When I spatchcocked my first chicken, the sound of bone breaking as I sliced down the spine startled me. Blood ran down the cutting board, and my jaw clenched a little tighter.
“Don’t get salmonella. Don’t give your roommate salmonella,” I thought.
But mixed in with the anxiety of cutting raw meat another feeling surfaced — pride. I’d been vegetarian most of my life, and was raised by a mother whose memories of eating animals she thought were pets made her eschew meat all together.
When I began cooking meat for the first time at age 21, the process was entirely foreign, and each successfully roasted chicken, or slow braised pork chop, was a triumph.
But, when I entered the world of omnivores, I also began confronting a series of decisions on how to eat meat. The concerns of my vegetarian parents — who managed to mix in Catholicism and the evils of factory farming into one coherent message — echoed in my head. Trying to support the ethical treatment of animals is not always a simple task, and unless you’re raising chickens in your backyard and slaughtering them, where your meat comes from can still be a black box.
In a recent op-ed titled “The Ugly Secrets of the Costco Chicken,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes about his shock at discovering that the warehouse store’s $4.99 rotisserie chickens are not raised in humane conditions.
Embedded in the article is disturbing footage of dead baby chicks, sick looking chickens in a weirdly lit warehouse space, and dead chickens stuffed, feet up, in gallon buckets. These are the images consumers don’t want to look at or think about. They are also the images that motivate some people to pay more, if they have the privilege to do so, for meat they consider more humanely processed.
Kristof argues that “we must guard our moral compasses. And some day, I think, future generations will look back at our mistreatment of livestock and poultry with pain and bafflement.” He concludes that, “We’re learning as we go, but most are willing to pay a bit more to avoid torturing animals, and that’s why fast-food restaurants make Better Chicken Commitments; it’s why Costco will eventually come around, too.”
But I know from personal experience that the cost of a truly better chicken is not just a few dollars difference (it’s more like $15 to $20 more), plus, for many people even a few dollars is simply not a feasible tradeoff.
While consumers who have the means may push for better standards and promises from food producers, a label is not a guarantee. Labels like “free-range” and “natural” may mean nothing but a higher price tag, according to Consumer Reports. There are charts you can consult, but they may leave your brain spinning.
There’s a sketch in the comedy series “Portlandia,” where a couple eating at an upscale restaurant called “Gilt” interrogates their waitress about the chicken offered on the menu. “Is that USDA organic, or Oregon organic, or Portland organic?” the woman played by Carrie Brownstein asks. “How big is the area where the chickens are able to roam free?”
The waitress comes back with a folder and a sheet on the chicken (Collin). “Who are they? Who are these people raising Collin?” Brownstein’s character asks.
It’s a ridiculous exchange, one I laughed at, until I started eating meat and found myself consumed with the same kind of over-the-top anxiety as I stood in the grocery aisle. Why is this chicken $10? Where is it from? Why is this other chicken $20? What is the difference between organic and free range?
Sometimes, I’d really just like to buy a rotisserie chicken from who knows where and save myself the time and painful hit to my bank account. But can I really buy myself out of the guilt I feel about possibly contributing to the industrial farming complex I’d watched documentaries on as a child?
Since documentaries like ‘Food, Inc.” and books like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” came out over a decade ago, wondering where your food comes from is no longer simply the past time of radicals, as Pollan reflected in a piece published in The Washington Post in 2016.
But he also notes that, “At the same time, the practice of ‘farm-washing,’ in which highly industrialized food products are marketed as if they came from small farms, is popping up both in the supermarket and fast food outlet.”
My concerns around food reached their peak when I decided to make soup, but had recently used up the last of my homemade chicken stock. I went to the grocery store and stood in the pre-made stock aisle, looking at the cartons that would deliver me a quick and simple meal. Some promised they were organic, others didn’t. The descriptions on the organic options were vague, and several dollars more expensive.
“But where did the chickens come from?” I wondered, feeling like a real life embodiment of a parody.
I was filled with self loathing when I instead picked up an onion and parsley, went home and pulled out the carcasses I’d been saving in the fridge, starting the eight-hour process of gently simmering stock. Ten hours later I had what was supposed to be a simple meal, and I began wondering if the entire endeavor of trying to be an ethical meat consumer was getting out of hand.
In the “Portlandia” sketch, the couple played by Brownstein and Fred Armisen go to visit the farm where Collin (their prospective dinner entree) lived.
I decided to do something similar, after wondering if paying so much for the chickens I bought at the farmer’s market was truly giving me the peace of mind I was searching for.
So I called up Dale Batty, a farmer based in Vernal, Utah, who drives to Salt Lake City each week to sell his grass-fed chickens, beef, pork and llama at the farmer’s market downtown. When I asked Batty if I could visit, he told me I could drive down any time. “If a farmer doesn’t invite you to see his place within a few minutes you should be worried,” he said.
Batty doesn’t start raising meat chickens until the Spring, but this past week he did show me his egg-laying chickens, pictures of children standing in grassy fields with poultry, and the small slaughterhouse where they kill the chickens that I’ve cooked (a 6-year-old child of a family friend is responsible for pulling out the guts, Batty and his wife, Linda tell me).
Batty is in his late 60s, and while the pandemic has been a boon to his business because people have been eating more at home, running a small farm is still a struggle — they’ve just recently started making a profit, and Dale and Linda were school bus drivers for most of the years they’ve farmed. He came to this style of farming when he was in his 40s after reading books and articles by Joel Salatin, a man famous for raising direct-to-consumer, pasture-raised animals.
Batty’s chickens aren’t certified organic, the process for certification is arduous and expensive, but he considers what they’re doing “beyond organic.”
And I have to admit, seeing Dale and Linda Batty outside, on the piece of land that’s been in their family for generations, was comforting. Some of the egg-laying hens were sick, and Linda Batty had been feeding them milk and kefir (not antibiotics) to nurse them back to health. “If an animal gets sick, they die,” Batty says. One year they lost about 70 chickens to an owl attack. This way of raising poultry is difficult, and the higher consumer price reflects the uncertainty and added labor.
“Cheap isn’t as good for farmers and cheap isn’t as good for consumers in the long run,” Batty explains. But he also says, “a small farm can never be a full-time job.” Not that raising chickens for the biggest poultry manufacturing companies like Perdue is a great deal either — where farmers may make as a little as 5 cents per pound.
After touring the slaughterhouse, looking at the four cones the chickens are placed in before they’re killed, seeing the bits of feathers left in the machines that pluck them, I left feeling a little queasy. This is as good as it gets, as far as raising chickens go, and a far cry from the images coming out of factory farm slaughterhouses. But there’s still some level of discomfort for someone like me who wasn’t raised killing my own food, although I’m left with deep respect for those who do.
The search for a better chicken leaves me wondering if I should avoid the animal altogether — and back at home, cooking up a pot of black beans with garlic and onion, I have a lot less anxiety about where my legumes came from.