Chickens, pigs and cows
Grandma McCarthy knew where meat came from in ways that I did not when she sent me and my brother Kevin to Herzog’s Delicatessen with a dollar and a quarter and instructions to buy a pound of shaved ham for our lunchtime sandwiches. We politely watched the meat man wearing a white apron take out a slab of ham resting on ice. With the whirring blade of his stainless steel cutter the meat man translated that slab into slices of pinkish meat, paper thin and ready to eat: shaved ham.
Other days we’d watch him do the same to a slab of roast beef, or baloney, the slices thicker but wrapped in the same white paper and taped securely so the meat would stay fresh. I never gave much thought to what took place before that simple exchange of money which allowed us to take that meat home to Grandma and Grandpa’s for the additional transformations that would come with mayonnaise, butter or ketchup and two slices of white bread pressing it all together.
Meat came from the meat man: It was simple as that.
My grandparents never ordered more than a day’s worth, and so we became regular customers of the meat man at Herzog’s Delicatessen during the two weeks of every summer that we stayed with them. The meat was always good. And sometimes if he was in a good mood the meat man gave us a slice of baloney on the end of a toothpick to eat on our walk back to our grandparents’ duplex on a tree-lined street in Cleveland’s West Side.
Grandma never made a point of educating us about the finer points of where meat came from … until one day I asked her about her childhood growing up on a farm in Ireland. In one of the stories she shared, Grandma recalled for us how her mother would grab a chicken and wring its neck. It was the necessary precursor to the special occasions when her mother would serve a roasted chicken for the family’s dinner. Then she’d pluck its feathers, pull out its guts and put it into a metal container to roast over the turf-fired fireplace.
“Really?” I said. “Oh!”
“Sure, Jimmy,” Grandma replied. “How else did you expect us to have chicken? There’d be no grocery stores where we lived. If you didn’t wring the chicken’s neck there’d be no chicken dinner for any of us.”
Then she demonstrated how you’d grab the chicken’s neck and swing it quickly round to break its neck.
I didn’t ask her about the geese, pigs or cows her family also raised on their small subsistence farm in the wild boglands of County Sligo. I already knew enough: My imagination filled in the rest.
the meat man wears white
by the end of the day
his apron’s stained red
Twenty-odd years later and newly married, my first wife, Karen, and I decided we’d be “back-to-the-landers.” We intended to grow as much of our own food as we could. We cultivated a small vegetable garden and surprised ourselves with how quickly we came to regard the woodchuck that was eating our newly emerging plants as quickly as they came up as an “enemy that must be killed.”
Without any qualms I felt a certain victory when my friend David, who lived across the street from us in Conway, N.H., shot one of the woodchucks with his high-powered air rifle just as it was emerging from its den. If you’re growing your own food you can’t afford to be sentimental. I still remember feeling triumphant over that woodchuck’s demise.
I received my comeuppance when another woodchuck picked up where its fallen brother had left off.
This time I took a less drastic approach and rented a Hav-a-Heart trap at a nearby lumber store. I successfully trapped the woodchuck, which was snarling and rattling the cage as I drove him a few miles down the Kancamagus Highway. I released him to an uncertain fate in the woods of the White Mountain National Forest -- and gave no thought whatsoever to the possibility that the habitat I’d released the woodchuck into would not provide the forage plants it needed to survive.
Our garden was now safe from its predatory raids, and that’s all that mattered to me as I reported back to Karen the successful exile of our second nemesis woodchuck.
In addition to planting that vegetable garden we had purchased a dozen chicks to raise as laying hens. They were “Rhode Island Reds” and they arrived at the local farm and feed store with dozens of other chicks, all of them peeping inside the boxes they’d arrived in, making quite a din as they waited to be picked up by their new owners. It was a rite of spring when that year’s chicks arrived at the local post office and then were delivered to the feed store for distribution to dozens of families in Mt. Washington Valley.
We transported our dozen yellow chicks back home in a deep cardboard box. It would be their home until I built a chicken coop and enclosed the hen yard with chicken wire near the barn attached to our rented farmhouse apartment. We placed a bare light bulb over the top and kept it on to keep the chicks warm through the mid-spring nights.
Even so, they kept us awake with their incessant and insistent peeping the entire night. Sympathy is not exactly what we felt listening to the din in our kitchen below the bedroom. I was more than happy to put them outdoors in their finished coop by the end of the week.
Those chicks became chickens soon enough. They are voracious eaters, eating not only every pellet of chicken feed we’d set out for them but also every blade of grass within their chicken yard. Before long their pen was a dusty desert, not a blade of grass left. We wondered when they would begin laying eggs -- eggs, after all, being the reason we had become chicken farmers in the first place.
