Most people who saw the documentary Food, Inc probably converted to vegetarianism, or were at least put off of eating meat for a week or two. Not me. I saw the movie and it made me think, “I could do that.” No, not be a giant agribusiness conglomerate grinding small family farmers and the Earth itself into its rapacious gullet. I had the realization that I, a not particularly handy girl raised in suburban comfort, could kill a chicken myself. And if I could, I should. My main takeaway from this film is that if I want to be a truly ethical glutton, I have to put less distance between me and the source of my food.
I’ll fess up to major hypocrisy, and admit that when push really comes to shove, I would have major reservations about slitting the throat of a fuzzy cow or squealing Wilbur. When it comes to poultry, however, fuck chickens. Werner Herzog, famed director and nature-hater, perfectly expresses my view vis-a-vis chickens.
My main concern had been whether or not I was physically capable of old-school bird execution: could I grab it, wrest its neck into submission and whack it on a tree stump, without getting beaked to death by it and its feathered brethren? I didn’t think I could, until this scene:
Fast forward to about 2:21 in the clip. There it is! The trigger for my epiphany. The farmer simply reaches into a basket, scoops up a bird and plunks it in a shiny metal funnel. The funnel immobilizes its head and body, and it squawks a bit in protest but otherwise lays prone for a knifing. What an ingenious contraption!
I would bury this revelation for another six years until recently, I got the chance to act. My downstairs neighbor, a butcher’s apprentice, had asked me if I would like to come again with him on a butchery adventure. Actually, he sent me this text:
“you got any plans saturday? or do you want to kill ducks”
Sure! Now, I do not reserve the same Herzogian hatred for ducks that I harbor for chickens. I am somewhat fond of the creatures, but I do still find them delicious, and above all, there was my directive: to be able to kill what I eat.
That cold, drizzly Saturday in December, I woke up early and drove out to a small farmhouse in the Maryland countryside. There, I met the butcher’s apprentice, along with Steve the duck farmer, who looked a bit like a younger Benicio del Toro. They were smoking cigarettes and discussing Campylobacter-induced pantshitting incidents. Next to the barn was a big square cauldron filled with steaming water. Cats and fancy roosters patrolled the grounds. A multitude of hens milled about in the distance, stupidly. But where were the ducks? Steve finished his cigarette, walked over to his truck bed and pulled away a tarp, triggering a cacophony of quacks. He’d packed the ducks into crates overnight and tarped them all. It was a duck’s version of death row.
As you might imagine, processing ducks involves a lot of labor and preparation. Steve had the witches’ cauldron going for some time before I arrived, to bring the water up to scalding temperature. Also, there was another stove going for melting wax. While these simmered, we helped Steve bleach every surface that the poultry would come into contact with (no bacter issues from these ducks). Once all the equipment was readied, the slaughter commenced. Steve demonstrated the first round for us, and – just like in Food, Inc – he plopped each duck easily in its funnel, and the circular rack of duck-filled funnels looked like a novelty Christmas tree. One by one, he went round and made quick surgical cuts on either side of each duck’s neck. Distressingly, it took longer than I thought for the ducks to fully exsanguinate. They were still moving around, but Steve assured us they didn’t feel the pain. “Just don’t cut this here,” he explained, gesturing to the duck’s windpipe, “since they will feel that.” We were to cut just the slender threads that were their major arteries. Here, I started to doubt. Making fine motor movements is not one of my strong points. I just wanted to kill; I didn’t relish the thought of inflicting suffering on creatures (well, maybe chickens).
Once the ducks had bled out – and the Christmas tree looked truly nightmarish by this point – we commenced the dirty work of processing the duck corpses into poultry. First, we dunked each duck into the scalding water repeatedly, like bloody feathery tea bags. Once the feathers were good and loosened, it was time to throw them into the duck tumbler – basically a giant salad spinner with blunt spikes facing inward. The duck tumbler got most of the feathers off, but even one feather is too many for a dish at a fancy restaurant, so the third stage was to give the ducks full-bodied Brazilians. The process is not that dissimilar for ducks and humans – spread the wax on, let it cool and rip. Any remaining feathers or pins (developing feathers) after this stage, we had to scrape off roughly with a knife (okay, maybe not that similar, unless you’re getting a really deep discount on that Brazilian).
