|How to Kill a Chicken|
looked at my husband, Roman, as he showed me how to hold her. She
didnít even fight. Somehow, I knew that she knew what would follow.
But, to me, it was neither sad nor cruel. It was simply
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 didnít 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 bellow 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
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
So when the time came, I felt like turning
around. I was scared. "Donít 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
"No. But I have seen it happen a zillion
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.
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,
"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
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 grandmotherís. 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 youíll come back," he said in
Spanish before we stepped out of the door.
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
"What bird is this?" a woman asked in front of a Polish
"Oh, really? What kind of a cage
do you have for it?"
I paused. What do I tell
"Actually, it is our dinner."
The woman stepped
back; her jaw dropped.
"I thought that since youíre holding
it like that, it must be a pet," she exclaimed, shocked.
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 donít 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
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
"Is she still alive?"
"She is dead. You cut
her well. Itís just the nerves, but she does not feel anything,"
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
"You got to take the entrails out!" Roman
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
I reached for a knife and cut
the little elastic membranes holding everything together. Then, it
all started coming out.
"Careful! Donít break the gall
bladder. It makes the meat bitter."
I was helpless. I didnít
even know what the gall bladder looked like.
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
Katerina Zachovalova is a writer based in