Down came the ax and transformed a beloved chicken, which until moments before was waddling around the yard, into last night's dinner. It was my family's first harvest of our budding backyard farm's bounty. Although many people advise against naming animals you plan to eat, our kids insisted on names for the four birds destined for the dining room: Breakfast, Lunch, Supper and Dinner.
We make a point to explain to the kids (ad nauseam from their perspective), why we choose to eat food that has been raised humanely and with respect for the Earth, but no lecture can compare to participating—hands on—in producing your own food. From the very first day the chicks arrived, our kids have nurtured and loved them—gathering worms and bugs for them, making sure their water is clean, holding them close and whispering in their little ears—while fully comprehending that one day we would eat some of them.
I understand that processing (a bland euphemism to protect the more sensitive reader) one's own chickens may be too much for some people. Heck, my own mother was slightly horrified when I told her about our fulfilling day securing a healthy food supply and bonding as a family (even though when I was a kid we harvested our own chickens and a few pigs, but that was a long time ago).
For my family, the experience of raising our own chickens, harvesting some for meat and keeping others to provide eggs (sometime within the next few months), as well as compost and companionship, has been a total success. It is only the latest in a series of steps we've taken to increase our connection to the food we eat.
Along with the chickens, our freezer is stocked with grass-fed Scottish Highland beef, an heirloom breed of shaggy cows raised by the father of a co-worker of mine; and a lamb that lived its entire life peacefully grazing at its mother's side, practically a stone's throw from my house on a lush, ocean-view pasture, tended by border collies trained to listen to their master's whistled commands. It is like a scene from a medieval English countryside.
I refused to eat lamb for my entire life until I understood that these lambs are allowed to live happy and normal, albeit short lives. Culling the young rams is a necessary part of managing a successful sheep farm. If it must be done, let it be done humanely and with respect, and I will gladly support it.
There is no comparison to placing your hard-earned money into the hands of a hard-working rancher instead of a bored cashier. The only thing better is gathering the food yourself. Wedged between the meats in our freezer are frozen bags of wild cranberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, all gathered by my wife and kids.
I have to admit that I didn't always eat this way. Not so long ago my diet was more like Hot Pockets and Coke. But in a series of steps, each leading almost inevitably to the next, I found myself contemplating ways to decrease my dependence on our overburdened food system and increase my self-reliance, health and satisfaction.
With every bite, my family celebrates the lives of the four chickens that we provided for, and who are now providing for us. Someone asked me, “Didn't it bother you to kill your own chickens?” When it comes down to it, the only thing that bothers me is all of the animals I've eaten with lives I never honored—animals that I've eaten while driving, watching TV or simply without noticing.
Looks like I'm going to have to invest in some more fencing. Fresh goat milk, anyone?
Updated 4/10/11; originally posted 8/10/09.