On a Friday afternoon, we were asked if we would be interested in attending an informal chicken slaughter and processing class at a private farm close to Denver. The answer was a categorical yes – no hesitation, no second thoughts. I called the organizer and informed him that it would be the two of us, my husband and I, and that we will be bringing our 4 year old daughter, Lulu. Not once did it cross my mind not to bring her. He hesitated. I assured him that she has been on farms around animals before and that she is very well-behaved. I was looking forward to this experience.
In the morning, I told Lulu that we would be going to a farm. I wanted to make sure she understood what we were about to do. I talked to her about all the chicken things she eats- the chicken soup, the roasted chicken, the fried chicken, the chicken salad, the chicken schnitzel, and the chicken wings. I asked her where it comes from — the chicken farm, she answered. I wasn’t convinced she got it so I asked what does the chicken look like — a chicken, she said. This was not exactly helpful either so I asked what noise does the chicken make — cluck, cluck, she replied. Knowing that we were talking about the same thing, I explained how a chicken gets from the bird that goes cluck cluck to the schnitzel she likes so much. And then I told her that it was that process that we would be witnessing at the farm. She was neither thrilled nor scared- but certainly ready to spend the day on the farm.
This was not the Tyson plant. It was a small, mom-and-pop sort of operation with no fancy industrial gear for this process, no automated dunkers or pluckers. The farm spread over nearly 40 acres of land, filled mostly with vegetables – from swiss chard of all colors, to watermelons red and yellow and apples and onions, corn and pumpkins. There were no animals on this farm aside from 47 chickens that were raised with great care over the last 12 or so weeks on all organic feed. The occasional eggs found in the yard and distinct start of a crow were signs that the birds had matured and were ready for slaughter.
Lulu listened quietly along with the rest of the small group as one of the farmers gave a lengthy explanation of how the chickens arrived to where they are now – where they were bought from, what they were fed, what their daily routine was. He then explained what we would be doing — each person there was to experience the whole process from beginning to end at least once, twice if they so choose which was recommended to truly understand the routine.
We walked into the barn as the two men walking us through this process were about to demonstrate the entire operation. I held Lulu’s hand and she walked along with us. The chickens are captured from their area and held and brought outside around the barn where two metal cones, one on each side of wooden gate, were awaiting. The men talked about the importance of being calm through the process to ease the stress that the birds would sense. They talked about the importance of life, the thanks they give to the animals they raise to ultimately take their lives, the cycle of life. They demonstrated how to get the chicken into the metal cone, head down through the opening at the bottom, wings contained and immobilized inside the cone.
Lulu was in my arms at this point, watching and listening. I am not sure exactly how much of this demonstration and explanation she understood or was able to process but I appreciated her patience with the process.
The cone is a simple device that allows the chicken to be contained enough to avoid a struggle and held in a position conducive to bleeding out fast once a sharp knife is taken to its throat. If the cut is done properly, the chicken is dead within 60 seconds, with a few attempts at flapping out of the cone. Before we knew it, the demonstration was done and we all walked to the processing area – the front of the barn, outside, on large tables covered in large cutting boards.
This was all the Lulu could take. She asked to go for a walk and see the rest of the farm so her dad kindly obliged, bringing along a few snacks for an impromptu mini-picnic in a shaded area.
I stayed and my turn came. I was nervous. Inside the barn, in the midst of some 20+ chickens, I wondered how would I do this. I had to catch a male chicken not a female one – the females would be kept for eggs. The males were somewhat easy to recognize by their comb. I feared a struggle, feathers flying, crows of despair echoing around. I caught a bird without any of that happening. I held it close to my body, restraining its wings and walked outside of the barn as calmly as I could.
As I approached the metal cone, I found myself stroking its feathers to calm it down or perhaps to calm myself down. In front of the metal cone, I was worried that I would not be able to get the bird in properly, that it would fly away, that I would have to chase it all over the yard. Before I knew, the chicken was head down in the cone and I was holding a small and very sharp knife with a red handle, ready to do the deed. I worked my way through the feathers, pulled them to the side and cut as deeply as I could. It was not deep enough and fast enough and I was prompted to keep going. The skin was much tougher than I expected but I managed a good cut on my second try – the chicken began to bleed out. It took some strength to keep it in the cone, pushing down on its now flapping body, but I held it together and in the end felt like I complete my task with respect and dignity for the life of the bird.
He stopped moving all together and I waited one more minute to allow the blood to drain out. From here, another learning process began. I laid the bird down on a table and cut its head and wings off – its body was so warm. Holding it by its legs, I dunked it in the hot water, heated at 140 degrees, just like I was instructed — three times, each time for eight seconds, wiggling it around to get hot water all over the feathers and particularly over the tail. I started plucking its feathers -against the grain- my hands full of soft fluffy feathers with each move- a rather easy and relaxing endeavor. From here the bird was washed, gutted by hand, washed again then placed in a bag in a large ice bath. And there was my chicken.
As Lulu returned from her walk and mini-picnic, she started was observing what was happening around the chicken processing tables. I asked her to put some of the chicken feet in a bin where they were collected. She was happy to help. She showed her father which cooler to put the chicken into when he was ready to do so with his chicken. We did not return Lulu to watching the process again, the actual slaughter – watching it once done by the organizers of this small class seemed more than enough. But we involved her, minimally, in the processing — just as she likes to help in the kitchen with small cooking tasks, she enjoyed assisting in the process here.
We had lunch at the farm – chicken tacos. Then we picked some greens, some tomatoes, some peppers, and a watermelon and went home. That afternoon, on a playdate, she told her 3 year old buddy that she can’t stay for dinner because we were cooking our chicken.
So why did I take Lulu to the chicken slaughter? Because I want her to respect her food, to understand where it comes from, to be aware that of animal life and its cycle.
Is age 4 appropriate for this lesson? In the right context, I say yes. What do you think?