Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Grim Reality

4 Standard-Breed Chickens, Processed & Packaged,
Breasts Deboned
I grew up in a small agricultural town with a large rural population and I suppose it wasn’t a great leap that I’ve chosen the lifestyle that I have. But I never realized until I left that small town that it was one of the last great vestiges of rugged, hard-working, self-sufficient people left in America.  Fishing, hunting, gardening and canning were the norm, not the exception. And I’m not that old!

I was born in 1967 and I remember going with my mom to the community meat locker in the 70’s. In those days, few people had their own large freezers and people could rent small lockers at the local butcher shop to store their meat and frozen vegetables. It was not uncommon for a farm family to bring a steer to the butcher for processing, sell off half to another family to pay for the processing, then put the remainder in their own locker for eating throughout the year. (That was before the Food Safety Police reigned supreme, but that’s another post.)

The town I was raised in had an Ice House, though it closed down when I was still quite young. In pioneer days, ice was harvested from frozen rivers in colder climates (not Texas!) right before the spring thaw. Giant blocks were carved out and carried by horse and sled to the town’s Ice House, where they were packed like bales of hay in a barn.  The ice melted slowly all summer and afforded the citizens a welcome treat during the hottest period of the year for making ice cream and cold beverages. I can only imagine what river ice packed in sawdust probably tasted like, but hey, it was cold! (In the winter, in areas where the ground froze solid, the Ice House served double-duty as a morgue until people could be buried…)

Of course, our Ice House was electric and temperature-controlled and its sole purpose was to provide block ice for non-electric refrigerators and outdoor functions, like picnics, sporting events and camping trips. A truck made deliveries a couple times a week and you could buy a block of ice for your refrigerator. I don’t remember that, but so I’ve heard… (And as far as I know, we never stored dead people in our Ice House – but nothing about a small town surprises me anymore!) But I digress…

I learned to clean fish and quail and rabbits from my mom (though she had a hard time killing her own prized rabbits!). That was considered light work back then and no one even thought to be squeamish about it. It was just a way of life. Personally, I’d never even heard of a man butchering a chicken in those days – that was considered women’s work and I can only imagine what it must have been like for our great-grandmothers with large families to feed, who had to not only kill, pluck and clean the birds, but also to haul and heat water to get the chicken and the rest of the meal to the table, then clean up afterwards. After doing 5 loads of laundry. By hand. Before .

I met a completely different culture of people when I moved to the city and I continue to meet them to this day in this “country-that-isn’t-really-the-country”.  Inevitably, they are the people who say to me “Oh, I could never kill an animal. If I had to live on the meat I killed myself, I’d just become a vegetarian.” And women are by far the worst about being pedestal princesses regarding the slaughter of animals for meat, though a lot of the men I meet aren’t far behind. I’m also met with a lot of “Oh, that’s just so much trouble – it just wouldn’t be worth it for us.” (Time is always money to these people, after all.)

But the simple fact is, in all our history of humankind (which spans millions of years if you believe in evolution, and at least five thousand if you don’t), it’s only in the last 50-60 years that human beings have had the utter luxury of NOT having to butcher their own meat. And I’m not talking about our pioneer mothers and fathers doing the evil deed while their pampered kids watched animals talking on the Disney Channel – everyone participated in it and benefited from it. (Just read the "Little House on the Prairie" series if you don't believe me!)

But back to this life. We’d been here for about a year and our first batch of straight-run chickens had matured. (Straight-run means an unsexed hatch – approximately equal numbers of each sex.) For those of you not familiar with farm animals, the first thing you discover when you start letting them have the run of the place is that more than 1 or 2 male animals of each species is a recipe for complete chaos and constant, teeth-grinding, nerve-rending raping and pillaging of the females of their species, not to mention constant fighting amongst themselves. Roosters can do this ALL DAY LONG – I have seen roosters do things that would get them the needle or electric chair in most states!

So the time came when I had to decide if I had the steel to restore order to the flock and do right by the others by thinning out the extra males. I wasn’t sure I could do it – it’d been years since I dressed out an animal, and I’d never killed one myself except while hunting. So I had a shot of Southern Comfort. (The rooster declined his shot, so I had his too!)  I used a shotgun the first time and it took several hours to pluck and gut that first one. I could’ve given up then and decided it was just too much trouble, but I didn’t. Subsequent sessions weren’t much better, but still, I stuck with it.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that a well-placed cut with a sharp knife was faster and more humane than the shotgun (or any other method) and these days, I can dress out about 8 large chickens or turkeys in about 4 hours, especially if I have a little help from someone willing to be a go-fer. (Curtis is a great go-fer!) Do I enjoy it? Well, certainly not the killing, but I can honestly say it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s not a horrible way to spend a day, especially knowing the many delicious meals awaiting us after all that work.

Is it worth the trouble? It is opulence beyond imaging! There is something immensely satisfying about sitting down to a meal that comes entirely from your own land and grown with your own labor – from the meat that you raised (or hunted) and processed, to the vegetables you grew and canned, to the hard corn you grew and ground into cornmeal, which you then made into cornbread, then used the leftovers to stuff the chicken you’re eating. It’s a feeling of freedom that I can appreciate only now that I’ve endured the enslavement a life of soft city-living demands. And I wouldn’t go back to that life for ANY amount of money.

An aside here about being a vegetarian: I have no problem with people who choose that lifestyle, but most of the city vegetarians I’ve met haven’t a clue as to what goes on when you have a farm. Animal manures are a vital part to growing an organic garden and without them, we can only grow as much produce as the land will naturally support without resorting to purchased fertilizers, which might feed the landowners, but certainly not the masses who are demanding organic, locally-grown produce. We are not to the age of technological advancement where we can choose the sex of the animals that are born on our farms. You can order only female chickens from hatcheries – they kill the males for you so you don’t have to be bothered with the moral responsibility of it later. But they were still hatched and they are still dead. With all other farm animals and if you hatch your own chicks, you get what you get and you can only keep so many males. That’s just the way of it and shrugging off the moral responsibility of thinning them out is a poor & irresponsible way to go about homesteading and it isn’t fair to the rest of the animals in your flocks and herds.

One thing’s for sure: when you eat that meat, you do so with conscience – it becomes more than just a slab of dead flesh lying on a Styrofoam package that you know nothing about. You probably know (or knew) its parents and it may have even had a name! When you are hungry from real labor, this will not bother you nearly as much as you may expect…

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