The last word: Eating ‘Arlene’

Let others approach food ‘ethically.’ When writer Jennifer Reese had to kill the family rooster, she made soup.

I ADMIT, I kind of wanted to kill a chicken. Last spring, when I bought a dozen hatchlings, the cashier at the feed store told me that one of them might “accidentally” grow up to be a rooster. Because roosters are illegal in my Northern California suburb, I would have to get rid of it. To say that I hoped one of the fluffy chicks was male would be overstating the case, but it would be fair to say I was at peace with the prospect. Though I’ve never intentionally killed anything more evolved than a crab, I was pretty sure I could cull a rooster. But you never really know.

Slaughtering one’s own meat has become a rite of passage for Americans who are serious about food, almost an imperative. All the cool kids are doing it, you might say, and there’s something boastful in their accounts. Here’s novelist Barbara Kingsolver talking about dispatching turkeys (heritage, of course) in her recent memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: “You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened, or you can look it in the eye and know it.” And then there’s Michael Pollan. “The more I’d learned about the food chain, the more obligated I felt to take a good, hard look at all of its parts,” Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as he prepares to annihilate some poultry: “It seemed to me not too much to ask of a meat eater, which I was then and still am, that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat eating depends.”

No, it’s not too much to ask. I entirely agree. But what exactly is one supposed to glean from the experience? A biology lesson? A deeper reverence for the animals that die for our dining pleasure? A decision to give up eating flesh altogether?

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I should have known that Arlene—big, rude, handsome Arlene—was a boy. Even as a downy chick huddled under a light bulb, Arlene was more butch, brawny, and aggressive than the others. One morning in August, she proclaimed her manhood. The crowing of a rooster is a sound my neighborhood has not heard for decades, and there was no question from whose Clampett-like yard it emanated.

It was suggested that I give Arlene to someone who lives in the country, that I free him in the woods (to be humanely dismembered by raccoons?), or that I return him to the feed store. I knew exactly what I was going to do. “I could never butcher one of my pets,” a friend reproached, which pissed me off. Neither could I. But semi-feral Arlene, who swaggered around the yard snarfing up centipedes and bullying the hens? Not a pet.

LATELY, I’VE WALKED around debating Jonathan Safran Foer in my head, trying to put my finger on what it is that irritates me so deeply about the novelist’s own guide to food ethics, the new book Eating Animals. Getting to the root of this animus has been particularly tough, because Eating Animals is an unwieldy hybrid of two different narratives—one I like very much, and one I find staggeringly condescending.

So let’s start by disentangling the two. The central and admirable point of Eating Animals is to critique industrial agriculture, and, as a case against factory farming, this book is both timely and stirring. Although Foer’s descriptions of agricultural atrocities may be familiar, he brings a bracing moral urgency to the topic, arguing that our eating habits should reflect our ethics, and that if we disapprove of filthy, overcrowded chicken factories, we should never buy another Perdue broiler. I agree.

But Foer does not stop there. Eating Animals is also a meditation—sometimes whimsical, sometimes strident, often personal—on animal husbandry and carnivory more generally. When he began writing the book, Foer lived in New York City and, by his own admission, had never touched a farm animal. He had also been an off-and-on vegetarian since a childhood babysitter told him she shunned meat because she didn’t want to “hurt anything.” He describes, at length, his dawning appreciation of animals after adopting a puppy off the street in Brooklyn when he was in his late 20s. “I simply want to know—for myself and my family—what meat is,” Foer writes in an introductory chapter. Actually, what he really wants is to tell the rest of us what meat is.

From the age I could sit in a saddle, I knew what meat was. My grandfather and great-grandfather were ranchers whose land was suited for little but running cattle. From earliest memory, I accepted that a steer was also a steak the way I accepted that water was also steam. It seemed neither mysterious nor tragic. Animals died all the time in rural Wyoming, frequently for reasons that had nothing to do with us.

Into his 70s, my grandfather rose before dawn to irrigate pastures, fix fences, bale hay, bring calves into the world, inoculate them, doctor them, buy them, sell them, brand them, castrate them, drive them to the feedlot. Every Sunday afternoon, my grandmother cooked “a good little roast” that was eaten with a reverence afforded no other food. I am aware that almost none of us have that connection to the chicken salad we order at the Cheesecake Factory or the meatloaf in our suburban kitchens, and this is a big problem. But my grandparents knew down to the penny the cost in human labor and animal suffering of every good little roast. Can Foer really say the same for his tofu?

