Sherer is a Byrd House sous chef and Paleo adventurer extraordinaire.
A few years back, while living in Anacortes in Washington State, JP and I began our journey with the Paleo diet in our quest for a healthier lifestyle. It has been both rewarding and, for better or worse, we have come face to face with the reality of the American food culture. We believed in humane animal husbandry, but we had a lot to learn.
A Humane Carnivore’s Dilemma
When a friend heard that I had joined the Paleo ‘tribe’ he gave me the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. A thoughtful writer whose focus is on our current culture of eating, Pollan explores how our food sourcing has diverged greatly from past generations, and the many destructive ramifications that have arisen from this departure from tradition. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan examines how society has refocused from a traditional holistic approach to animal husbandry to our present day societal norm where animals purely serve as a protein source commodity. Pollan laments society’s “stripping qualities and histories from the harvest of a particular farm and farmer” to “the rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food.”
Commodity Animal Protein
Pollan goes on to describe the environment in which many commodity animals are raised calling the conditions “very much like our worst nightmares of confinement and torture” and showing “blindness to cruelty” which is “required to produce” extremely cheap proteins.
Sadly, to the average American a chicken is a chicken. What matters to the average consumer is price per pound with no concern for the intricate connection between the quality of the meat and the stewardship of the animals.
In the end, this poor stewardship adversely affects the taste of the meat. In the words of Julia Child:
“If you are interested in price alone, you will end up with something that tastes like the stuffing inside a teddy bear and needs strong dousings of herbs, wine and spices to make it at all palatable. A chicken should taste like a chicken and be so good in itself that it is an absolute delight to eat as a perfectly plain, buttery, roast, sauté, or grill. So, when you buy a chicken, make every attempt to find a market which takes special pride in the quality and flavor of its poultry.”
“I am certain that most people who saw how the animals they eat are raised would thereafter only buy from farmers they knew and trusted, or they would become vegetarians.”
Butchering a Chicken
As both a cook and consumer of animal meat, I was inspired by Pollan, particularly the episode where he slaughters a chicken with a well-known sustainable farmer. So, I was compelled to seek out the same experience.
As a preface to this adventure story, let me say that I am a true suburbanite. Although I was raised in an agricultural area of Florida, I’ve never raised a chicken, cow, sheep or pig. (My only experience with animal husbandry comes from being the master of a neurotic German Shorthaired Pointer named Bruin, if that counts for anything.)
In short, I am one of the millions of Americans who are completely disconnected from the food supply chain. I prefer to think of farm animals as sweet pets at the petting zoo that have no connection to the nicely wrapped proteins in the chilled display case of my local grocery.
Make no mistake. I am an avid meat eater. I’m no vegetarian, much less a vegan. Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon with seared, slowly braised, grass-fed chuck roast, anyone? Ina Garten’s lemon and garlic roasted chicken? Byrd House slow smoked, fall-off-the-bone pork ribs? You’ll find me front and center asking for a third helping!
So, my big adventure began with a conviction that I needed a much better understanding of the animal food sources we all take for granted.
My feelings about commodity animal proteins have changed.
Butcher Your Own Chicken Workshop
A web search led me to Nettles Farm on Lummi Island where owner Riley Stark advertises a “Butcher Your Own Chicken” workshop. The farm is family owned and Stark enthusiastically curates several varieties of heritage breed chickens. I emailed Stark, set the date and headed over to Lummi Island ready to learn. The experience was educational and grounding. I learned from culinary standpoint the proper way to butcher a chicken, which made me feel more like an actual cook, and, as the workshop advertised, I did go home that night and eat my delicious chicken. The bird served as the main dish; the feet and bones became stock; and the fat was used to roast vegetables.
The actual killing of the chicken was not something I enjoyed, was even remotely good at, or would ever really want to do again. It did give me a much greater appreciation for my food than ever before. I learned that these animals are not sweet pets, nor are they a commodity. They serve the important purpose of sustainment and should be humanely cared for and butchered, and above all, should never go to waste.