Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My omnivore's dilemma

Looking out at the hen house from inside
the poultry processing shed.

(The following post discusses the slaughtering of animals, in some detail. You may want to put down whatever you are eating.)

On September 8th, I followed through with a strange promise to myself. It went thusly: that, no matter what fear or trepidation I might have, I would kill - with my own hands - some of the animals I was choosing to serve for a farm to table dinner at Dog Mountain Farm, in Carnation, Washington. I asked the farmers, Cindy and David Krepky, to raise the Pekins for my 72 seat dinner and Cindy graciously agreed to teach a few of us how to slaughter, scald, pluck, and eviscerate them. The ducks were 7 weeks old, about 3 pounds each, white with yellow beaks. In the short time since they'd been in this world, they ate feed, waddled around, drank water, quacked along with their fellow ducklings, thought their duck thoughts and successfully avoided death by hawk attack or other means.

Until we walked up one warm fall morning (cue iconic gun-slinging cowboy shoot-out music).

I think my expression here says a lot. A shot of tequila
at 11 am didn't do much to ease my discomfort.

And here is where my thoughts, emotions and writing sort of gums up. I am struggling with how to express the complexity of my thoughts about how these ducks lived and then came to meet their "one bad day" at my hands, because truthfully, any words I use are rife with cliches, despite all attempts to avoid them. Frankly, I don't want to use words, yet know I must because interpretive dance would be silly and still wouldn't communicate how twisted up this experience has left me (though perhaps it might, on second thought).

The scalder is on the left. We dipped the ducks in here
for about 60 secs. to loosen their feathers. Then they went into the
"plucker" which has many rubber "fingers" that pull the feathers off.

I don't know what these ducks are capable of feeling or sensing but I would be a liar if I pretended I think animals are incapable of emotions. Anyone who owns animals as pets knows that they experience emotions (and I'm smart enough to know that just because we call them "pets" doesn't confer emotions onto them, it just makes us acutely aware of their existence).

The ducks were scared when we approached them. They were in a crate, scrambling around, attempting to get as far away from our hands as possible. They were making noises that seemed stressed. I did what any compassionate person would do and held "my" duck and stroked its feathers and seriously wondered how my compassion would allow me to go through with killing this animal.

Being in a group with 3 others helped ease some of my nerves. The macabre mood inspired much gallows humor, our laughter being matched, call and response style, by the gobbles of neighboring turkeys.

We held the ducks firmly around their wings, inverted them into a cone attached to a wall, so that their feet stuck out of the top and their heads hung below at the bottom of the cone. Cindy instructed us in how to hold their beaks firmly and locate the tiny arteries that ran on either side of the trachea. Using a small, hooked, sharp knife we punctured through the skin and severed, with a quick pull, their carotid artery. It took about 6-8 minutes for them to bleed out.

It was. really. really. really. hard.

3 really's are such a poor, insufficient and repetitive way to express myself and yet, that's all I've got, for now.

After the ducks were killed, we saturated their down with water to aid in removing their feathers and moved into the shed to begin processing them. It was extremely hot in the tiny, confined space with the scalding tank on and the 5 of us packed in there shoulder to shoulder, feathers on the walls, blood drying on our aprons. We went about our work, dipping, plucking, gutting as Cindy patiently guided us each step of the way.

Angela Garbes, Amy Pennington, and Katie O.

And then, at some point, we were done. Angela, Amy and Katie went home and I began to break down the 40 ducks into legs and breasts, much more comfortable with the individual pieces, as familiar to me as the blood and death were unfamiliar. I cut and stacked the meat, started a stock and sharpened my knives and operated in a sort of robotic, unfeeling manner. Maybe I was in a mini version of shock, but I realized I had a big dinner to do and a lot of work in front of me and I didn't even know what I was feeling so there was no time to ponder the unknowable.

I used every last little bit in the stock that wasn't destined for another use.
Heads, feet, gizzards, heart, carcasses, necks made it in
the pot, which cooked for 8 hours.

