The following is one in a series of Gum Rubber Chronicles. It originally appeared on the Euphony web-site, sadly missed, but not forgotten.
Text and photos by Dan LaRocque
I didn't have any qualms about the actual taking of a chicken's life. They're really quite disgusting creatures, noisy, stinky, stupid and rude. But tasty as all get out. The ones up here still have free rein of the property which means they're always underfoot but just out of reach of a good solid kick. They get into the dog food and peck the garbage apart. They shit everywhere, frequently and indiscriminantly. There's nothing that can ruin a pleasant conversation more effectively than a chicken letting loose beside you with the velocity and consistency of a three day whisky binge.
Years ago, when I still had ideals, one of the reasons I stopped eating meat was because I believed it was important that to eat a creature, you should also be involved in the killing and cleaning of it. A simple respect thing. There were other reasons as well, all of them valid, but I thought the detachment you have from the life of an animal when you buy it in a styrofoam cel-pack at the local Safeway particularly distasteful. Many's the family dinner I spoiled in sharing stories about factory farming, hormone injections and slaughterhouse atrocities.
But I jumped off that wagon a few years back. I remember getting burger cravings on late-night homeward stumbles and found myself ducking into alleyways to suck back a guilty patty lest anyone should see me. Working in health food stores helped bring me out of my righteous closet when products like Smoked Wheat and Tofu Cutlets started hitting the market.
Doug and Chey were also vegetarians up till recently. Actually, I assumed they still were till I got here to find they had a half a pig in their freezer. To be a healthy vegetarian takes a bit more time and effort than simple carnivorism, and the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables up here made it more difficult than in the city. Not impossible, but not convenient either. Besides, raising, killing and eating your own meat is a big part of country life, so I'm told.
And there you have it, three slaughterhouse virgins armed with an axe, a boiling washtub, some dull knives and a how-to book. And a moderate dose of blood lust.
The actual killing of the bird wasn't so bad. Once you manage to catch one, which is not as easy as you might think, you hold it by the feet, stroll over to the chopping block, and with a quick swing of the axe (or two, or three), you've got dinner by the legs. The rumours are true, they do flap and squawk for awhile, their bodies still unaware of the absence of their brains. It probably doesn't make a whole lot of difference.
Plucking the birds was a bit more of a trial. You have to dip them in boiling water to loosen the feathers, and the smell is pretty revolting. Small pin feathers cling to the skin and little bits of fat ooze out of the pores as you pluck.
Gutting the birds was the true test of the gag reflex. With a couple of incisions above the arse, you're ready to reach your hand up the bird's chest cavity and start tugging at the organs. Never have I experienced anything more repulsive, the innards still warm as I fumbled about, blindly trying to detach the membranes that held them in place. I made the mistake of slicing into the lower intestine of my bird and had to contend with the sight and smell of bird shit as well as that of freshly killed bird.
Our first three chickens took two hours each, from catch to kill to clean. I must have spent close to an hour with my hand up my first bird's ass, groping at her innards, my face twisted up in a grimace of pure horror. Every now and again one of us would let loose a scream of terror, just for the sake of screaming, while the dogs got ahold of all the severed legs we were saving for Christmas crafts.
We had finished five and a half birds by evening, and were trying to find an excuse to avoid going for another round when into the yard came Hugh and Joan. They're an old-time farm couple who probably deserve a column of their own, neighbours who have shared some down-home wisdom with their adopted urban refugees.
Now that I'm here, they have a new rookie to break in. Hugh's had me out tractoring for him a few times, pleasant enough work for which he says he'll give me a pig. Imagine that, right here in 21st century Canada.
I think they take a certain delight in watching the fumblings of the city kids as they try to figure out what the hell they're doing. They laughed when we told them how far we'd gotten, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. "Too much of that Mary-J-Wanna," Hughie figured, as they proceeded to finish off another five birds in the space of half and hour. We just watched, all agog as they showed us up, only too glad to look stupid for anyone willing to take over.
The chickens didn't roll over for us, they took their toll in human suffering as well. Apart from the copious dry-heaving, Doug got pecked on the arm and I jammed my fingers taking a diving tackle at a scurrying bird. I swallowed a bug, and was nearly killed when Hughie held out one of two birds for me to hang onto while he lopped the head off the first. I grabbed it by the feet but it twisted around to peck at me and I dropped it in a fit of cowardice. I started chasing it but it turned out to be smarter than I was. It knew where it was going but all I saw was vengeance, and promptly slammed the side of my face into the fork of the tractor as it scampered underneath. I went down and the chicken lived to see another day.
It's over now, but I don't think I'll be going to bed any time soon. I'm too afraid to dream. Even now I'm picturing six foot, headless, naked chickens with their innards hanging outwards. I can see them closing in on me, softly calling out, "Put them back. Put them back." And I don't know how.