Daisy Mae front and center with the Weasleys in the background
Please excuse me—I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. It’s been so very long that we’ve been coming to this place, eating together… and yet I don’t know you. I’ve never met your folks, never witnessed your particular quirks. I, the animal eating. You, the one being eaten.
How shall I care for you, Daisy Mae? Are you just some chicken or other, or are you someone: a chicken? Until you came along it has always felt easier not to think of your kind as individuals. I have separated my love of a particular embodied soul like you, Daisy Mae, from my own body’s desire to eat meat (like you).
Getting to know you and thinking about perhaps eating you one day has given me food for thought. I’m beginning to wonder what I may be missing by not knowing who it is I am eating.
To the life
Four lovely hens shared our yard with us, and then there were three. From there to here, for the first time in my life, I took part in the age old practice of killing an animal I cared for: some (one) chicken that I knew and loved.
Daisy Mae lived with us for about a year. She was curious at times in a way that felt friendly, or at least trusting at some basic level. We had a deal: she provided excellent eggs and we provided food, water and security.
On Saturday she “prolapsed”. We didn’t know the word at the time, but could tell that she needed help. We had to decide if she was worth a vet bill. Pet or food? We decided to invest a little time and money to take care of her and to learn more about chickens, so I brought her to a vet. We learned that she had pushed so hard laying an egg that she blew her back end inside out. She could have been sewn up, but after surgery she would have needed daily medication to keep her from ever laying again. If we did nothing, she would soon become infected and have a slow and unpleasant death. If she was dispatched soon, she would be safe to eat.
The veterinarian was not vegetarian. She told me she regularly euthanizes animals via lethal injection, saying "I have more than forty chickens but would never eat my own. I know it’s hypocritical—I eat chicken all the time, but I could never chop a chicken’s head off!”
To the death
Now, if lovely Daisy Mae was on her way out, I felt I ought not to chicken out. I wanted her to know kindness from me, a familiar face, at her end, even if I was the one taking her life. Also, if the vet euthanized her, then by law she would have to be incinerated and I could not take her home to eat.
Ultimately I decided that she was poultry, not pet. I brought her home and there I was, a fledgling chicken owner with no idea how to dispatch and prep my sweet Daisy Mae.
Chicken. Chicken? Chicken! A common gustatory pleasure in my life, but otherwise completely unknown to me! Breeding, birth, being and butchery, all taken for granted.
We humans tend not to name individual animals we plan to eat. Somehow naming them seems to make it harder to look them in the eye, if one is considering eating them. We called her Daisy Mae. On Sunday I took her into my hands, petted her and thanked her for the many eggs she had given us. I felt her calm under my touch and wondered what thoughts she might be having. Then I said goodbye, laid her neck across a stump, and chopped her head off with a hatchet. After a short break I strung her up in a tree and pulled her apart. At first I tried to do it with gloves on, but it was difficult. I found it much easier to pluck and clean her with my bare hands.
But I didn’t eat Daisy Mae. My family didn’t want to eat her, and I ended up not even bringing her home. I gave Daisy Mae to my friend Mark, at whose place I’d done the deed. I had done it there to spare my family from viewing the butchering. He had grown up on a chicken farm and was willing and able to support as needed. When I offered him the carcass of Daisy Mae, he, being the generous sort, returned the favor, offering me a chicken he had in his freezer. So I swapped Daisy Mae for a nameless supermarket chicken, which I took home to provide protein for my family!
To the community
We humans have shared community with the animals we eat for a long time. Norm Kidder, a treasured wildcraft expert and teacher of California indigenous culture, told me this theory about domestication through familiarity: Maybe our hunting ancestors left the nearby inner circle of animals alone as a kind of food storage for times, for example in winter, when it would be hard to hunt further afield. Over time this inner circle of animals became less scared of humans. Perhaps they were given scraps, taming them slowly over many generations. In more recent times, when the idea of private property came along, we fenced them in. This was when we became their caretakers and familiars.
Our ancestors knew their food. They would know who got it where, whether it was in season, young, old, or pregnant. It was only the royal few, those with servants, who had the luxury of being “out of touch” with their food animals. Of course, nowadays we modern folk hardly ever touch the animals we eat while they are living. No breeding, birthing, being, nor butchering… just buying and broiling.
I’m not suggesting you run out and get live chickens. It’s a lot of work and there is a dark side [http://www.chow.com/food-news/104627/the-dark-side-of-backyard-chickens/]. If you are considering raising chickens, here are things to ruminate upon before committing: They require daily care morning and evening, there are set-up and ongoing expenses, they have predators, they poop everywhere, and they typically lay less than two years yet live much longer. You may prefer to stick to vegetables and just try and get to know someone else’s animals!
What about those vegetables anyway? I know that I feel differently about eating homegrown vegetables than ones from unknown sources, bought from a faceless chain. Somehow I feel more alive when I have a personal relationship with my food. There is an excitement, a communing with the familiar, a bit like recognizing someone I care about. Feeling a connection brings an additional joy and excitement to eating. This gets the juices going in my body, perhaps changing how I digest. It seems like somehow familiar food gives me something more. It is rather like a sweetness.
If eating homegrown veggies brings me sweet juices and good feelings, maybe eating a particular animal I knew starts other juices flowing. Perhaps the recognition of the departed one brings bitter juices. As much as sweetness elates, these bitters might be as cleansing as a good cry.
What about a farmer or old-school country housewife raising or rotating the neck of a chicken? They generally don’t name their birds, and to them each one may be just some chicken, not much acknowledged as an individual. They may or may not feel sadness at the loss of a particular chicken. Even so, as compared to selecting from your grocer’s freezer, there is a sober reality in choosing to kill and causing a living hen to become dinner. This seems sure to bring a whole set of juicy feelings to the table.
So, Daisy Mae, can you tell me how knowing, loving, butchering and almost eating you has changed me?
Linton’s boy Raven with Chipmunk as a chick