The dinner was a huge success, a 6 course affair where the ducks were featured in every course from duck pate and smoked duck, to confit, seared breast, cracklins and stock (given to guests in small containers to take home). Oodles of generous volunteers helped me get the food to the table and pour the lovely wines from Alexandria Nicole and I am deeply grateful to all of them for their help. I'm especially appreciative of the farmers, Cindy and David Krepky, for their graciousness, generosity and hard work.

But back to those sneaky emotions, that eventually, a few days later, started to surface.

Essentially, I think it's safe to say that I feel altered by taking an animal's life for the purposes of eating it. It's messy and somewhat brutal, especially when a novice like myself, is holding the knife. In the hands of farmer Cindy, it was quicker and cleaner. I feel, on the one hand, it is what my omnivorous DNA is programmed to do. It is undeniably a very natural act for an animal to kill another animal.

And yet.

And yet part of me knows I can survive and thrive without making this choice. I don't know exactly how I will be able to reconcile in my twisted brain eating meat at all or as often in the future. Vegetarians and vegans will certainly take issue with me, and perhaps they should, but I doubt I'll go the route of cutting meat out of my diet entirely. My 10 years as a vegetarian are certainly pulling at me even as, in the week's since I killed the ducks, I've ordered chickens from Cindy and David to teach a butchering class and prepared more duck for an event at our house. I'm not sure how I would answer the question: how, after that, can you justify eating meat?

I think I need more time to think. Or to forget. And the latter thought brings up another wave of analysis.

I must admit that looking down on these gorgeous vegetables David and
Cindy grew was a nice emotional break from a day that started with blood and death.

Gorgeous pic taken by Ashlyn Forshner of the duck confit course
with farm tables in the background. Ashlyn barely had time to
snap it, busy being my sous chef for the day.

Another nice pic from Ashlyn. This course was inspired by a dish they make at
Tilikum Place Cafe. We grilled Italian chicory and served it with caramelized
grapes and pistachios with balsamic and dolce gorgonzola. On top are duck cracklins
made from rendering all the fat from the ducks.

There will be no neat conclusions to this story. Nothing is getting tied up all pretty and I suppose that's appropriate and to be expected. I'm not sure how all of this will settle out and I suppose it's ultimately a personal decision, left up to the individual to sort out. I do encourage you, though, if you are a meat-eater to consider witnessing or killing an animal yourself and draw your own conclusions, as murky and convoluted or as clear and true as they may be.

A view towards the Cascades as you approach the farm. Only thing missing
in this photo is a brown retriever named Shelby loping down the road to greet you.

A final word: Farmers teach their children not to name the animals destined for slaughter. When an alien race of carnivores that fancies an occasional human animal for lunch lands on Earth, I hope that they choose me as a pet and not a snack.

Please call me "Fluffy" from here on out. Thank you.


(wife.) said...

This sums up so much of what I feel about meat. I've been reading a lot in the last few years about where meat comes from, and I feel like I'm more educated about it. It's a much earlier step, but it's making me feel better about eating meat and being more cognizant about what's going into my body. I too was a vegetarian for a long time, and fleetingly reconsider it from time to time... but my refrains is the same as many meat-eaters: I just like meat too much. I feel really detached, and I imagine getting so close to the source--indeed, AT the source--would change that. Thank you for a really thought-provoking, moving post.

kairu said...

I would have liked to see that interpretive dance.

This is a messy, murky, uneasily resolved issue, with no neat way to tie up all the threads of emotion and taste that get all tangled up. You made the point in another dimly remembered conversation that witnessing animal slaughter is very different from actually doing the slaughter, which I have not yet done.

I did watch a pig slaughter several months ago, and it was a life-changing experience. About six or seven pigs were killed over the course of several hours. The first few lumbered placidly to their deaths, but you could see them (please stop reading if you are easily offended) becoming aware that their numbers were becoming fewer; they became restless and the last two pigs had to be chased around the pen before capture. (One last pig remained alive, to continue fattening up for another year). The death itself was swift and clean in the hands of experts; I didn't ask how the other students who tried their hands at killing actually felt about it.

