My Own, Personal Omnivore’s Dilemma
The other night, I found myself incapable of the simple, human task of decapitating a domesticated fowl. Earlier on my day off, I decided it would be a nice gesture to have dinner ready for my boyfriend when he got home from work. As I wandered into the Halal aisle at my local grocery store (where the cheaper chickens are) I fantasized about having him walk in the door, finding me in an apron and heels, ready with a roast chicken, potatoes and a bottle of wine for him to enjoy after a long day at work. But as soon as I brought my groceries home, I realized those housewives of the 30s and 40s probably had something on me. They could probably cut off a chicken’s head.
In my defense, I would have probably been better prepared for the task if I had actually known the head was going to be on in the first place. As I was preparing to season the bird I turned it over, only to see a bald head flop forward, eyes closed and beak pursed. I promptly dropped the chicken on the counter and ran into my living room, where I called my boyfriend and my mom for help. While on the phone I occasionally peeked into the kitchen, just to make sure it was still there. It was, head drooping slightly off the counter, eyes closed and brow relaxed, as if it had just sighed and come to terms with its mortality. My mom eventually gave me the idea to just cover the head in tin foil so I wouldn’t have to look at it, and to cut it off after I cooked it. But in the middle of laughing and commiserating, she reminded me, “you know, your grandmother would have just said, ‘Oh for God’s sake just break the thing.’” I knew.
My grandmother grew up on a farm in Virginia in the 20s, and frequently reminded her pansy children and grandchildren that at the age of five she was chasing chickens and holding their necks out for her brother to chop. She mentioned eating squirrel, and watching pets die, and generally had little sympathy for anyone who couldn’t handle that type of lifestyle. Meanwhile, my mother, a confessed “guilty carnivore,” recently told me about how she found a maimed bird on our terrace which she had to put out of its misery. She did it quickly, and then cried.
Though I frequently visited my grandparents’ farm as a child, feeding horses and scooping manure and hauling firewood, I never got any experience in whole animal butchery. But I do eat meat. I eat lots of meat. I ate kangaroo in Australia and possum in New Zealand. I had a guinea pig served to me, head and all, with a pisco sour in Peru. I watch in delight as a whole pig roasts on a spit at my friend’s party every year, and I wasn’t even fazed when during Ramadan, I was bumped by a man in my local grocery store with a cart filled with five whole, skinned goats. I realize that as an omnivore, I need to understand what has to happen for an animal to get to my plate. But living in New York City, it is rare that I am personally asked to partake in the process (other than eating, of course).
Because I have that luxury, I frequently fantasized about what it would be like without it. I salivated over the chapter in Omnivore’s Dilemma when Pollan went to that farm in Virginia where the chickens are put in funnels, their necks discreetly slashed before they were plucked, gutted and presented whole to the locals who ordered them. “That’s how it should be,” I thought, before launching into an inner-rant over big farms and local cuisine and people not understanding where their food comes from. I dreamt of a life where I grew my own vegetables and had a small chicken coop, or did what my high school math teacher did and killed one cow a year, providing myself with enough meat to last until the time came to kill another. Instead of finding a job after college, I worked on an organic farm in New Zealand for a month, where chickens ran around my feet as I weeded the asparagus patch. Granted, my host family was vegetarian, but we did eat the eggs, and I was in paradise spending every day around my future meals.
But at heart, I am a New Yorker. I enjoy that I can get milk at 2 a.m., and that Indian or Greek food is just a phone call away. I like that I don’t have to starve if my crops die, and that a hearty meal of a falafel sandwich and a soda runs me $3.50. So it’s no surprise that I ran into my living room upon seeing this head, panting and bending over and wondering what to do. Eventually I covered the head in tin foil, roasted it, and—like the squeamish girl I never wanted to be—waited until my boyfriend got home so he could rip the head off. I ate and slept, full of meat and wine, knowing the head of the animal who had sacrificed its life for my dinner (and lunch of leftovers) was sitting in my trash can. And I heard my grandmother, in her light Virginia drawl, saying, “bless your heart, child, but you just can’t let it get to you like that.” I awoke without guilt.
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