Magazine article The New Yorker

Killing Dinner; Cooking Lessons

Magazine article The New Yorker

Killing Dinner; Cooking Lessons

Article excerpt

It's quite something to go barehanded up through a chicken's ass and dislodge its warm guts. Startling, the first time, how fragilely they are attached. I have since put countless suckling pigs--pink, the same weight and size as a pet beagle--into slow ovens to roast overnight so that their skin becomes crisp and their still forming bones melt into the meat. I have butchered two-hundred-and-twenty-pound sides of beef down to their primal cuts; carved the tongues out of the heads of goats; fastened baby lambs with crooked sets of teeth onto green applewood spits and set them by the foursome over hot coals; and boned the saddles and legs of rabbits, which, even skinned, look exactly like bunnies.

But when I killed my first chicken I was only seventeen and unaccustomed. I had dropped out of school and was staying in the basement of my father's house, in rural New Jersey, for very little rent. That fall, I spent a lot of time sitting outside on the log pile at dusk smoking hand-rolled cigarettes in my canvas jacket, watching the garden decay and thinking about death and the inherent beauty of the cycle of life. In my father's chicken coop, one bird was being badly henpecked. My dad said we should kill it and spare it the slow torture by its pen mates. I said I could do it. I said it was important to confront the death of the animal you had the privilege of eating, that it was cowardly to buy cellophane-wrapped packages of boneless, skinless breasts at the grocery store. My father said, "You can kill the damned thing when I get home from work."

From a remote spot on the back kitchen steps, he told me how to pull the chicken decisively out of the pen. I spoke to it philosophically about death, grasping it firmly yet calmly with what I hoped was a soothing authority. Then he told me to take it by the legs and hold it upside down. The chicken protested from deep inside its throat, close to the heart, a violent, vehement, full-bodied cluck. The crowing was almost an afterthought. To get it to stop, I started swinging it in full arm circles, as my dad instructed me. I windmilled that bird around and around the way I'd spun lettuce as a kid in the front yard, sending droplets of water out onto the gravel and pachysandra from the old-fashioned wire-basket spinner my mom used.

He said this would disorient the bird--make it so dizzy that it couldn't move--and that's when I should lay it down on the block and chop its head off, with one machinelike whack. …

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