For now I can reconcile my love of eating meat with the fact that an animal has to die in order for me to eat it. What I can do is buy as much of my meat as possible from local farms, and to eat less of it (a necessity because it costs more). It may be that when I find myself with a knife in one hand and trying to soothe a frightened fowl with the other I will feel more conflicted, but on the other hand I have never been a vegetarian for more than a couple days, usually inadvertently.

Jenifer said...

I teared up and my shoulders got tense when I got close to that part. And I was only reading.

Well-communicated, the murky place between conscience and trepidation...

Fuji Mama said...

Such a well written post. Thank you for your insights Fluffy!

Jesse Selengut said...

This was a very deep post and I appreciate your confusion and your openness to the complexity of how you are feeling. I just saw Food Inc. and am currently reading Omnivore's Dilemma and I think that killing your own food is a hugely important step to living more deeply and in a more connected way.

It seems that everything was done in a respectful manner, and in away that would cause the least fear for the animal. (the horror of it was very well captured in your yellow cast images, btw. It reminded me of the film, Traffic, by Soderberg)

Was there a specific gratitude thought that you were living as you were in the process of killing these animals? As in, "thank you, little ducky for giving up your life for us." I'm thinking of the native americans here and their rituals but maybe this is weird because it is not about survival or sustenance but for a dinner party. Is there any bad time to say thank you? Anyway, its confusing to me to.

Now that I've read some of the Omnivore's Dilemma and I see the enormous chain of involvement in the production / delivery of my food the Thank You (a silent form of grace I do from time to time - more so of late) is getting much more involved and weirder. Ultimately, I would love to personally know the makers of my food so I could thank them directly.

Finally, my favorite quote so far from that book:
"It takes a heroic act of not knowing or forgetting to eat factory farmed beef."


Thank you for letting us inside the process and your head. One of, if not your best posts.

Chef Gwen said...

I don't think you could have written a better account. Thanks for taking us along.

And now I'm waiting for a video. Of a certain interpretive dance.

Elizabeth said...

Oh.....I want to raise chickens for eggs and everyone keeps asking me what I will do with them when they stop laying. I don't think I could have done this. I eat meat, but I used to be a vegetarian for about 7 years. I'm still squeamish when I think of where my meat is coming from. I try to stick with seafood...I don't know why, but I just don't feel the same way about fish.

nicole said...

I've been a vegetarian for nearly half my life now but why I continue on is perhaps not so complicated -- I'm happy and healthy with a life sans meat (in truth, I never liked the taste of it in addition to being an animal-lover) but I would also not be adverse to at one point trying meat that has come from a friend's farm or etc. (well, famous last words).

It's a conundrum, for sure; I know if I watched -- or even participated in -- killing an animal I'd be very squeamish though at the same time a bit fascinated, and I wonder if that would change my vegetarianism (probably not, because again there's that whole taste issue).

Anyway - this was very well-written and thoughtful and I thank you for it. I also like your tag re tequila. But are you *sure* it can't solve everything?:)

The Kitchen Garden said...

Fluffy, that is a well written & thought out piece. The taking of a life for our own digestion is not an act to enter into lightly. You have been bold, and taken hold of an experience few dare to consciously consider. You are no hypocrite. Most diners are.

I have one slight concern--not criticism!-in what you have written. Please, are you sure it took each duck 6-8 minutes to die? Or is that the time to be dead and bleed out? It may seem minor, but in reality it is huge. For the ducks to have been quickly & humanely slaughtered death needs to be instantaneous. This is also important from a meat-quality standpoint as less hormones, etc are released into the flesh.
In my experience most poultry & small animals killed quickly only take moments to pass from living to meat, bleeding, however take a few more minutes.
While the method you described is one of the most humane methods of dispatch, there is always room for improvement. As I also hope you can see that the way the ducks were handled pre-slaughter could have been better so as to cause them less stress....When the aliens come for my fattened, gin-soaked liver I hope they don't chase me around the pen...I just want to go....