Before getting to that fun task, though, there was another batch of ducks ready for the funnels. The butcher’s apprentice and I took turns loading the funnels this time, and the ducks were not nearly as cooperative. Perhaps it was because they had witnessed their friends getting their throats slit right next to them. Or maybe they were agitated because of the stray chicken who had perched atop the tower of duck cages, taunting them (chickens are seriously jerks, wtf). The apprentice was having a really tough time of it – he seemed a bit gentler and slightly more hesitant with the birds, which animals do not at all appreciate, if I’ve learned anything from Cesar Milan.
I ignored my fear of pecking beaks and grabbed my first duck. It quacked and tried to flap a bit, but I held fast to it, and it calmed down. I then tried to slam dunk the duck into the funnel, the way I’d seen Steve and the movie farmer do it, but the duck’s head remained nestled inside the funnel. No good! I again pretended I wasn’t scared of beaks, reached inside the funnel and pulled its head out through the other side. Most of the ducks were like the recalcitrant flamingos in the croquet match in Alice in Wonderland – curling up their necks when their feet had finally gotten straightened, and so forth. Well, I guess I couldn’t blame them.
Steve once again demonstrated the cuts, and now it was time for the test. The apprentice worked on the row of ducks to hone his craft. I made him save the last duck in the row for me. I locked eyes with my victim, as best as I could since he was upside down, and hoped that it would be a quick and painless end. Then I sawed into the left artery, just stopping right at the windpipe. Blood spurted out, and the duck jerked his neck sideways. I sliced the right artery. The duck tried to quack; all that came out was a hoarse, bloody gurgle. Already, his eyes were dimming. I stepped away, set the knife back on the tree and dipped my hands into the scalding water.
Relieved, I washed my hands again and returned to the unglamorous task of defeathering the birds. Ducks, as it turns out, tend to sport a lot more pin feathers than chickens – a point in chickens’ favor, I grudgingly admit, because the pin feathers were a serious pain to dislodge. Also, by this point, the mist had chilled into a frigid rain. We had sheltered most of the operation under a pop-up tent, but the cold was becoming increasingly unbearable. I finished scraping all the pins out of one measly bird – by that point, we had been out there for four hours – and then I decided I’d had enough. I thanked Steve and the apprentice for letting me tag along, and drove off, my clothes stained with bits of feather and blood.
During the long drive back, I mused on how people managed this in generations past, without even the duck tumbler or the funnel tree. Technological innovations have made it so that I, a privileged first worlder, do not have to devote my entire day to providing basic sustenance for myself and my family. Could I go through this whole DIY process every time I had a hankering for Peking duck? In addition to slaughtering the bird, I’d have to own a plot of land where I could successfully grow cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, sugar cane, oranges and plums; I’d have to hop in my boat and sail to the East Indies to pick up some chutney – in total, this would lengthen the cooking time from four hours to four years. Many of my environmentalist friends are down on globalization, but in truth, our food would be a whole lot more boring if we all became strict locavores.
But there is nothing quite matching the primal sensation of direct connection with something you will later consume. The killing part was quick and unmemorable, thank goodness; all the other steps of duck processing were equally important, if not more so. Don’t steep the duck too long, or you’ll burn the skin. Wash surfaces and your hands before moving between tasks. Don’t leave any pin feathers. There is a lot more to the story of how food ends up on your plate, than what you can see wrapped in plastic at the grocery store.
To date, I have personally killed: fish, ducks and crickets. Next time, on Bone and Blood: will chickens finally come home to roost? Or will some other hapless animal fall prey to the author’s machinations? Stay tuned.
Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, yurts and extreme DIY. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at http://badmetaphor.net.