In the kitchen of love,
only the beautiful are killed.
Death does not frighten a true lover
for those not dying for love
are already corpses.
Translation by Maryam Mafi and Azima Melita Kolin
I knew it was her as soon as I pulled the bag out of the freezer. I knew because she looked tiny, smaller than the others by a pound or two. I knew because one leg was skimpy, the other over-developed. And I knew just because my heart told me it was Gimpy.
Sensible people do not name the chickens that they know they will later eat. It wasn’t my decision, this naming. When we decided to raise chickens, it was a joint project with our neighbors. The coop was at their house because our dog is just a bit too fond of birds. So it was my neighbor, who spent much more time with the chickens than I did, who named this fowl that had a hard time walking. It was my neighbor who picked her up in the morning to put her by the water and food, and who moved her out of the way when she was done. And it was my neighbor who, when the chickens had been slaughtered and we were dividing the spoils, held out the bag and said, “You need to take this one. I can’t.”
I wasn’t actually sure that I could eat any of them. Born in town and raised in cities, I was used to getting my chicken from the store. I was used to chicken parts—boneless skinless breasts, primarily—and the occasional whole bird, sans head and feathers of course, and with the neck and other bits tucked discreetly inside. Meat was never real, not like from a living being. But these chickens had been very real. I had fed them, and watered them, and worried over the temperature in the coop, and prayed over the sick ones, and washed the bottoms of the ones who got pasty butt. I’d hauled feed and sawdust and straw and shoveled chicken poop. In the end, I had carried them warm against my breast down the hill from their pen to the truck that took them to slaughter. These were not chicken parts. These were not Costco family packs. These were animals that I knew, at least a little.
Sensible people might ask why I thought raising chickens was a good idea. And at one time I might have said it was because it’s cheaper than buying organic. But that’s not my answer any more; it wasn’t cheap at all, in money or time or in heart, to raise those birds.
The answer these days is that I can no longer bear to eat things that have lived a terrible life. I don’t want to enjoy myself consuming a being whose short and circumscribed existence was spent in a tiny manure-filled chamber, with no glimpse of the sun, no freedom of movement, bred to be so top-heavy it couldn’t walk, passing disease from bird to bird, polluting groundwater and creeks with great piles of manure. Everything that I’ve read about factory farming—not just chickens, but pigs and sheep and cows—all of it seems wrong, not to mention unhealthy for all involved, and ecologically unsustainable. As my friend D.J. says, “It’s one thing to feed your belly. It’s another to poison your soul.” And treating animals—not to mention the planet—in this way seems inherently poisonous.
Sensible people might also ask why I’m not a vegetarian. But I can’t seem to do it; a strict vegetarian diet leaves me feeling weak and hungry. This may be my problem, in that I don’t know exactly how to balance proteins. But there’s an additional concern for those of us in northern rural areas: in this neck of the woods, anything other than root vegetables has to travel many, many miles during the colder half of the year. It’s all about trucking; in that light, vegetarianism seems a luxury, expensive for me as well as the environment. So I’m not—yet—a vegetarian.
The Artic explorer Knud Rasmussen reports that an Inuit hunter named Ivaluardjuk told him, “The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, like we have, souls that do not perish with the body, and which must therefore be propitiated lest they should revenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies.”
While I don’t necessarily believe that Gimpy might revenge herself on me, when I read this quote, I realized that Ivaluardjuk spoke a truth I’ve only just begun to understand. If I am going to take a life to sustain my life, I need to do it openly, without cringing or pretending. I need to acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice that I am forcing this other being to make. I’d like to think, with Rumi, that this chicken was a true lover rather than a walking corpse. Maybe it’s all just word play to make myself feel better, but I have chosen to see each animal that I eat as an instantiation of the Holy that is nothing but Love.
So when Gimpy and her compatriots were clutched against my chest on the last day of their life, I prayed out loud for them. I thanked them for their lives, and I asked their forgiveness. I told them that I loved them, though I recognized the irony of that statement. I think the neighbors thought I was nuts. But that’s the only way I was able to eat Gimpy; and I feel both better and worse thinking about it. I guess that’s good.