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Deconstructing Dinner: Reconstructing Our Food System
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September 2, 2008


Deconstructing Dinner


An Urban Backyard Chicken Slaughter

Experiencing food close to home and close to the heart.


Jon Steinman


It's not every day I receive an invitation to a backyard urban chicken slaughter, and so it was no surprise to soon find myself standing beside a chicken in a friend's backyard within the city of Nelson, British Columbia.


It's an unusual place to be because Nelson maintains a municipal bylaw that prohibits the presence of any poultry within city limits.


This was quite the underground operation!


We were, however, above ground, and it was sunny.


Christoph Martens is an experienced backyard chicken enthusiast and as the interest in local food grows, he has begun to inspire and mentor others in the community to follow in his footsteps.


Steve and Hazel are two of those who have sought Christoph's experience, and for them, the early evening gathering in Christoph's backyard was about to become the first opportunity for them to take the life of two of the chickens they had only just begun raising months earlier.


There were no shiny stainless steel tables or bleached white walls in the backyard. No fluorescent lighting. No food inspector or heavy machinery. Instead, there was a piece of wood with two nails hammered into its flat surface. Leaning up against the wood was a hatchet.


Christoph emerged from the chicken coop with a chicken in hand. The chicken appeared surprisingly calm.


"The nice thing about doing this at home is that you can calm them down," explains Christoph.


In the many industrial barns raising North America's chickens, many of the birds spend an entire lifespan without encountering a human being; that is of course until that final moment of slaughter. This first and final human contact does in turn create a very traumatic experience for the bird, and conversely, it's clear why Christoph's bird was so calm while being held in his familiar hands.


"So you want to take their wings, spread them out and then spread their feet out," says Christoph to Steve, the rookie backyard chickener.


At this point, Christoph had both wings and feet secure in his hand, and in about no time at all, the chicken's neck was resting on the wood between the two nails and the hatchet was swiftly swung through it's neck. The head was now separated from the body.


And yes it's true; a chicken will indeed run around with its head cut off. However, it was much easier and far more peaceful for Christoph to secure the body in his hands until the nerves ceased reacting to the severing of the head.


Death can be a surprisingly calm experience as was discovered by all of us rookies involved. It was as if we too were experiencing the silencing of the life of the bird laying before us.


Steve had the opportunity to experience this very calm; this silence.


Following Christoph's instructional slaughter, Steve picked up one of his own birds that he and Hazel had been raising for only a couple of months in their own Nelson backyard. With Christoph's guidance, Steve did too end the bird's life in preparation for dinner.


In the moments following, Steve shared his experience of this strikingly apparent calm. "Having done the Buddhist practice for so long, I have this real sense of how the silence that is death, the nothing that is death, is the nothing that underlies all of our experience all of the time," shared Steve as he clutched the body of the recently slaughtered chicken in his hands. "It's always there [silence], we just don't normally listen to it."


Indeed it was this among all else that really connected me to the food we were about to consume.


After the feathers were plucked, the chicken gutted, and the meat poached, there seemed to be a required sense of reflection that felt necessary to accompany the actual consumption of the meal. It was as if it would have been a disservice to the bird and to the experience of the slaughter to not have enjoyed the meal in silence.


Contrary to the speed at which we eat in North America and the clear lack of attention so many of us pay to our food, this meal of backyard chicken did not require any counseling or literary guidance to encourage me to reflect. Instead, it was through experiencing the 'nothing that underlies all of our experience' (as Steve would put it), that helped me arrive at this place of reflection. It appears the only necessary nudge was being fully immersed in the experience of how my food had arrived on my plate.


The meal reaffirmed what was an already entrenched belief; that the benefits of eating food grown and raised close to home can truly reconnect us to the earth and to ourselves.


A toast to the three chickens who provided me with this food for thought and thought for food.


Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. An audio recording of the backyard chicken slaughter can be found at (



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