Early one morning we were awakened by a halting “Err-ERR-ERR” followed by a more forceful “AROO.” And then another, and another, each call growing more confident. It never quite came across -- to my ear, at least – as “cock-a-doodle-doo.” But there was no mistaking what that early-morning crowing was all about: We had a rooster within our flock of Rhode Island Reds.
Actually, we had two.
We discovered this one day as we watched our strutting rooster chasing after another bird, pecking it unmercifully. Upon closer inspection, we realized the harassed hen actually was another rooster. What we didn’t realize is that we had one rooster too many — that the subordinate one would cower so much, day after day after day, it eventually would become crippled, its legs bent in a perpetual crouch. That subservience carried over into its morning crowing as well: In the pre-dawn quiet that gave way to the dominant rooster’s increasingly articulate and boastful cock-a-doodle-doo we began to distinguish another garbled, hoarse and muted crowing. A mournful start to a bright new day, if ever there was one. We began to feel sorry for our crippled rooster. But we didn’t know what could be done to ease his world of constant sorrow.
Soon after, our 10 chickens began laying eggs. Our meditation on the cruel pecking order of chickens and roosters gave way to the pure pleasure of eating fresh eggs, with deep-yellow yolks, sunny-side up, scrambled and folded over in omelettes. We’d retrieve several eggs each day from the straw nests inside the chicken coop, as the mother hens rushed outside to eat their fill of that day’s pellets. It seemed, to us, a fair exchange.
Chanticleer crows at dawn,
another cowers and croaks
-- the world is what it is
Then it came time to move on: I’d been offered a new job as a reporter for the afternoon daily newspaper The Times Record in mid-coast Maine. We knew we couldn’t take our chickens with us. It was time to “give them up” … a curious turn of phrase, since it really meant our 10 chickens and two roosters would be the ones called upon to give themselves up — in order to become meat. We researched how to slaughter our chickens: Sure enough, the execution method my grandmother had remembered was among those recommended. It sounded easy enough.
I selected our crippled rooster as the first to be slaughtered. But even he knew when it was time to put up a fight. I had him under my arm, and when I grabbed his neck he flapped his wings madly. I could barely hold him. When I went to twist his neck it was like rubber. It did not snap. The rooster struggled to escape my tenuous hold. The other chickens began squawking loudly. Soon a bunch of neighborhood kids had gathered around me to watch the spectacle I was making for their entertainment.
Our neighbor’s 7-year-old son, who’d been raised as a vegetarian, asked me why I was trying to hurt the rooster.
“So we can eat him,” I said, still struggling to wring the rooster’s stupid neck.
“Why do you want to eat him?” the boy asked.
I couldn’t believe I was having this rational conversation in the midst of slaughtering my first chicken, or rather, rooster.
“We like chicken,” I said, still struggling and getting increasingly flustered by the act of violence I realized the neighborhood kids were watching intently with wide-eyed wonder. “It’s a kind of meat -- like pork or beef.”
“What’s meat?” he asked.
“It’s something you eat,” I said. “Now stop asking questions. I’m trying to kill this rooster …”
At this point, my friend David came over and told me to drop the rooster. He told me he’d had a better, more humane, way of doing the deed. A few minutes later he came back holding a pair of nunchucks, a Chinese martial arts weapon involving two sticks connected together at one end with a short chain. David walked over to our crippled rooster and swung one end of the nunchucks. Thwack! The crippled rooster dropped like a rock. David walked over to the chicken yard. Thwack, thwack, thwack! He went through that yard like the grim reaper, making short work of our flock of Rhode Island Reds.
It took me the rest of the day to dunk them, one by one, into a large pot of boiled water, which loosened the feathers for easier plucking. Headless, plucked and gutted, by the end of the afternoon my wife and I had processed enough chickens to get us through our first few months of living on a tight budget in Maine.
Wring out the rooster’s crow
pluck his feathers, gut him
I did not realized, until that day, how much offal is created in the butchering of 10 chickens and two roosters. I had no idea what to do with the several buckets of innards that graced our yard after the job was done. My friend David had a ready answer.
“We’ll feed it to Sammy’s pig,” he said.
Sammy’s pig was named “Christmas Dinner.” David and his wife, Pat, did not want their youngest son to develop a strong emotional attachment to the piglet he had caught in the pig scramble at the annual Fryeburg Fair. Scramble is the right word to describe what happens when 10 greased piglets are set loose in an enclosed arena with 20 or 30 kids chasing after them with burlap sacks in their hands.
The challenge isn’t catching a piglet so much as stuffing it inside the sack before it squirms loose and runs squealing away. The piglets do not go quietly, or easily, into the dark night of a cinched burlap sack. Sammy had a right to be proud of his accomplishment in being one of the lucky ones to catch his pig.
Even so, his parents let him know right off that by Christmas that piglet would be served on a platter as a holiday dinner. They were practical parents and did not believe in deluding their children about life’s harsher realities.
