processing area – the potluck began as the wind grew stronger and the sun sank behind the forested mountains. Hungry children ran from their places of play like magnets to the open meal. We attended our plates and the plates of our young ones – parading past the tables laden with delicious home-made foods. The two farm dogs hurriedly sniffed around to steal some morsels from unsuspecting children. Wind whipped the valley as we joyfully ate in the retreating light. Conversation abounded between bites of food. Jackets and sweaters were pulled from vans and cars. The night gently encouraged us to go home but we resisted as talking continued in the dark. My wife and I rounded up our kids and we said long goodbyes. Final stories were told and promises of continued conversations were made. Finally on the road we made the 30 minute ride home to our cabin.
As the kids sleepily made their way to bed – one of my daughters said: “I’m still hungry”. “No more eating tonight,” we answered. As I drifted off to sleep the killing of chickens a few hours before faded into memory but I knew that I still had the task before me to put into practice what I had learned – we still had too many roosters and there are always hungry mouths to feed.
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