On Monday I helped to process and package 150 pasture-raised chickens on Massachusetts’ only self-contained Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (MPPU). I had this opportunity thanks to the great folks over at the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project out of Tufts. I got up to the site about 7 am. I got home about 7 pm tired, sore, with the smell of wet feathers and partially digested grain still in my nose, and not really sure what to think.
Processing chickens is just one of several agricultural experiences I have been privileged enough to try this summer. And it served the dual purpose of teaching me about a specific aspect of poultry farming as well as fitting nicely into my own personal ‘Face the Meat’ campaign.
I eat meat. I’m not a raging carnivore. In fact, I repeatedly balk at joining a meat CSA because I don’t really even eat enough meat at home to use up their smallest share, 5 lbs/month. But I do eat meat in restaurants, and I am an advocate of the nose to tail ethos. If I am going to eat meat at all, it seems the least I can do is really understand that animal’s life, including its death. And if I am going to be eating more parts of that animal I want to make sure it is as high quality as possible. If I am going to vote for it with my dollars I want to know what grass-fed beef really is, what organically raised pork might be.
These experiences have not necessarily been fun. Nor have they have not been foul or horrible. They have just been real, with all the emotional complexity that carries. After a brief demonstration, myself and about 10 other volunteers crossed the threshold from novice to assembly line ‘dressers’ with no further pomp. We each had to face down our own horror, disgust, anxiety, fear, sadness, reluctance etc. in seconds and just pitch in and help. Most of us verbalized some of the emotions above, but eventually conversation turned to other aspects of each person’s farm -How many acres do you have? How do you use it? Oh I love that breed?- and though we never achieved a real rhythm the birds got processed and chilled well within the health safety guidelines. And so I was an accessory to one, small, local chicken murder.
I sat to eat lunch on a dusty truck rut and flex my tired hands. Then I joined back in to help set up the packaging line and suddenly the inherent meanness of the morning seemed remote like all that tugging and removing of membranes and pieces might have been done by someone else. Out of the giant white chill-buckets people were pulling regular old chickens to drain. Chickens that looked just like the anonymous ones you buy at you grocer. Chickens that you know were alive once, but if you’ve never really thought about what happens you could imagine they just occur like that somewhere in nature: pale, prickled flesh, breast up. These were not corpses or crime scene evidence. They were just chickens…that we bagged, stuffed with giblets, shrink wrapped, weighed and labeled for sale, at the end of the day! We put aside 32 for a local chef, the rest went to a farmer’s market. So fresh, they would tell customers not to eat them that night. You have to let the flesh rest.
The emotions of the day were not apparent to me that night. Early on Tuesday I was thinking a lot about our meat system and the meat politics that had necessitated the MPPU. But on Tuesday evening I was hit with an unexpected emotion, pride. I was out with a girlfriend who was kind enough to listen to my story. I realized at the end of it that somewhere in a restaurant nearby someone was eating ‘my’ chicken. The more I have learned about keeping meat animals, the less I have wanted to raise them on my own (as yet non-existent) farm. And around lunch on Monday I was pretty certain I didn’t want to be slaughtering chickens multiple times a year. But then by Tuesday night I was delighted that I could point to a plate of roasted chicken and know that in some small, but critical, measure I made it happen. It will be a while before I know if raising chickens is for me. In the meantime, I am proud of working to bring my fellow foodies honest, well-raised meat. I hope it was delicious!