Killing What You Eat 

In which our staff foodie assists in poultry slaughter, and his roommate gives up on KFC forever.

I have no illusions about my place in the food chain. Raised by farm kids who didn't even like pets, I have strong feelings about folks who can talk about their cat's therapist and their Atkins diet in the same breath. Pick your stance and stick with it.

That doesn't mean I feel the need to be like Ted Nugent and kill my dinner. But when the opportunity arose, it seemed intellectually dishonest to pass it up. My dad killed his first chicken at age eight. And though I've cooked probably tens of thousands of birds in my life, I had yet to do the same.

The invitation to kill came from former Express senior editor Linnea Due and her partner, Gina Covina, who now write and raise rare breeds of chickens north of Ukiah. Raising chickens makes you realize just how extraneous the male sex is. Sure, the best rooster of the bunch gets to stick around and breed, but the rest don't lay eggs and they make a lot of noise. Which makes them good for one thing.

This past weekend, after many months of negotiations, I drove north to help Lin and Gina slaughter a knee-high, twelve-pound Buff Orpington, the Dolph Lundgren of roosters. His name was Mr. Friendly, and his day had been coming for a long time. Over the past two years he's fought off a number of wild animal attacks and survived more than one stay of execution. "He's become our mascot," Lin explained as she cancelled our first killing appointment. It's not easy to kill something named Mr. Friendly. "Maybe they should change his name to John Ashcroft," my roommate suggested. But time and testosterone had made Mr. Friendly the most vicious bird on the farm, and finally, the slaughter was a go.

Yet Lin was already starting to waffle by the time I arrived, so we decided to start off with a warm-up rooster, a smaller -- nameless -- five-month-old Buff Catalana.

How do you kill a chicken humanely? Gina and Lin had to ask themselves this question last year when their first crop of roosters came of age. Do you use a hatchet? Wring their necks? Finally, a friend taught them a gentler method: Pruning shears.

Lin still can't watch the birds she's raised from chicks being slaughtered, so she retreated to the house while Gina brought out the rooster, docile but fidgety in her arms. I had to repress the itch to pet him. She knelt on the ground with the chicken between her legs, and stretched out his neck, holding it to the ground between the curved blades of the lopper. The bird clucked and fussed at this undignified treatment, and I stood to the side, trying to calculate how traumatized I was going to be.

"You've had a good life," Gina said softly, holding her hands around his eyes to quiet him. "Thank you for giving it to us for our food." And then she moved her hands up the handles and slammed them shut.

The head fell to the side, eyes closed, and Gina held the body between her knees until the last convulsions stopped. That's it? I slowly began to think. Not something I enjoyed, certainly, but not too horrifying, either. Just something that has to be done.

I dipped the body into a pot of 150-degree water -- if it's too cold the feathers don't peel off; too hot and the skin tears -- and hung it by its feet from a small noose. Slowly, as blood dripped onto the ground, we pulled at the feathers and they came off in huge, wet clumps, coating my hands in down. As I suspected would happen -- hoped, actually -- the rooster was transformed from animal to meat as the familiar puckered skin emerged.

Lin came out of the house as we plucked at the last big feathers, and I geared up to take my turn at the shears. But Mr. Friendly would live another day.

"He's had a personality change since the dog attack last week," Lin argued.

"The same thing happened after the raccoon attack," Gina said, looking unsurprised but a little exasperated. "It just took him two weeks to get his confidence back."

But we all knew that the pardon had been signed. Lin unhooked the denuded carcass from the rope and we brought it into the kitchen. Now Gina moved out of eyesight -- she can't bear to see the entrails -- and Lin showed me how to eviscerate a chicken.

Gently, she cut a flap between the legs, making sure not to slice an intestine or gall bladder, and then sliced down around the anus. She stuck her hands inside the hole, clearing away the connective tissues with her fingers and teasing out the organs: the intestines, plump white ropes; the heart small and firm, with a drop of blood coming out the aorta. Silvery, spongy lungs the size of lima beans. Each was clean and beautiful. We washed out the body and then passed it over a gas flame, singeing off the last hairlike fronds that poked out here and there.

I was surprised to discover that I would have had no problem eating him for dinner, but we settled on store-bought chicken sausages instead, sautéed with the last of the season's zucchini and tomatoes. The Catalana came back to my house in a cooler. As I write it sits in my refrigerator, waiting to be braised.

The chicken was killed on a Saturday. On Sunday, fittingly enough, I returned home just in time for my roommate's Farewell to the Colonel dinner. Three years ago, after encountering a series of articles and documentaries, David decided he would never buy factory-farmed chicken again. Stocking up on Hoffman Game Birds' fryers at the farmers' market is easy, but avoiding commercially raised chicken in restaurants is hard. Especially when your favorite comfort food is KFC.

But the time had come for him to give that up, too, so like any good gay man, David threw a dinner party to mark the occasion. Five of us drank white zinfandel and cheap champagne and ate crispy chicken strips and breasts 'n' thighs until we couldn't stand it any longer. Long after the rest of us gave up, David kept on gnawing. "I'll take you to the Purple Plum for happy fried chicken," I told him, a little alarmed. "It's much better."

"But the taste won't be the same. It's the Colonel I love," he replied dolefully, staring down at a clean-stripped bone. "I don't want to be an animal-rights activist."


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