If you don’t believe in killing animals for food, go read this open letter to vegetarians.
When I got ducks in the spring I intended to eat their eggs sooner and their flesh later. After the Great Raccoon Massacre at the end of the summer, the remaining duck went about her business, eating snails and slugs and coming onto the porch whenever she could escape her increasingly muddy and downtrodden enclosure. We let her out in the morning, and gave her food and fresh water before penning her in the evening. The winter rains came. I collected rain water in a galvanized tub and gave it to her to drink and used it sluice out her pen after we put the hoses up for the winter.
Well, I had a really rough week last week and when I went out on Thursday morning to let the duck out of her pen, it was just one thing too many. I couldn’t face the stench and muck and prospect of constantly keeping her sad, needy avian tail off the deck (unless I wanted an epic rant about duck poo and salmonella from my spouse). So I decided it was time.
When I was a kid, my father brought home a live bird a few times and lopped its head off in the back yard. My uncle’s farm folk did a chicken culling one summer when we were down in Virginia. Both my father and Vernon, the man who did in the chickens, would simply throw them down on a block, smack their heads off with an axe and leave them to flounder headless in the grass until they were still. Then they dipped them in water and plucked them. I figured I’d rather wring their necks first, but other than that I wasn’t too worried. However I wasn’t sure how to do the gutting parts, so I turned to Youtube for some protips and learned about “killing cones”. There are a lot of DIY meat harvesting videos on youtube (plus lots of hate in the comments, from people who apparently don’t know where meat comes from, or haven’t heard that people eat it). The one I found useful was by a Germanic sounding chap, with detailed narration of the gutting and cleaning and close-in camera work.
I built a fire in the back yard, put on a big canning kettle of water, sharpened my cleaver, turned the duck loose for a final stroll around the yard and covered up with a denim apron and rain boots. I found some old sage and threw it on the fire, because I figured some new age ritual gesture was appropriate. I almost felt bad for the duck but she squirted a pool of poop on the patio just as I was contemplating the prospect of her death. I picked her up, looked her in the eye and was mindful of her duckness for a moment. I thanked her for her eggs and her role in our family for the past half year. Then I wrung her neck and lopped her head off on a stump in the yard. I think using a less rotten stump would make for a better cut. There was remarkably little blood. I had prepared a catch bowl and turned out not to need it.
The plucking was not terribly successful, I must say. I followed the instructions to not have the water be too hot and damage the skin, but getting all the little downy feathers out proved to be beyond my patience. The gutting was complicated but only part that made me squeamish was oddly enough the oil gland at the base of the tail, which the Germanic fellow had helpfully alerted me to. It was a leaky, fibrous knot of pores that I had to try several times to cut out. The guts themselves came out in accordance with the instructions, even though I hadn’t conformed to best practices by starving the thing for 24 hours before hand, to avoid extra “stuff”. I found the gizzard, filled with pieces of grass from my yard, quite fascinating. The string of developing eggs in graduated sizes was disconcerting. I wasn’t surprised, but I hadn’t considered the matter. I carefully extracted eight or ten shell-less yolks in a string of globules, each one a potential egg interrupted.
The whole process, not counting building the fire in the yard, took about two hours. Afterwards I put my clothes in the laundry and carefully and thoroughly washed down the sink and counters. (I did the gutting in the sink, not the yard). As I worked, I considered for how much of human history killing, plucking and gutting poultry took place in the kitchen (if one’s dwelling even had a kitchen),
without access to running water and while wearing one of perhaps two or three sets of clothes one owned. All the stories about frontier living, homesteading, being a cowboy on the range, a ranger or a hunter, a hobo or a poacher all have some element of “he/she/I caught a rabbit/pigeon/squirrel/prairie hen”. And if there’s an illustration, it might be of a chickeny looking thing on a spit over a crackling fire.
Every one of those stories involved killing the thing, getting its blood on ones hands and clothes, dealing with its bowel or cloaca and the contents there of, and then eating it. Probably without doing more than wiping ones hands on a rag, or ones apron or nearby dry grass. Admittedly, people who harvested critters for food as a matter of course were probably very quick and neat about it (my best guess is that things roasted in field weren’t plucked, but just skinned and seared). But the stories where some smart kid gets stranded and says “I’ll build a fire and roast a thing,” are pretty much “Right. Uh huh…” But I guess the stories wouldn’t be quite so interesting if everyone just perished from salmonella or starved. I didn’t even try to cook it over a fire. Respect your forebears.