A month-and-a-half after his capture, Christmas Dinner was no longer a scrawny piglet. He had bulked up considerably. As I entered his pen, I soon understood how that had happened. Sammy’s pig smelled the offal. He somehow realized it was to be his meal. He started squealing, grunting, snorting with anticipation. I dumped one bucket into his feeding trough. By the time I’d turn to pick up the second bucket and dump it too, the first load had been eaten. “Inhaled” is a more apt description.
Watching Christmas Dinner eat that offal with such intense and single-minded focus was unsettling. Shocking, actually. That a pig, fated to be eaten soon enough as “meat,” would be such an enthusiastic meat-eater himself was not something I had really thought much about. Pigs are intelligent creatures, this I already knew. But how intelligent? How much awareness did Christmas Dinner have of the food chain and his place in it? Did he have any inkling that the humans who’d served him his offal dinner would some day be making short work of his tender loins and tasty hams?
I’d like to think not … but I’m not so sure.
Almost a decade earlier I had my first real inkling of how smart pigs are when I was living on Southport Island along the coast of Maine. A local lobsterman, Gary Snowman, had mentioned in a conversation that his young son Leland had a pig. I asked him if it would be OK to take its picture.
“Sure,” he said. “Come by anytime.”
Leland’s pig was much bigger than Sammy’s pig: I’m guessing it weighed 200 to 300 pounds when I stopped by with my camera to take its picture. The pig was fenced in and had a small house inside the enclosure; it was almost like a dog-house. When I sidled up to the fence to get a closer look at him, the pig grunted and ran with surprising speed right towards me. For a second I wondered if he would crash into the fence where I stood, but he turned quickly and made a fast circuit of his pen. When it was at the far end, I jumped the fence and hoisted myself on top of the pig house.
Leland’s pig was not pleased. It ran another circuit around the pen, grunting and snorting, and then rushed toward the pig house. Leland’s pig entered it with a snort. Thump. The house shook. Leland’s pig ran outside snorting, and seemed pissed that I was still sitting atop his home. The grunting became more insistent. Leland’s pig ran into its house and this time I felt the roof lift a bit with another loud thump. I realized then that the pig was trying to dislodge me from the roof. Its anger toward me, the intruder, was unmistakable and more than a little unsettling.
This time I obliged him by backing off the roof and quickly scrambling over the fence.
The glare of Leland’s pig
left no doubt, no sirree,
he’d eat me if he could
Roast beef was the Sunday dinner staple of my childhood. Dad happily took over the cooking duties that day, slicing white onions to adorn the pot roast held together with strings. He’d put it inside a speckled blue roaster and then into the oven to cook throughout the afternoon.
Dad liked his roast beef “well done.” That meant the meat was never red rare but, instead, came out of the oven uniformly brown and dry. Gravy took care of both problems. It would be decades before I learned that beef was not meant to be cooked so thoroughly.
We lived in suburbia, so there were no cows nearby. In my late teens, when I began roaming in my mother’s 1963 Chevy Nova I’d admire the Holstein dairy cows grazing on the hillsides of central Ohio. The black-on-white irregular patches on their sides, even from a distance, seemed like maps of faraway foreign lands. The cows seemed peaceful in their pastures, at least in the warm weather months. During the winter they seemed stoic, suffering the cold wind with a patience I could barely fathom.
Twenty-five years later I stood on the edge of a dairy farmer’s milking barn. I had a notebook in my hand, writing as fast as I could what the farmer, whose first name was Anne even though he was a man, was telling me. He spoke of the rising cost of feed and fuel and how the price he got for milk didn’t cover his costs. Times were hard for Maine’s dairy farmers, he told me.
I suddenly became aware of a large presence at my elbow. Turning, I was surprised to find a cow standing next to me.
“You might want to move,” the farmer said to me.
I did as told. The cow passed by me. What it did next completely shocked me: The cow, udder and all, reared itself up, mounted the cow in front of it, and started humping. The farmer laughed, telling me that cows sometimes do that when they’re in heat.
He moved comfortably among his herd. He knew the name of each one, which ones were docile and which were not. To my unpracticed eye they all looked the same. I marveled at the sheer size of his cows, and the affectionate way he addressed them as they lined up at their feeding trough, which was computerized to give each cow exactly the amount of feed it needed. No more, no less. Each cow had a necklace with a bar code on it, which a scanner somehow conveyed to a computer and then back came the signal dispensing the right amount of feed.
How did we come to master
such large creatures
grabbing teets, pulling milk
How many chickens, pigs and cows are sacrificed each and every day for our consumption? I wondered this during a recent visit to a friend’s small farm in Bowdoinham, which had chickens for eggs, pigs for meat and two cows for milk and cheese.
Even knowing what I now know about where meat comes from, I am not yet a vegetarian. I eat meat and relish it. When saying grace I try to remember the living creature that was slaughtered to become meat for our table.
More often than not, I forget.