Again. Thank you so much for sharing this important event & your emotions so openly.

DateDyke said...

I'd love to see you on one of the exotic travel/food shows where they kill and eat all kinds of scaly and fuzzy animals with no apparent hesitation. Maybe they edit out the tequila shots, tears and silent prayers on those shows.

PS I've got a nice comfy all crate ready for you, Fluffy.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Hey Fluffy,

Hank here. I kill close to 100 animals a year in the course of hunting my meat, including about 40-50 ducks a season. It is pretty easy, emotionally speaking, to life a gun and shoot an animal you've never seen before that moment, and if you've done your job and stoned the bird or deer, the physical and emotional distance is pretty bearable.

That changes when the animal doesn't die instantly and you have to finish them off (incidentally, I break a duck's neck rather than cut their throats -- they die instantly). That is always hard, especially with ducks. A 6-foot duck isn't likelt to give you any trouble; they seem pretty peaceable. Now a 6-foot pheasant would tear you apart, and you can see it in their eyes.

Which leads me to my very limited experience with killing domestic animals. I felt many of those same emotions you wrote about when I killed my first rooster -- even though it was my neighbor, not me, who raised it. I wrote about it here:


Bottom line: killing is never easy, even when we eat from nose to tail.

-- Hank

PS: About not naming animals. Some people I know name their domestic animals after people they don't like. "Hitler" is a common name for chickens...

PPS: With all those duck carcasses, you ought to make duck demiglace. I am making some right now.

Becky said...

(wife.)thank you for saying what I think I was scared to say in my post, that I fear I'll keep eating meat because I love the taste so much. That, frankly, makes me feel hedonistic at best, and cruel, at worst. This is such a hard topic, no?

Kairuy: 2 days of inadvertent vegetarianism? my guess is you were trapped in a buddhist monastery or had the stomach flu.

Jenifer: well communicated by YOU the murky place between conscience and trepidation..

Fuji Mama: Thank you for being the first (and certainly not the last) to call me "Fluffy"

Bro: I'm so glad you are reading that book. I still haven't seen Food, Inc. Neat to see you confront some of the same issues I'm confronting (and issues I wish everyone would confront more). I'll take you out to Dog Mountain when you come visit.

Jacquelyn: Thanks for the sweet comment!

Chef Gwen: I promise that if I do an interpretive dance, I will share the video with you. Prepare to be embarrassed for me, if that ever happens.

Elizabeth: Nothing wrong with letting a chicken die of natural causes (and hopefully by that, I don't mean some predator, even though that would be natural)

Nicole: re: tequila, you have a good point. I think I need to try harder.

The Kitchen Garden: Thanks for your constructive comment. I edited my post slightly and took out the words "to die" after 6-8 minutes to bleed out. I'm not sure exactly when death occurred. There was still incidental movement for several moments, but I've learned that is normal and not indicative of consciousness. I'm sure the duck lost consciousness fairly soon after the artery was cut. Thanks for pointing this out.

Becky said...

DateDyke: It's so comforting to know you have a crate all ready for me. I especially like squeaky toys in the form of artisan cheeses, fine wine and top shelf tequilas. Thank you.

Hank: Thanks for reading. Looking forward to reading your account of that pheasant. One important question. A 6 FOOT DUCK? holy hell man, I'm impressed. :) I think you meant pounds, but I much prefer the image of you wrestling down a duck the size of an human adult male.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Nope, I meant 6-foot duck. A lot of the things we hunt are far smaller than we are, and while most of them still wouldn't bother us if they, for some reason, became as large as we were (thus the 6-foot duck), certain critters -- namely the evil Ditch Chicken -- would come after you in a heartbeat. Think velociraptor.

Becky said...

Hank: well, color me educated in the ways of the hunter! Thanks for explaining. I still would like to giggle about you and a 6 foot duck though. If that's okay, of course.

Mo said...

