The winery I work for part-time doing estate tastings and sales also has a 40 acre farm on one of the mountains in north Napa Valley. After a bunch of us at the winery took an official tour of the farm this past summer, I expressed an interest to the Farm Manager that I’d like to volunteer to help cull, i.e. kill, chickens and turkeys, if they needed help. I got an email last week that took me up on my offer.
I had Friday before Christmas off and arranged to be up there by 9AM. It was a cold, rainy morning. Dressed in paint-splattered pants and work boats with a baseball cap and hooded rainy jacket, I arrived at the farm without a soul in sight. I walked to the garage area, turned and saw one of the farm workers sharpening his knives. In broken communication back and forth, I was able to tell him I was here to help with the chickens today. He motioned to the 4-wheeler, I hopped in and away we went to the chicken coop.
The Farm Manager was there preparing for the event. There was a simple wooden scaffold shaped into a rectangle with a long board stretching across. Screwed to it were two inverted metal cones and two white 5 gallon paint buckets. Below the metal cones where two more white buckets. Next to it, a large pot was heating water with a camp burner. Another plastic tub nearby was filled with cold water. Behind all this was similar wooden scaffold with several ropes hanging from it, each with a small noose-type tie at the end.
I was nervous, absolutely unsure of how I was going to feel about all of this. I just knew I wanted to see it, maybe even kill a bird if I got the nerve. This was an important food journey for me after having been a vegetarian for 13 years. I gave that up to go to culinary school about three years ago. I knew in school the animals we cooked everyday weren’t well sourced, sustainable nor humanly raised. When I graduated, I created some rules for myself about meat-eating.
First, don’t buy meat, only eat meat when you go out. Do your best to find out its source. Then, if you order the meat, eat all the meat. I believe one of the most disrespectful things you could do to an animal is allow it to be raised for food, handled by people who cared for it, cooked by people whose passion is bringing flavor to that food for your enjoyment, and then let it be thrown away…even for compost. And lastly, try and use all the animal. If you are offered meat and accept, use the bones for stock as well as the meat for food.
There were four birds in a cage in the barn. They weren’t given food for the previous 24 hours. He went in to one cage and pulled a hen out by her feet. He tucked her under his arm and carried her to the metal cone. He put her head through the cone, with the breast facing the rounded side, and while the other man held her feet, he pulled her head out through the bottom just to expose her head and neck.
He plucked a few feathers from her neck and, with one quick motion, sliced her neck. Her blood spurted out and then into an arced stream. I quickly moved the bucket underneath to catch it. He held her neck and the other man continued to hold her feet.
The blood slowed. Her body jerked. Her eyes dimmed and closed.
We repeated the process using the second metal cone. When the second bird had closed its eyes, we took first bird and swirled it in the hot water for about 20 seconds. This loosens the feathers and makes it easier to pluck them. A quick second dip in cold water, and then she was hung by her foot over a large trash can. All three of us started plucking. Her feathers pulled out quickly and easily. In less than five minutes, with the three of us at it, she was ready to be eviscerated.
The farm worker, who grew up on a farm in Guatemala, made quick work of cleaning her. It took him just five minutes to cut her head and feet off, clean out the insides and find her liver and heart, which he neatly cut out, washed and saved.
I decided I wanted to kill the last bird. I watched the third kill intently. I studied his technique closely and felt the sharpness of the knife. I quieted my mind so as to only focus on the physical act. I needed to be clean and quick. No second guessing.
I went to the barn and retrieved the last bird. She was warm under my arm.
I put her head side down into the cone and the manager held her feet while I pulled her head through. I was surprisingly calm and felt peaceful.
With great focus, I held the back of her head with my left hand and pulled several feathers from her neck. Using a steady right hand, I made a quick slice that didn’t include enough pressure and barely broke the skin. With the next follow through, her neck split open and the blood ran down over her beak and on to my hand before turning downward into the bucket.
The blood shocked me. It came fast and it was hotter than I anticipated. It slightly burned my skin as it ran over my hand.
I sat right there and watched her blink slower and slower until her eyes slowly closed shut.
I felt, somewhat mysteriously, ok about it when I was done.
She lived three to four years on the farm. Wondered where she wanted. Ate bugs and grubs, supplemented with grains and nuts. Covered and warmed when she needed. Cared for with respect. Her eggs were loving cooked by the chefs at the winery kitchen and eaten by locals and tourists who visited the food truck at the winery. She had a good life. She was killed with respect and eaten with respect.
As I finish writing this, I am brought to tears. Not because I’m sad for her, but because I wish all the animals we eat would be shown the same respect throughout their lives.
I’ve never felt very spiritual in my life, but that’s food to me. Food is my art, my god, my earth, my connection to everything.