I Just Killed a Chicken – Malawi, Africa
I just killed a chicken.
To five billion or so of the people on this good earth, even uttering that phrase would be absurd; the action is so unremarkable. But I am not among that majority. I am one of the lucky ones, one of the privileged billion who, by accident of birth and history, is sufficiently removed from the struggle for nourishment that I can forget that the dark, crisp skin on my plate once had feathers, once encased the putrid slime that is life at its most basic. For me the simple act of slaughtering a chicken, of plucking and gutting, a ritual repeated by hundreds of millions every day, is something to be celebrated in prose and commemorated in photographs.
In days past, even in days present, cocky men from the West in starched tan safari suits with great twirled moustaches would come to Africa to kill, to lay low the great beasts of the continent, and claim a photograph or even a head as a trophy.
I kill a chicken and then have my picture taken. I take a picture holding the plucked fowl by the neck. I snap a photo of the cleaned and gutted bird in a dish before freezing. In 7.1 megapixels, I immortalize my alienation from basic human experience.
It is curious that it should come to this. I am not so far removed from chicken farmers. My great grandfather was, after stints as a whaler and importer of Japanese silk shirts, a chicken farmer in Pennsylvania. And far from the dilettantism that his variety of careers might suggest to the 21st century reader, he was serious about it, developing a number of contraptions useful in the business and writing a book entitled “Strategy to Get Money from Chickens". Like a Japanese, chicken farming Tony Robbins, he promised, with his amazing egg chart, to teach farmers to unlock the hidden potential of their laying hens.
Even my father, no man of the soil, spent time on the chicken farm in his youth. He was photographed as a child surrounded by baby chicks, not as a gimmick or a statement of “look how I’m playing farmer,” but in a normal, slice of life scene, be it an adorable one.
But me? I am hesitant to bait hooks with still writhing earthworms. I have never played any greater role in the acquisition of animal protein other then scaling and gutting a bluefish, and that only rarely. As a result, I did not know what to expect from butchering a chicken, only that I expected something. I am not the first person to write this essay. I have read other tales where authors, whose names have long since slipped through my synapses, speak of warm pulsing life, of the solemn letting of blood, of the dignity of slaughtering an animal knowing it has lived as decent a life as its species can. I felt none of this.
Rather than understanding the killing of a chicken as some kind of sacred ritual, I experienced it as nothing more than another element in food preparation. It was far more a lesson in technique than an encounter with nature’s savagery, or man’s existential struggle. True, I felt more pride and excitement in learning this skill than in mastering other food preparation techniques. I have never asked someone to photograph me with short ribs I have lovingly braised, nor have I ever sat down to write an essay on the psychological implications of stir-fry, though I could.
Perhaps this is a credit to my instructor Paul, a quiet, ballhead Malawian with a goatee and dignified yet affable manner. Paul, who lives next door to me, speaks little English, yet he led me through the process with a non-verbal protocol far easier to follow than the equally wordless instructions that come in an IKEA box.
I lay down the chicken, all white feathers and red head, and pressed it firmly to the ground with my left foot. Next, at Paul’s indication, I cleared a few feathers from under its chin to ease the process, and then, with naught but a few swift strokes, I slit the artery. Blood spurted and after a few shutters, the chicken was dead. Clean, easy and without drama. It was not the hard decapitation with a well-swung machete I had envisioned, just a few movements with a sharp kitchen knife.
Then came the plucking, a tedious process that consists of dipping the expired bird in hot water and then pulling away feather upon feather until the chicken begins to resemble chicken rather than a chicken. The base of each feather, where it attaches to the skin, is far more persistent than the feathers themselves. They remain firmly attached to the skin of the bird, each demanding that you pluck it individually, like a recalcitrant eyebrow hair, or so the ladies tell me.
Gutting the fowl was the only legitimately disgusting part of the process. Cutting a hole through which I could extract the offal was no problem, nor was reaching into the bird’s warm cavity and feeling my hand engulfed by the icky mechanisms of life. Even when I pulled out the heart, the kidneys and the stringy intestines, I was unperturbed. The squirt of yellow bile from the cavity, on to the dusty floor demanded some reaction. Only then, did I jerk my hand away in disgust. A little water, drawn from a tap in the concrete wall, washed away the thick yellow goo. After a few quick cuts, the feet, head and wings were gone; the bird was ready for the freezer.
I will cook the chicken next week, roast it, I think, with salt, pepper and peri-peri to give it flavor and spice. That will be it. Despite dying at my blade, plucked by my own nimble fingers and emptied of entrails by my intruding fist, it is still, just a chicken. Yet when it emerges from the oven, crisp and fragrant, I will be certain to take a picture.