Thank you for writing this. Actually - thank you for going through with the whole thing. I would like to think I could do the same - my convictions are certainly there - but reality, as you so poignantly express, is something altogether different.

Elizabeth said...

Midway through my 23 years as a fish-eating vegetarian, I was presented with a live lobster as a gift from Maine, and it took a lot of wine to get up the courage to put it in the pot. It almost was released into the Willamette, instead, but I knew that if I couldn't take personal responsibility for this representative shellfish, I'd have to cut that out of my diet.

I'm an omnivore now, but had the same experience about four years ago when I decided to cull one of the banty hens from my little city flock, which had an eye infection I was afraid would spread to the others. I held it it my hands as my roommate slit its throat over the sink, and felt its body shiver into lifelessness. And I cried. Hard. But then it was a dead chicken, and easy to pluck and gut and section and cook. Bony little thing.

I still eat meat, but try my best to only get local, small-farm products, and if there's one thing I encourage everyone to do, it's to avoid at all costs the factory-farmed animal products, whether chicken (including eggs!), pork, or beef. You don't have to get up close and personal with a dead animal, but boycotting factory operations will help improve the environment, the quality of the meat on the market, and the health of the animals and the small family farmers.

Diana said...

Oh Becky, that post tore at my heart. I love eating meat, but want to cry at the thought of actually taking a life myself. I've thought a lot about taking a slaughtering class, or watching it done at a local farm. I've wondered how that would change my perspective on eating meat, and how it would affect me emotionally. Truly beautiful, thought provoking post. Thank you.

Wendy McConnell said...

Thank you so much for writing about your experience, Becky! It's very thought provoking and brings tears to my eyes reading it.

Most of us are so far removed from the process that allows us to have dinner on the table.

It must have been a very hard thing for you to do and I can only imagine what it's like. Witnessing the death of an animal for food, or killing it to eat and survive, really makes one more appreciative of where our food comes from, how it was raised and how it was slaughtered.

I think if I had to kill an animal to survive and eat, if I could do that, I'd say a little prayer, and would give thanks to the animal.

Phoo-D said...

Thank you for the insightful and touching post. I have hunted and fished my whole life and it brings a different understanding of what it means to be an omnivore along with a great respect for animals. I still struggle with eating animals raised for slaughter. While realizing that it is a necessary thing to support a modern civilization, the cost saving methods and techniques of large processors make me feel like the animals are not often respected. Unfortunately, it is not an issue that lends itself to an easy solution.

sally s. said...

When I was a kid my little grandma - we called her that because she was - walked into the chicken coop, grabbed a chicken or two by the neck, wrung it and moved right into the the scalding, plucking, eviscerating and then frying them in a cast iron pan. No drama, just did it, Sunday after Sunday. In an hour we were eating fried chicken. For eons that's been the reality of eating meat.

I grew up on a ranch and indulged in fried chicken and steak on a regular basis, but I've never killed, never had to kill a critter myself as my great- and grand- mothers did. They would appreciate the honor in your doing so. (Can't imagine Fluffy killing, but Becky could.)

In my family, the personal slaughtering of meat ended with my grandmothers, and as you imply, in a few generations we've lost our connection to what meat eating actually requires. Omnivore's Dilemma is an important read in this regard.

Salty Lass said...

Listening to your story in person at the farmers market was inspiring. To read it in detail was touching, in a thought-provoking 'why-haven't-I-done-this-yet' sense.

It's not an easy issue to reconcile within oneself, but to confront it is brave, and doing so---- says a lot more about you than it does about the issue.

Chef Robin Leventhal said...

WOW, thanks for sharing that very, very, very emotional experience. Particularly since I have been wanting to learn how to hunt for duck and been offered that opportunity I guess the expression "careful for what we wish for" could apply here. killing with a gun is clearly only one step away from evisceration, perhaps this is harder than I thought it would be!

Melissa said...

