First, Kill Your Chicken

Staff Writer
Food writer Joe Yonan shares his first experience of slaughtering a chicken from his new cookbook "Serve Yourself"
Roast Chicken
Ed Anderson
Roast Chicken

There I knelt, hatchet in one hand and a living, breathing chicken in the other. I held it by its feet, and its head lay across the chopping block. It didn’t cluck, didn’t flap. It was calm — certainly calmer than I. My heart thumped; my stomach somersaulted into nausea. As I raised the hatchet, I thought, “I can’t do this. I can’t kill this chicken.”

Then I took another breath.

And I remembered that as anxious as I was, this situation was of my own doing. I had asked to slaughter this animal — and only partly so that I would get the rare chance to write “like a chicken with its head cut off,” and mean it.

When my sister and her fiancé announced almost ten years ago that they were going to start raising chickens at their home in Maine — for both eggs and meat — I immediately knew I wanted in.

My reasons? This was years before Michael Pollan immortalized the ideas in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but I thought that I should be capable of killing a chicken, as a culinary student at the time and as a meat eater who didn’t want to be hypocritical. Plus, I had become increasingly distrustful of the food industry; I wanted to know more about the origins of the food going into my body.

When I mentioned my plans for chicken execution, most people quickly recalled a grandmother or great-aunt who could do the deed with a simple flick of the wrist. In the same breath, though, they said, “Not me. Somebody else can do it.”

A place like Mayflower Poultry near Boston, then, with its famous “Live Poultry, Fresh Killed” sign, made such folks gulp. More and more, it makes me hungry. I haven’t seen the whole operation, but the chickens are tasty, the storefront is nice and clean, and in one spotless room visible from the street, I’ve seen workers dressed in all white, wearing plastic gloves as they cut up chickens.

A far cry from what Diane Sawyer saw when she used the term “fecal soup” on 20/20 some years earlier, in a show on chicken-processing plants, which drove me to experiment with vegetarianism (unsuccessfully). She was talking about one of the processing-plant baths, in which chickens whose intestines had been accidentally ruptured by machinery were “washed” in the same water with cleaner ones — probably infecting them all with salmonella.