Monday, June 11, 2018

What we eat, how we live


The chicken’s butt looked strange. We have six chickens that require daily care, but even still I’m not generally in the habit of examining their butts. The strangeness was hard to miss, though: a large red protrusion where there normally wouldn’t be one (and I had to check the other chicken butts just to be sure). The chicken didn’t seem to be acting differently, eating and drinking like the others, fighting for the watermelon rinds I tossed to them as treats. Yet even to the untrained, unprofessional eye, there was clearly something wrong.

“It looks like a big hemorrhoid,” I told K. K’s trained, professional eye required little more than a glance to determine the problem. “Cloacal prolapse,” he declared, adding that this was fairly common in high-egg-producing hens. Part of her oviduct had turned inside-out and was extruding from her body. His face told me that this was not going to be a simple matter of applying Poultry Preparation H.

“Is it painful?” I asked. It looked painful and sounded worse, but I asked anyway because people often ask questions they already know the answer to, out of a foolish hope that the answer will somehow be different. “She doesn’t act like she’s in pain.”

That’s what chickens do, K explained. The chicken who appears sick becomes shunned by the group. To be accepted and gain the protection of the flock, she had to act like all was well. I thought, weirdly, of Anthony Bourdain, his suicide shocking but not entirely surprising upon consideration, at least to me and a few others who understand just how hard some people work to act like all’s well.

I knew this day would come. The chicken could be treated, but it would be expensive for us and stressful for her, and the chances were likely that the prolapse would occur again. Moreover, if she were given any kind of drugs, we could no longer eat her eggs, which would mean separating her from the others so we’d know which were hers. Chickens are social; a life entirely alone would not be much of a life. This, at least, was what we were telling ourselves, because we both already knew what we needed do.

Moving out to a farm, we had wanted to become at least a little more self-sufficient. We weren’t kidding ourselves; they weren’t going to make a TV show about us roughing it as homesteaders in the wilds of rural Illinois. But we did what we could. A friend had chickens to give away, and we had space for them, so we accepted a half dozen and gave them as good a life as we could in exchange for eggs and, eventually, we knew, meat. If there’s one thing that upsets me even more than seeing people thoughtlessly throw away single-use plastic items, it’s seeing people thoughtlessly throw away food. I’ve done both, believe me; I’m not nominating myself for environmental and ethical sainthood here. I’m just trying to do better, which is sometimes ridiculously easy (you really, really, really can live a satisfying life without plastic straws) and other times not so much.

This was a not-so-much time, for either of us. K has had to euthanize many animals over his career, and from what I observe, it has not gotten easier for him in the least. I have never killed anything bigger than a bug in my life. I went fishing a couple of times as a kid, but my parents had always dealt with what happened after the fish was removed from the hook. Other people had been killing animals on my behalf all my life; I was not a vegetarian, though I told myself that the day we had to kill one of our chickens might be the day I decided to become one. If I couldn’t do this, I had no right to expect anyone else to do it for me.

That morning I went out to the chicken yard with a big, ripe strawberry. They love strawberries, though usually they only get the tops after we’ve eaten the fruit. This time I singled out the one chicken and gave her the whole berry, which she swiftly plucked from my hand to devour. A couple of the others saw what was going on and dashed over to try to steal it. “Go away! Leave her alone!” I shouted, shooing them with my hands, angry and anguished. I had wanted her to have a nice, peaceful last meal, but of course that wasn’t happening. Life would be a struggle until the very end.

K came into the yard and stood next to me. Thunder rumbled. A huge storm was coming. A cloud of flies hovered around the chicken. We had to do this now.

We had done our research, graphic YouTube videos detailing just what had to be done and how it could be done as humanely as possible. I’ll spare you a lot of graphic descriptions here; in fact, the most shocking thing to me was how quickly it was over. I had heard horror stories of thrashing bodies and gushing blood. It didn’t happen that way, and in fact there was nothing so heartbreaking to me as the fact that her body’s last movements were small ones, not thrashing but fluttering, and then stillness.

I’m relatively un-squeamish, and the practical aspects that followed—taking a carcass and turning it into neat, clean parts like the kind on Styrofoam trays in the grocery store—were easier to deal with. If you eat meat, you probably shouldn’t be too squeamish about reaching into a dead animal’s body to extract its guts. It has to be done. It is being done, right now, on a massive scale. I don’t say this to be either judgmental or sensationalistic; it’s a fact. I am still figuring out how to deal with this fact myself.

Chicken parts you get in a store probably came from an animal that only lived about four months. Our bird had lived a great deal longer than that, and her habitat allowed her quite a bit of mobility (to give you an idea just how much mobility, our six hens were housed in an area that used to be a pen for as many or more deer). I can tell myself that all of this means she had a relatively full and fulfilling life, but I still know this is just me telling myself stuff. In any case, the meat was very different from chicken you get in a store. Its fibrous chewiness insisted on reminding us that we were definitely eating meat, the meat of a creature whose body once thrashed with life.

The late Anthony Bourdain became famous as someone who ate and lived adventurously. This makes for good books and good TV, as did his tattooed, chain-smoking, badboy persona. That was the image; what went on behind that image, it seems perhaps nobody fully knew. Obviously I didn’t know Bourdain personally, and I’m not entirely sure why I put these two things together, the death of a chicken and the death of a celebrity chef. I suppose for me, everything I write about is an exploration into what goes on behind the image. What happens in order for us to eat? What happens in order for us to live—or die? Huge questions, and so far all I have are the tiniest hints at answers. That will have to do.