Last year in Morocco, my friend Tracy and I took a cooking class. Our shopping expedition to the souks for our ingredients for the day included picking up chicken. Not tidily wrapped chicken segments, but clucking, feathery, beady-eyed staring you in the eye chicken.
I wrote a story about the day for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Discovering a feast of 1,000 spices in a Moroccan adventure, that started with this:
MARRAKECH, Morocco — Toto, we’re not in Whole Foods anymore. I stand blissfully unaware as my friend Tracy orders a chicken in her newly acquired Arabic. The merchant chooses one from the squawking, feathery crowd behind him and oooh — snaps its neck before I can blink, much less look away
My reaction, had I had time, would have been to look away. Granted, I wasn’t eating meat then, hadn’t for some eight years. But even so, it was interesting to me that something such an everyday part of life for this entire city, country, possibly even continent, was so exotic to me as to make the lead of my first big travel story.
Why? I didn’t grow up sheltered from the reality of where meat came from. I cleaned my plate when my tiny great-grandmother made fried chicken from her brood out in the yard. I knew perfectly well that she snapped their necks. I don’t suppose I thought anything of it. (I also made no note of the lard she fried them in, either as an evil substance or as a badge of pride for a foodie). It just was and I just ate it.
For good or for bad I’ve learned plenty about food and where it comes from and what it means for me and the world I live in in the years since. For a long time I chose not to be part of the meat world. That has changed, but I am, granted rather obsessively, learning exactly where my food comes from and testing my reactions and assumptions.
For the years I didn’t eat meat I liked to say that people who eat meat should be willing to kill the animal themselves. I still believe that, though of course I realize most folks cruising through the drive-in for nuggets aren’t going to go for that. It’s a little messier than the box or bag or whatever those things come in, for one. And the simple truth is, we don’t have to. Millions of us have the luxury of eating meat that we never met while it was alive. Someone else does the dirty work for us. That bothers me. If I’m going to eat the products of a farmer and butcher’s hard work, I should be willing to see things from their side. It’s not like I’m going to give up my easy access to food, but I want to understand what it means to transform a living creature into meat. And I want to know if I can, when it comes right down to it, be the cause of an animal’s death that’s going to end up on my plate.
So this Saturday I head to RiverSong Farm to see if I can put my money where my mouth is. My instructions say:
Remember to bring a non-serrated knife, a cooler to take your chicken home in, bottle of water (to drink, it’s hot), and make sure to wear clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting dirty and/or stained.
This is for real.
If the nightmares and the jolting awake sick at the thought that I’m going to kill something are any clue, it’s not going to be easy. I don’t actually know if I can really do it. Tom, the farmer, says he can do it for anyone that can’t. But if I’m taking that chicken home (to fry in lard!) I really want to take responsibility and do this thing.
But you can bet I’m having a stiff drink first!