Thank you Becky,

I think you have written what I have often thought about after attending Quillisascut, although I didn't swing the ax, I remember handing over the duck and the intense emotions that went with it. I'm constantly battling the right and wrong. Someone recently said "if you are not willing to kill it yourself, you shouldn't eat it" whereas that is a huge thing to comprehend for most Americans who have never raised any animal, I believe there is truth to the statement. Thanks again for posting, you reminded me of a life changing time in my life.

Carol Peterman said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. I have been thinking about you and wondering how the dinner went.
The food you prepared looks glorious and I hope there is at least some feeling of accomplishment and pride mixed in with the cacophony of emotions you experienced/are still experiencing. Actually stepping up to the farm to table ethos in a very personal way is more than most people will ever want to do or have an opportunity to do. You have set a good example for the rest of us.
There is a movement afoot as more people seek to experience killing their own meat and if given a similar opportunity, I hope I will be as brave as you were in the face of reality. The truth; the meat I enjoy eating must first be killed, and I will think of your story.

I hope you get a chance to read Farm City. It might be a great way to help process your experience.

Durga said...

I blogged similarly some time back - http://tinyurl.com/yfz7qe7 - and reading your post brought me there. I helped with a local farmer's chicken kill, mainly to see if I could, to see if I could walk my talk. I am an omnivore. I had no idea how I'd feel. It ended up not being terribly emotional for me, and I wonder if it was because those chickens are so lacking in intelligence. I suspect it would have been more difficult with a larger animal, and even with a duck, for me. Or a heritage chicken. Those Cornish Crosses are just not particularly engaging....

There was definitely a surreal aspect to the experience.

Thanks for the post, for your willingness to walk through the experience and not distance yourself from this particular intimacy.

Cheriepicked said...

During my time as a farm intern I dealt with animal slaughter at least a couple times a week and absolutely hated it. Folks always assured me that I would get used to it but I never really did. My eating habits definitely changed from there on out- I certainly eat less meat and what I do eat I have to know the source. Honestly, I think that everyone needs to have an experience with animal slaughter in order to truly appreciate what they ingest and the sacrifices that are being made.

Great post- thanks for sharing.


TORI said...

Thank you for posting your experience. I am currently reading Omnivore's Dilemma and have just a hard of time now with the corn by-product as I do with the meat. I am fairly certain I am reclaiming my past vegetarian life and not because I think people shouldn't eat meat, but because, precisely as you have shown us, I am not willing to kill it myself. I am quite sure that if I got a cow to raise for food, it would quickly become my new pet Sophie. My new stance is going to be "if I am not willing to kill it, then I shouldn't be willing to eat it." And since I am a mother of three young children and I am their example by which to live, it is my moral responsibility to impart upon them the values I want to have if I were always my very best self. And, as everything else in life, you have to walk the walk. I cannot expect them to be their very best versions of themselves, if I, myself, am not my very best version.

Sorry to ramble, but your post clinched what I have to do for me and my family. Thank you.

Becky said...


Thanks for writing. It does beg the question - if you were very hungry, I wonder if you could kill to eat. I think most of us would. The thing is - these days, we are so insulated from the need to kill to eat that we have lost our ability to even imagine it. I wonder how quickly we would get comfortable with it if we had to. I imagine if your children were hungry, you would do anything for them. food for thought, no pun intended.

Best to you and your family and thanks for stopping by.


TORI said...


Of course, I completely agree with that, if my kids or myself needed to eat and that was my only option, no doubt I would, but given that I am fortunate enough to live in the mecca of local farms and great produce (East Bay of California - San Francisco) that is not a thought I have to even remotely entertain. But yes, if it were life and death, I am quite sure I would give thanks to the animal and slaughter to feed my children. From here on out I will pray that that day never comes into my life.

My apologies at not making any exceptions to my rule. In life, there are always exceptions.

Becky said...

Tori -

If more people gave as much thought to their food as you seem to, our world would be a better place. Thank you for being thoughtful. Thank you for not just consuming blindly.


TORI said...

I have not always been so thoughtful. This book is putting me over the edge, I am kind of crashing into myself. Unfortunately, once the error of my ways hits me in the face, I must change. ugh.


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