Having spent most of my life in cities, hearing a rooster crow at dawn is a quaint and homey experience. If I arrive early enough at the school where I work, I can hear the neighbor’s rooster get his last crows out for the morning. Even though we’re not in the countryside, as I walk up the driveway, I look up at the blue sky and fancy myself a teacher on the prairie, moseying towards a rustic wood-frame schoolhouse. That the neighbor is actually my friend Nick, and that his backyard sprawls and shuts out signs of the city deepens my bucolic fantasy.
Behind the fence, the rooster wasn’t so idealized. He had taken to fighting the other birds in the coop, and lately had expanded his reign of terror to include the youngest humans in the household, including Nick’s three-year-old nephew Liam. A previous rooster had committed similar offenses and was soon turned into dinner. Nick’s theory was that the current rooster, heretofore docile, then sensed a vacancy atop the backyard’s alpha male throne and was driven by nature to become more aggressive. But in the process he had put himself in danger: uppity roosters do not last long around this house.
As the week went on we discussed plans for when the current rooster problem would be “solved.” It quickly turned into a social event: several friends wanted to see their meat go straight from field to table, especially since Nick reported the last rooster being the best poultry he’d ever tasted. Over drinks we excitedly planned who would come and what they could bring. I pestered Nick with several phone calls and texts to see what side dish I could contribute.
He finally set things straight and told me that the evening would actually be “a rather somber affair,” and suggested I just eat dinner at home since processing the bird would take some time. My excitement suddenly dampened, I stopped strategizing over which of my usual potluck crowd-pleasers would go best with rooster, and resigned myself to eating a salad alone.
We finally set a date and time, and I warily entered Nick’s kitchen, dreading the funereal evening to come. Yet I was greeted with the sweet, earthy scent of baking brownies permeating the air, young Liam sitting on the floor, poring over a book about trains, and other members of Nick’s family drifting in and out of the warmly lit room. A signed portrait of Julia Child hung over the stove, like a frescoed saint watching over the meals cooked within. For a moment, I almost forgot what I’d come for.
As we waited for Liam to go to bed and for the brownies to finish baking, we killed time by watching the instructional video Nick found on YouTube when he butchered the previous rooster. Even as I saw the chicken in the video get killed and processed, the glassy screen of my iPhone separated me from the reality of it. And we couldn’t help but crack serial-killer jokes when the video’s commentator, an outdoorsman named Russ, remarked that you should “save the heart, those are good eats… the heart comes in a sack called the pericardium, just like humans.” Eventually, the children went to bed, the brownies were taken out of the oven to cool, and the main event of the night approached.
We ventured out to the yard. First we preemptively dug a hole beneath a low-hanging tree branch for the inedible scraps. Then it was off to the coop. Nick stuck his head in and asked “where’s my man?” and rats scattered away from the sudden noise. He found the rooster, grabbed it, and flipped it upside down, because apparently this keeps the animal calmer. In an essay called “Killing Dinner,” about a mishandled backyard butchering of a chicken, Gabrielle Hamilton writes that as her chicken was upended, it “protested from deep inside its throat, close to the heart, a violent, vehement, full-bodied cluck.” Ours seemed far less concerned, burbling a few mild ones before spending the rest of the walk in silence.
Back at the tree, the rooster was hung by its feet. As Nick readied his knife Russ’s words rang in my head: “The more humane way to do this is to make a diagonal cut along the side of the throat… and they bleed out very quietly, very peacefully.” Maybe it was the darkness, or the dullness of the knife, but something went wrong with Nick’s first attempt. There was little peace in the bird’s thrashing around, and Nick had to double back and cut more assertively as its life drained away. He let go and it swung back and forth, into and out of the shaft of light cast by his headlamp. Finally he turned the headlamp off and knelt, and we waited for the sound of frantic fluttering to stop.
The experience wasn’t as gruesome as in Hamilton’s story — her hatchet was too blunt to chop the head clean off, so that “the first blow made a vague dent, barely breaking the skin,” and “the second blow hit the neck like a boat oar on a hay bale,” meaning she “kept coming down on the bird’s throat…stroke after miserable stroke, until [she] finally got its head off.” But it also wasn’t as cut-and-dried as Russ’s approach, the minutes of painful flapping hidden behind the editing trickery of a jump cut and his incongruous assurance that this is “the biblical way to do it.” We stood around the swaying carcass, saying nothing, until Nick asked if we wanted to get brownies while it bled to death.
On a normal day, a brownie’s suspect nutritional value is enough to cause me no small amount of guilt. But after just witnessing my first live animal killing, I needed some comfort food, so I grunted my assent and marched back to the house, where I topped my brownie with ice cream and chocolate syrup.
It took the following two hours for Nick to fully process the chicken, and in that time I regretted neither the killing of the rooster nor the eating of the brownie alone. But the combination of the two was terrible — the rich scent of the brownies still hung in the air even as the stench of the still-warm bird, plunged into boiling water to remove the feathers, joined the mix. As the two scents commingled, so did my perception of the forces that brought together these seemingly disparate eating experiences.
In an essay decrying the eating of meat, the ancient Greek writer Plutarch asks:
“For what sort of dinner is not costly for which a living creature loses its life? Do we hold a life cheap? I do not yet go so far as to say that it may well be the life of your mother or father or some friend or child… yet it does, at least, possess some perception, hearing, seeing, imagination, intelligence, which last every creature receives from Nature to enable it to acquire what is proper for it and to evade what is not.”
The dead rooster, compelled by some mysterious mix of innate urges and hyperactive hormones, ascended to become the alpha male of Nick’s backyard. Yet in trying to “acquire what is proper for it,” it signed its own death sentence. As I compulsively ate my brownie, ice cream, and chocolate syrup I couldn’t help but feel I was committing the human equivalent of this unwitting self-sabotage. Despite being endowed with greater “perception… imagination, [and] intelligence,” oftentimes we grasp for that which is most pleasing or which satiates our deepest cravings, even if we know it’s bad for us.
On a recent morning, I walked up the driveway to school and heard a familiar sound. As the newest tough-guy rooster crowed, I looked up at the blue sky and forced myself to picture imaginary scenes of pastoral schoolhouses. But the next bout of crowing broke the fantasy, and set my mind on a more somber thought: the creatures on this earth, whether intelligent or not, are bound to repeat their mistakes.