The deed was done; the chook’s neck was wrung. Actually her jugular was cut and neck broken, but more on that later. The important point is that I slaughtered a chicken (under professional tutelage), then plucked, guttered, butchered and poached her thin frame. I shredded her flesh and turned it into Shawarma — a Middle Eastern dish — with the help of a plethora of spices and some lugs of olive oil. I ate her — wrapped in flat bread slathered in humous, with sliced ripe tomatoes and peppery home-grown rocket — standing by my kitchen bench. My personal standing ovation to this hard working girl.
You see, she’d spent her life laying eggs — roughly one a day — which were destined for the kitchens, omelette pans, cake tins, and mixing bowls of the human race. One of the lucky few, she was rewarded for her servitude with a happy, free range life where she could forage for bugs and grubs and slugs, peck and squawk, and flap about. At around three years old she’d had a relatively long life, too, compared to her industrial-raised cousins who — destined for the chicken meat market — are grown impossibly plump in about six weeks. When her laying became less prolific, more sporadic, her days were numbered.
However, this old bird and 14 of the girls she’d foraged and nested and roosted with, had a detour to death via the inaugural Whole Larder Love workshop in Springmount, Victoria, where participants were to be taught how to ‘dispatch’ a chook. The question is often raised: if we eat meat, shouldn’t we be prepared to kill it ourselves? I wanted to test my mettle. I didn’t really expect to go through with it. I thought i would chicken out.
I held her, in her final moments, under one arm, a firm grip on her outer wing. I admired her brown and sand-flecked feathers and hoped that i wouldn’t botch it up. A quick death was important to me. It was important for her. My hair had been hurriedly pulled back in a ponytail in expectation of a blood splatter bath that never came. I gently placed her head-first into the ‘killing cone’ nailed to a fence, carefully pulled her head through the end, exposing her neck. Head down, bum up — forever at work.
It surprised me how docile she was arse up in the autumnal air. The cone helps keep the wings close to the body, which prevents a death-throe feather flap. There was no squawking. No fuss. I like to think in those final moments she was mesmerised by her new-found, upside down world. I like to think that she went out of this world wide-eyed with wonder at a world she’d never before seen — that she didn’t know what hit her, what slit her.
I pulled back her feathers to expose her neck. I wanted it to be one swift cut; no unnecessary, agonising, sawing through quills. I was reminded by Rohan Anderson — our tutor, my rock — to watch out for my fingers. I felt for her jugular — still no fuss. I felt again, to be sure. I forgot to breathe. I curved the knife across her skin. There was no squawk, no blood curdling final scream. I remember being surprised to see ink-black blood flowing to the ground. Not a lot, but enough to know the job was done. I pulled her head down, jerked it back, breaking her neck. It was over in microseconds. There was no mess. No fuss, on either part.
Afterwards, her lifeless body twitched in the cone. It’s the last spasms of the nervous system but they’re definitely dead, i’m told. Still, it’s disconcerting to see a claw foot stretch skywards, grab at the air, recline. My hands shook as the reality of what i’d just done started to sink in. It felt slightly surreal.
Next we plucked, tentatively at first. But as more flesh was exposed and the birds started to resemble meat, we started ripping out feathers by the fistful. The transformation from feathered bird to meat was accompanied by exuberance, which embraced our now firmly bonded group. We relaxed, chatted and joked. Then cleavoured their heads off on the chopping block.
One live bird remained — an extra, possibly sent along by mistake. A workshop participant offered to take her home to her nearby farm. Retired, not expired. She named her Lucky.
Next we gutted and butchered our kill. There wasn’t much meat on those old layers. But back home, poached and shredded and spiced, i appreciated every mouthful, much more than i ever have done before. I felt that i’d truly earned my lunch; my place in that particular food cycle.
I think about that chook and our short, cut-throat relationship with respect and pride. Her carcass is in the freezer. It will be made into stock, which will flavour more well-earned meals.
As a community gardener, with shared responsibility for a brood of hens, my slaughtering skills may one day be called upon. I’d welcome the opportunity and hope to hand down the skills and knowledge i’ve been entrusted with to my community gardening crew.
Read more about Whole Larder Love here.
Learn more about the Whole Larder Love workshops here.
Note: Rachel Lebihan attended the workshop as a guest of Victorian Tourism and Whole Larder Love in her capacity as food writer for The Australian Financial Review’s Sophisticated Traveller magazine. An article about the Whole Larder Love workshops will be published in the winter edition of Sophisticated Traveller magazine. A link to the article will follow.