I looked at my husband, Roman, as he showed me how to hold her. She didn’t even fight. Somehow, I knew that she knew what would follow. But, to me, it was neither sad nor cruel. It was simply life.
I grabbed her by her wings with my left hand. I tilted her little head backwards so I could hold that in my left hand, too. She didn’t shake her body in protest. “Here?” I asked, pointing to her neck. “Yes. Somewhere around there,” Roman said nervously. Our sharpest knife slid into feathers right in the middle. I had killed my first chicken.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother would always disappear with a knife on Sunday mornings. She then produced what became a memorable Sunday tradition, a lunch of tasty, crispy baked chicken stuffed with onions and pears, mashed potatoes, and, at the end, a delicious dessert.
As it is always true with old-fashioned Czech peasant grandmothers who still wear linen aprons and colorful scarves tied below their chins, she was an excellent cook. She loved to spoil her grandchildren with goodies she never had as a shoeless always-hungry child. She would get nervous if there was not enough flour, sugar and butter in her house.
But I did not follow in her footsteps. I went off to study in a small town at first, and then in a large city. My grandmother died before she could teach me how to make that Sunday lunch from scratch. I had never learned how to cut that Sunday chicken’s throat.
So when the time came, I felt like turning around. I was scared. “Don’t tell me we went all the way here to go back,” Roman said. “Basically, you hold the chicken by wings; you grab its head and cut the neck.”
“Have you ever done it?”
“No. But I have seen it happen a zillion times.”
I never liked to cut, slice, or chop meat. But now, I found myself standing in front of a live poultry market, a euphemism for a stinky slaughterhouse.
A dirty plexiglass door was not tight. It let out the sharp, stomach-turning smell of chicken shit. Inside, chickens of all colors and sizes and snow-white ducks were crammed in four towers of three-by-one-feet cages. The excrement of those on top was falling on those in a cage below. There was no space for them to move or scrape. Nervously, they plucked feathers off each other.
I stepped in shyly. The boy who greeted me with a smile was sprayed by blood from head to toes. He wore a long white rubber apron and a white baseball cap. Before I even knew it, he made me choose my chicken, weighed it on a hanging aluminum scale, and tied its legs with a plastic bag.
Al Amin Halal Live Poultry, Inc. is one of 75 such businesses in New York City where New Yorkers buy their halal, kosher, or Buddhist chicken. These slaughterhouses mainly cater to ethnic and religious groups that prefer their chicken raised and killed a certain way. The chickens are fresh and therefore tastier.
But to me, the miserable cage/death row here did not seem any different from the industrial production aimed for supermarkets.
“Look! That’s how you ought to do it!” Roman whispered in my ear. In the back of the room, another worker slaughtered seven large hens in a few seconds. He grabbed one after another with elegance. He sliced their throats and threw them in a large sink. I could see only their legs, shaking.
“This is really cruel,” my husband said in disbelief. “He did not cut their spine! They are still alive until they lose all the blood. You got to cut the spinal cord too!”
My husband grew up in southern Slovakian countryside. His mother used to raise 120 chickens, 20 ducks, 10 turkeys, and at least two pigs in any given year. Now, when she lives alone and her bones ache, the numbers are down, but she still keeps two freezers full of meat.
My mother-in-law has a World War II-era mentality, similar to my grandmother’s. She thinks there is never enough food around.
The last time I visited her with friends, I did not call in advance. Embarrassed for not being ready for the visit, she poured us homemade wine and rushed to her backyard. I heard a chicken desperately calling for help. In a second she returned, blood drops on her glasses. She made us wait three hours for her exquisite Hungarian dish.
I paid $5.60 for my small orange-feathered chicken, $1.40 per pound. “This is my first time here,” I apologized to the boy, asking him to explain the prices. It is 99 cents per pound for a white chicken. The speckled ones are $1.40 and ducks $2.50 a pound. “I hope you’ll come back,” he said in Spanish before we stepped out of the door.
The slaughterhouse is squeezed below the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, at the end of an industrial block between two Brooklyn neighborhoods, Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The grocery stores and travel agencies few blocks north are familiar. They remind me of small Polish towns just across the Slovakian border.
We put the chicken in a linen shopping bag. I held her in my arms, her head sticking out from the bag like a telescope. She calmed down and silently observed her surroundings. It seemed as though the chicken had rarely enjoyed such a good time.
“What bird is this?” a woman asked in front of a Polish pastry shop.
“Oh, really? What kind of a cage do you have for it?”
I paused. What do I tell her?
“Actually, it is our dinner.”
The woman stepped back; her jaw dropped.
“I thought that since you’re holding it like that, it must be a pet,” she exclaimed, shocked.
Was she saying that we are nice only to those animals we let accompany us? What is wrong with being nice to those we want to eat? We all live in denial about the meat we eat. We don’t know anything about its journey to our stomachs.
Am I any worse than that guy over there who is stuffing himself with fried chicken legs and fries? Such thoughts plagued me on the subway. What is the difference between us? He pays the executioner, while I do the executing myself.
She flapped helplessly in my hands. I did not let go. I expected a splash of blood, but without rebellion, it leaked politely into a red plastic wash basin. I panicked.
“Is she still alive?”
“She is dead. You cut her well. It’s just the nerves, but she does not feel anything,” Roman said.
We dipped her in a pot full of hot steamy water. Five seconds. Out. Five more. We plucked the feathers on newspapers spread on the white snow in our backyard. We opened her. I panicked again.
“You got to take the entrails out!” Roman shouted.
I felt like crying. I plunged my hand inside of her warm body and started to feel the little tubes and lumps. I grabbed and pulled, but it did not work.
“Rip it out!” Roman was losing patience.
I reached for a knife and cut the little elastic membranes holding everything
together. Then, it all started coming out.
“Careful! Don’t break the gall bladder. It makes the meat bitter.”
I was helpless. I didn’t even know what the gall bladder looked like.
Silently, we cleaned up the scene so the neighbors would not notice. We threw bloody feathers, newspapers and entrails in a plastic bag. I spooned bloody snow spots with my clean left hand and threw them inside before Roman tied it.
A moment later, I washed the naked, skinned body and separated legs, wings, and breasts, putting all the pieces on a plate. Staring at it, it seemed so unreal. I told Roman I was not hungry, and ate leftover mushroom pasta instead.