Michael Fuquay is a> bona fide high-minded foodie. The New York restaurant manager and father of two wants his produce organic and locally grown; he tries to buy meat labeled with all the right hyphens hormone-free, grass-fed and pasture-raised. His choices reflect his values, and he feels good about his habits. But like many folks who care about food, he sometimes finds himself defending his carnivorous ways. Is he really comfortable taking life in order to eat it, as he puts it? Recently, he attended a workshop at an upstate farm where he confronted the issue directly. Over the course of an afternoon, Fuquay killed, plucked and butchered his very own fryer chicken. His conclusion: It s okay!
While we once analyzed our food choices in terms of taste and nutrition, Americans have added ethics to their grocery-list considerations. Thanks to movies and books investigating the food industry, like Michael Pollan s bestseller The Omnivore s Dilemma, even mainstream shoppers insist on food that s morally defensible. And this growing interest has spawned some odd trends. In some cities, organic farmers are cult heroes, photographed for magazines and name-dropped on restaurant menus. Boomers flock to pasture tours while their Ivy League kids vie for farm internships. But the most unusual manifestation is the emergence of the slaughter-your-own-animal workshop. At more than a dozen farms across the nation, a small fee (usually $15 to $40) buys the opportunity to butcher your very own chicken, turkey or rabbit.
As you d expect, the classes make the process as painless as possible for all involved. In a typical workshop, the chicken is immobilized in a kill cone with its head poking out of the bottom. A swift cut to the throat and the bird s a goner. Participants say the process is remarkably clean and low key. Still, almost every class includes a student who can t bear to make the cut. When Washington state farmer Laura Plaut held her first class in 2008 at Common Threads Farm, none of the participants could kill their chicken. This year she discouraged the faint of heart by giving her workshop a straightforward title: Hands-On, Heads Off.
Even the most philosophical students can be surprised by their own hesitation. New York cheesemonger Laura Heifetz felt confident until she had the knife in her hand. Suddenly, she was struck with what she now refers to as a weird dichotomy she didn t mind killing the chicken, but she didn t want to hurt it. Bellingham, Wash., food-bank coordinator Max Morange arrived at a pig-processing workshop thinking he d slit the animal s throat. It wasn t until he got a look at the 300-pound porker that he realized the truth: Pigs don t really have necks. He had to shoot the pig with the farmer s shotgun and before pulling the trigger felt a flash of doubt. I had to question whether this was a fair arrangement.
It s not a happy memory, but Morange is grateful for the experience. He s eating less meat, and the meals are more meaningful. It s not something to be taken lightly, he says. Indeed, while the workshops encourage participants to savor the fruits of their labors, some find the prospect unsettling. Heifetz, for one, roasted her bird with olive oil and salt but never took a single bite. I couldn t get around to it, she says.
As a meat eater, I have to confess: I was relieved when I couldn t find a local workshop to take. I couldn t even watch a YouTube video of a chicken slaughter. Does this mean I shouldn t eat meat? Perhaps. But Nathaniel Lewis, who hosts workshops on his Washington farm, says not to worry: Most of us couldn t bring ourselves to perform heart surgery, but that doesn t mean it s wrong. We have division of labor for a reason, he says. On his farm, Lewis says, he does all the killing, and my wife is the eviscerator. We gravitated to these roles naturally. We re totally happy we met each other.