Why you should care
Because this isn’t how most Americans eat.
“Cut or hold?” the man asked, waving a frantic 4-pound chicken in front of me. I was distracted, transfixed by blood flecks on the wall and the layered rhythm of chicken shouts.
“Cut,” I said, picking my poison between gags. Salvador flipped the bird upside down by its feet and handed me the serrated knife. I’d expected something sharper. “No, I hold,” I changed my mind. I was losing nerve … and command of language. I passed him the knife and grabbed the scaly chicken’s ankles as it clucked and bocked persuasively. “No, I do this. I cut.” I took the knife back. Grave-faced men in white coats worked around us, tossing chickens and ducks into vats of boiling water, chopping necks like loaves of bread. I considered making a chicken run. I would sprint away, holding the bird. Together, we would metaphorically fly away.
I’ve always dreamed of being the sort of person who could kill a chicken and eat it. Books, documentaries and whimsical farm poetry have persuaded me that humans should have an intimate sense of their food’s origins, especially meat. So I took the few brave steps to my neighborhood’s live-chicken store, in Brooklyn. Its name: Kikiriki. After four months of passing the shop every day — and gradually getting comfortable with the smell of chicken shit, which radiates for blocks — I worked up the courage to enter. I strolled around like a regular, coughing to mask involuntary eye twitches. I smiled nonchalantly at the man behind a small window chopping a slew of de-feathered chickens, red and white parts flying everywhere in a cartoonish poultry storm.
It’s true what they say about chickens with their heads cut off.
Ruth, the woman who oversees the administration of chicken sales, works inside a tiny, toll-booth-like enclosure surrounded by chicken cages. She takes orders through the microphone window and over the phone. This is serious business: Ruth puts no-show customers on an ever-growing blacklist. Kikiriki customers, fortunately, are almost all regulars who come in weekly, and largely Hispanic. “Spanish people like their things fresh,” Ruth said. “So do Chinese, Jamaicans and Indians.”
This Philly chick was going to like it extra fresh. The day I set out to kill my chicken was sunny and bright. Dressed in grease-stained clothes, I took three preparatory laps around Kikiriki before stepping inside. The place was crowded and anything but cage-free: It is stacked high with barred containers, dozens of birds crammed into each. Their butts were ape-like raw and featherless. Women came in and out with strollers and men clutched dark scraps of paper, to remember their orders. The frenzy reminded me of Macy’s at Christmastime.
I approached the booth and told Ruth I was ready. I was entering a brave new world. “No girls kill. My boss doesn’t want girls there,” she had said. The fairer sex, apparently, cannot take the pressure. Usually, only men following halal kill the chickens themselves. I picked my bird: a fat “White Roasting” breed chicken. (“The red ones are good for sick or pregnant people,” Ruth had told me earlier, glancing at my stomach moments too long.) I followed the man and my dinner into the back room to a metal table with 12 five-inch-diameter holes. The walls were splattered with blood. There would be more blood. When I finally accepted the knife, the chopping was more like slicing: slow, delayed. My chicken resisted past its natural end. (It’s true what they say about chickens with their heads cut off.) The blood splattered extra dramatically, a final “fuck you.”
Together, we plopped the severed head into a metal hole, then stuffed the chicken neck-down to drain the blood, its decapitated body jammed up against its old head in a truly sadistic turn of events. After 10 seconds or so, the chicken’s bony legs stopped shaking. Salvador grabbed it by the knees and plopped it into the vat. I sat in the lobby and waited, blood on my hands and feathers on my coat. Could I get bird flu from a chicken? I kept my head down until they called No. 27.
Back home, I dropped the plastic bag of chicken onto the floor and undressed, throwing my clothes into a bag to wash — or burn — later. I took a 20-minute shower and rushed to cut the feet off before my vegetarian roommates returned and petitioned to evict me: Vegetarians could handle chicken breasts, but surely not feet. The cooking spanned hours, and felt sweetly domestic. I was blood-free and cozy indoors, enveloped by the smell of crackling chicken. I congratulated myself. This is how Americans should prepare food. Yet I couldn’t talk down my disgust, or forget the images of the featherless butts, my bloody hands, the vat of rubberlike joke birds floating above and around each other like souls in the River Styx, silent at last.
When the chicken was golden, I prepared myself an ambitious plate of leg, breast and wing. The flesh was juicy; the skin, crispy. I ate a few bites until I found a feather and what looked like a vein. I have veins too. I transitioned to the biscuits, then the root vegetables. I was full. I placed the chicken back in the roasting pan and wrapped it up to save. In a week the chicken went bad, so I tossed it. To eat meat, you have to forget, and I couldn’t.