"So did you hear that Sacramento passed an ordinance that lets you keep three chickens in your backyard?" I beamed as I informed my friend Adam of the news. "Sure, I mean, I still need a house to keep them in, but when I finally get one that means I get to have egg laying hens!" For years I had been hatching plans on having hens. I had spent a little time researching various breeds; everything from reading up on their temperments and grooming habits to color of eggs and rate of egg production.
Adam just looked at me as if I had told him I planned to flap my arms and fly to Mars. "Really? I just can't picture you with animals like that?"
"What?" I was practically incredulous. "How so?"
He just stared at me with a wide and knowing smile that said it all. Those birds will kick your ass.
"Oh, I don't plan to kill them. I want their eggs. And when you go for them the worst they do is give you a peck. I mean, Christ, they're chickens. You walk up and say 'Boo!' and they flee for their lives. Plus, I've killed plenty of them before."
"Wait, what?" He seemed confused. Me being pastry person with a penchant for cheese and a reluctance to eat a lot of meat it was understandable.
"Oh, yeah. Plenty of times. You walk in grab one - or, well, catch it with a net or stun it with a pipe to the head - and then grab it by the neck and swing it around your head," a motion I then demonstrated, "until you hear a cracking noise."
Adam just stared at me a bit horrified. I gathered he had a mental image of me decimating a chicken's life swinging it over my head like gay cowboy with a feathered lasso.
"After that," I continued, "you drop the body in boiling water and pluck the feathers. Chop off the head, drain the blood, and then break it down. It's pretty easy. It smells and personally I'm not the biggest fan of doing it all, but it's simple enough. And hens are easy. Roosters are assholes who'll fight back and have gnarly talons that'll fuck you up but good given then chance. Seriously, it's a hospital visit for some stitches."
"Really? You do this?" he sat stunned.
"Well, not all the time. Last time was with my friend, Hank. His neighbor has some ancient roosters that needed to be put down, so we went over and killed, plucked, and broke them down. The meat was crazy tough and almost black from being so strong. Here, wait, I have a picture..."
"Wow. That is you with a naked, dead chicken."
"Rooster," I corrected.
It's true. I don't have a problem killing an animal for my own food. I say a little prayer for the animal and thank it for it's life, and then I do what needs to be done: butcher the begeezus out of it. I eat meat because I like the taste of it. I like the energy it gives me. This is how I choose to live my life.
I just rarely ever cook with meat since I find good meat to be rather out of my budget (a vegetable-focused diet is simply a more fiscal one) and, due to using so little of it, I don't know how to cook it all that well.
Not that I can't get creative with a pint of pig's blood or a good wild duck if my buddy Hank throws some my way. It's odd. I actually know how to cook wild game and chickens better than pork or beef.
Still, most people don't have the gall to kill their own food. It's too personal. We have to accept the fact that when we take a life that we mean to eat we not only devour the flesh but absorb a bit of its anima. We connect to the spirit. I don't mean to sound new age. I simply mean we connect to the fact that we are taking the life of another living, moving, vocal creature.
Though, admittedly, it's probably a lot easier when it's not cute and fuzzy. It's why I think so many "vegetarians" eat fish and shellfish.
And little, angry, hotheaded crayfish.
At the Sacramento Sunday Farmers' Market you can buy all sorts of live fish and crayfish. The live fish swim in tanks and when you pick one it's given a whack on the head - much to the horror of nearby children and vegans - so that it will lie still from a massive concussion and probably a bit of brain damage on the way home.
Just a little further down at another stall bins of panicked crayfish caught in nearby flooded rice fields and the American River clamber and climb over each other in hopes of escape. The crayfish flail and snap their small but powerful claws at brave and/or stupid children tempting their luck trying to pet them. Their feelers probe the cacophonous market air and dry obviously-not-in-the-water summer heat. I'm sure they have some understanding that their situation is dire, but probably comprehend just what horrid death lies ahead.
I explain to Adam how a week ago I committed quite the crime at that stall and in my kitchen.
"One pound, please," I ask the crayfish fisherman that day. It was a totally random purchase fueled by impetus and the fact that I had a bit of extra cash in my pocket. I figured I would surprise BF with a little crawdad boil for lunch.
The fisherman put on his heavy padded gloves. They look so thick I'm amazed he can even move his fingers. Still, mobility seems rather negligible when he drives his hand into the writhing crustacean mass. While some are caught up in the cup of his hands, others frighteningly pinch at his well protected fingers with their brick red vice grips. A last ditch effort to scare their attacker off or, at least, quell their own concerns.
The fisherman dumps them into thick plastic bag. One or two hang on for dear life, dangling like tiny armored sacrifices.
I pay the man and thank him for the little lives he has sold me.
On the way home I hear the little crayfish shake and explore their plastic prison. Eventually they grow quiet. It seems they're temporarily resigned to their situation.
"I'm sorry guys," I say. This seems to get them going again. I wonder if that's their way of refusing my apology for the soon to be genocide of their clan. Rather than personify them any more I turn up the radio and let the voice of Peter Sagal drown them out.
One escapes the bag and plods across the table like a muddy little war machine. He is determined, this one. He will escape to somewhere. Anywhere.
Cid and Eat Beast hear his scuttling across the table like a terrorized dancer. Their investigations only encourage bravado as he throws up his claws - a terrifying display that causes the red in his shell appears to glow brighter than an electric coil. He is now large and threatening. I can't help but smile at this tiny lobster's gumption. I wish I had as much as he did, though a nice set a clamps would probably help.
The cats, however, curious as ever, offer one swipe faster than a second thought and pop him into the air before he lands on his back with a pathetic thud.
The lack of water. The stress. The sense of doom. The crayfish accepts his defeat.
I scoop him up with a pair of tongs and toss him in the pot's matching colander with the rest of his ill-fated brethren. I throw a few wedges of lemon over them as a comfort and a flavor.
One, two, three, and into the pot they go. I call out another apology and thank them and wish they weren't so murderlicious. My hard feelings vanish as the spiced steam curls up from the pot. It's soon joined by the smell of cooked shellfish and lemon.
It is worth the blood on my hands. I say as much to Adam.
"If you've ever eaten meat then you need to accept the fact that it was alive. I think everyone should at least once see their meat killed once. It would really put things in perspective for them." I stare at him and shrug my shoulders. This is a notion I am committed to.
"I can understand that. I just don't want to see it. It's a bit visceral."
"It is. That's the point. It also makes the meat taste better when you appreciate it more." I take a long slug of my beer and gasp, "Or, you know, you become a vegetarian. Either way."
How to Boil Crayfish
There isn't a formal recipe here for this. I just did what the fisherman selling the crayfish told me to do. It worked just fine so now I am telling you what he told me. Get a huge pot of water going to a rolling boil. Add about 1/4-1/2 cup of Cajun or Creole seasoning (they sell this at many stores or you can order it online, the fisherman sold some at his stall) and a few slices of lemon. Boil for 8 minutes or so. Strain out the crayfish and serve with lemon and melted butter.