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Confronting death with backyard butchery

Under CC license from Flickr user David Goehring/cropped from original

I killed my first deer in the backwoods of Wisconsin when I was 13 years old. This was the first time I really understood the existential price of eating meat: death. 

I continued hunting through my childhood, and still do. But when I moved to the Bay Area in 2014, I discovered that culturally, many people here are not okay with killing animals.

This is a story about how our relationship with meat affects our relationship with death. And it begins in a preschool.

Dealing with death

We’ve probably all heard children play games dealing with the topic of death, where kids say things like: “I'm going to kill you! You're dead now!” Or: "This animal is dead, I'm going to bury her now.” Or: “This toy cow, I'm going to kill it and eat it."

For many parents, death is a very uncomfortable subject to hear their children playing around with.

“And they don't even know what they are talking about,” says Richmond resident, Rachael Soroka. “Really they are just trying to figure out what is this death thing that everybody talks about.”

Soroka has a 5-year-old daughter named Shirene, an adorable coiled spring of enthusiasm and curiosity. And she’s doing something unusual to tackle her parental discomfort with death.

A few months ago, as Soroka tells it, “we had this meeting at our preschool about how uncomfortable we all are with trying to talk with them about it. Because it’s horrifying for most people I think. Like, I'm going to die, you're going to die. Yuck.”

Soroka suggested an un-obvious solution.

“I'm a proponent of knowing the truth for kids … and I'm like, why not show them what it really is?” she says. “I sort of said, ‘You know, one thing that's been really interesting for me is to kill some chickens and know what death is for real – and look it in the face. So, if anyone ever wants to bring your kids and come over when I'm harvesting chickens, I'm happy to include you guys in that.’”

The room was quiet, she says. “And then one mom was like, ‘Yeah, I'm in, that's interesting.’”

So Soroka scheduled her first class. It’s a sort of ethical thought-experiment that forces the question: What would the average American’s relationship with death be like if we killed as many animals as we consumed?

So many of us have confused feelings about being a carnivore. In 2014, Americans slaughtered two million sheep, 30 million cows, 106 million pigs, and 8.6 billion chickens – a full billion more than there are humans on the planet.

Urban meat eaters are voracious, but they don't really want to think about where their meat comes from. While 90 percent of Americans will eat a turkey sandwich, or what have you, if you ask them if they would or could kill that turkey – an unavoidable precondition to its “sandwich-ization” – they get uncomfortable. Soroka’s class has the potential to repair this disconnect.

Class time

Before my visit, Soroka had held four classes. I join her for her fifth class at 10am on a Saturday morning.

“We have seven chickens as our unwilling participants in the day,” she says. “Nothing really likes dying, I've noticed.”

There are 11 of us all together: eight adults and three kids.

Soroka begins the class by picking out one of our chickens. She leads us over to one of her raised gardening beds, where she perches on the side as the rest of us huddle round.

Soroka’s presentation is specifically tailored to the children. She leans down and asks them, “Do you guys want to meet a chicken?”

“Ok!” the kids respond. Soroka takes the time to familiarize the kids with the hen.

There’s a weird mixture of unease, anticipation, and warmth. Most of the people in attendance have not seen an animal killed before. But Soroka still manages to bring a sense of calm.

“Sometimes it’s nice to say thanks to a chicken,” she tells the children as she softly caresses the hen’s back.

At this point, the hen is tightly swaddled in Soroka’s black apron, rolled over on its back, bundled and nestled into her lap. Soroka takes the time to explain how she’s going to kill the chicken.

“I'm going to put my thumb on the back of her neck because then I have the mechanics in my arms to break her neck,” she says, demonstrating. “And so right behind her little chicken ear here is where we're going to cut.”

Even though I’ve seen and killed animals before, the anticipation at this scene is thick. It’s impossible to distance myself from the weight of this situation. And then the moment comes.

Soroka narrates as she swiftly slits the hen’s throat.

“I cut down and let the blood out,” she says. The blood makes a tinny sound as it streams into the metal bowl she’s positioned below. The hen hardly moves. It’s almost peaceful.

Once most of the hen’s blood has drained, Soroka continues.

“The next thing that's going to happen is, I'm going to break her neck. And then her body is going to move a lot, even though she’s not alive anymore.”

After Soroka breaks the hen’s neck, it kicks wildly. This is easily the most difficult part to watch. While gore doesn’t really otherwise bother me, I can’t help but feel nauseated by the thought of breaking live sinew, flesh, and bone.

Soroka’s tutorial is over, and next it’s our turn.

We move along in pairs. First up is Marie, the mother of two kids in attendance today. Her two daughters are captivated, and they grimace and squirm. But as soon as it’s over, without skipping a beat, they run off to play with Soroka’s daughter Shirene. Marie goes to talk to her daughters afterwards. One of them asks her what it felt like.

“I think slowly they’ll have more questions,” says Marie. “The next time we buy a chicken they'll have a different perspective.”

Immediate reactions are pretty uniform. Most people agree that one of the most stressful things about slaughtering is worrying about doing it incorrectly and causing the hen more pain than necessary,

I end up the last to take a turn. And I’m left with what is easily the most interesting looking chicken of the lot. She’s black with huge plumage that encases her neck like a lion’s mane. This hen’s name is Tiny. She’s the only one with a name.

As I position Tiny in my lap, I’m struck by the intimacy of Soroka’s technique. And there’s a striking sense of ceremony about it too. I tightly wrap Tiny in my apron and settle her into my lap. Soroka delivers some final instructions as I position my knife along a targeted track of throat. It’s been awhile since I’ve killed anything. I can’t entirely hide the tremble of my hand.

After I break Tiny’s neck, her body starts to take sweeping kicks, but she’s bundled tightly enough in my apron that I can control her body’s convulsions. It doesn’t take long for her to unwind in my hands. And just like that, it’s over.

Reflecting on food and death

The rest of the class plays out like a high school biology lab in dissection and anatomy. We dunk the chicken carcass into scalding water to loosen its feathers for plucking. There’s dismembering and disemboweling. We find an un-laid egg.

Soroka says that since she’s started teaching the class, she’s noticed that kids’ reactions are often the same. Just after the chickens are killed, she says, “the kids would kind of be like, ‘Woah, one minute it’s alive and the next it’s dead. What is that about?’ And then they go climb trees and run around my backyard and play with my cat. They’re fascinated and really awed by it, but really unfazed.”

Since taking her class, I’ve seen my own diet change. I eat meat much more liberally than I did before. How do I explain this change in my behavior? It’s hard to say, but perhaps because it left me feeling more connected to the meat I consume.

I believe my childhood hunting experience impacted the way I see death in my adult years. In a way, I think death is more familiar to me than it is for those who haven’t killed their own meat. It’s something I’ve directly confronted, brought about even. And as for the kids at this class today, death doesn’t seem to be all that scary to them either. At least not yet. By the end, they’ve already moved on to more important things, like climbing trees.

This story was originally aired on April 29, 2015.