My grandfather did not run a factory farm, but his ranch was nowhere near humane enough to meet Foer’s exacting standards. Unsurprisingly, branding (“a habit of irrational, unnecessary violence”) and castration are practices that Foer frowns on. Quoting an academic, Foer dismisses branding as worse than useless to prevent cattle rustling. In fact, my grandfather primarily relied on brands to identify cattle that wandered into neighboring pastures, which they did only every day. Are there less painful ways to identify a steer? Probably, and that would be worth exploring. But this is one of countless small points Foer gets ever so slightly wrong. I must also disagree with him about castration, a process I observed at a distance from an early age. Castration sounds unspeakably brutal only if you’ve never watched a trio of Hereford bulls snorting bloody mucus crash repeatedly into a barbed-wire fence trying to break into the pasture containing their underage daughters, whom they would like to impregnate. One memorable afternoon circa 1979 taught me everything I need to know about the benefits of cutting.

WHEN THE TIME came to dispatch Arlene, my father, who put himself through college working at a slaughterhouse, came over to help with the job. None of us had laid hands on Arlene in weeks. At the sight of us, he raced around the yard, squawking furiously, until, after a flying tackle, he was landed. A worthy foe, that bird. I let my father do the hard part. I held Arlene down on a stump and watched my father cut off his head with a pair of gardening shears. Arlene thrashed for a bit and went still. My hands were covered with blood.

We took Arlene back to the house, and I dunked him in scalding water, holding him by his chalk-green feet. When I pulled him out, he smelled like wet cat. Plucking isn’t much harder than shucking corn, and the feathers came off in sticky fistfuls. After slicing open the body and scooping out the innards, I possessed a fowl that (sort of) resembled the pale birds at the supermarket.

Novella Carpenter devotes much of her wonderful recent book, Farm City, to her adventures raising and slaughtering livestock in the inner city. She approvingly quotes Carla Emery, author of The Encyclopedia of Country Living: “I don’t think much of people who say they like to eat meat but go ‘ick’ at the sight of a bleeding animal. Doing our own killing, cleanly and humanely, teaches us humility and reminds us of our interdependence with other species.”

I didn’t “go ‘ick,’” so I guess I get a gold star. On the other hand, I didn’t feel especially humble as I contemplated Arlene’s dressed carcass. I’ve eaten a lot of chickens in my life, and they were all dead. There are good people who might need to kill a chicken to understand the link between a living bird and a McNugget, but apparently I had grasped and accepted the concept from the get-go.

The next day, I made chicken soup. My children knew exactly what was in the pot, and to my surprise, ate with gusto. “We’re honoring Arlene by not wasting her,” said my 8-year-old son. They must teach that stuff in school these days, because he didn’t get it from me. I, on the other hand, was less than gung-ho about the meal. I’ve never been too keen on chicken, with its brittle bones and pimply skin, and this was not just any chicken. This chicken had eaten centipedes. I kept flashing on those centipedes. There’s a downside to knowing where your food comes from, but I closed my eyes, thought of the empire, and ate the soup.

That I’m even writing this story shows how much things have changed from a century ago, when people regularly dined on household livestock. Foer, in his book, makes a telling confession. “I spent the first 26 years of my life disliking animals,” he writes. “I thought of them as bothersome, dirty, unapproachably foreign, frighteningly unpredictable, and plain old unnecessary.” I’ve never felt that way about animals. Perhaps because of my childhood experiences, I’ve always felt there was something powerful and right in the bond between humans and animals. The turkey and 12 laying hens that I keep in my yard wouldn’t last a day without my protection. They depend on me, I on them, and it is one of the simplest, most reciprocal relationships in my life. I am not sure whether they are fond of me, but I am certainly fond of them.

It is absolutely true that the ancient ties between people and animals have been grotesquely perverted by industrial agriculture, as the strongest portions of Foer’s book make horrifically clear. But, unlike Foer, I believe that fixing the relationship is both possible and worthwhile. To declare that humanity should opt out of this relationship altogether strikes me as less heinous but every bit as arrogant and unnatural as the factory farm. In the end, this is what I think about eating animals: a good life, a sudden death—we should all be so lucky.

What I don’t believe is that slaughtering your own meat is virtuous. The very same day that Arlene lost his head, my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, ran a story quoting K. Ruby Blume, the founder of an organization called the Institute of Urban Homesteading. “The level of appreciation for nature and life when you slaughter your own meat creates a kind of ethic that I think is what we need to save the world,” said Blume, who raises rabbits in Oakland. “That’s why I do this—I want to live with a deep gratefulness and appreciation for what the world provides me.”

Don’t we all. I can only speak for myself, but lopping off an animal’s head didn’t do it for me. What I felt, instead, was a deep gratefulness and appreciation for what Whole Foods provides me. And, with all due respect to Blume, I doubt that butchering livestock creates “a kind of ethic” that will save the world. I rely not just on my own paltry experience for this insight, but on the gory whole of human history. I know this sounds heartless, but it’s the truth: Killing Arlene was messy and mundane, like cleaning the gutters.

From two recent essays by Jennifer Reese that appear in the section of Used with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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