When we first started raising animals for our own consumption, the most popular piece of advice we received was “Don’t name them. You won’t want to eat something you’ve given a name.” I generally found this advice fairly perplexing, having grown up in a family that hunted and fished extensively, and raised some of its own meat. One year my uncle grew out Oreo the pig for us and we had packages labeled “Oreo chops, Oreo roast, and Oreo bacon” in the deep freeze. We raised rabbits: I played with them while they were young, and Shake-n-Baked them on the days my mom was working late.
I do understand the impulse, though. We’re used to having a lot of distance from our food: if we eat meat, most of us, we buy it cut into parts and sealed into plastic at the store. It doesn’t seem much different than a frozen pizza, or a can of corn, or a bag of chips. We don’t much think of it as a living creature, the way we do our pets. Naming is something we do for our dogs and cats: it’s a way to seeking connection with another animal and making it part of the family. Our dogs Too (who looked so much like his dad that they named him also) and Hamster have definite personalities to go along with their names. But no matter how much I enjoy our chickens, rabbits, former and future pigs, and any other livestock that come into our lives, their role is different.
You know, I don’t make a lot of money: I teach online part time, do a little writing and editing, and pick up some catering shifts. In the summers, I help to run the kitchen for a large music festival. This patchwork is a good fit for me, partly due to managing my chronic health condition and my desire to be home with the animals. But I try very hard to make and eat the best possible food, and raising it ourselves has really upped our game on that front. Even when I was working full time as a chef, for more than 20 years, my access to wonderful food wasn’t as good as it is right here, in my own kitchen.
Many years ago, when organics started becoming easier to find, I started joking about ‘featherbed chickens’. You know the ones: organic, free-range, pasture raised, all vegetarian feed (HYSTERICAL, really…chickens are omnivores), massaged daily, wrapped in gold paper… Well, I exaggerate a bit, but I tell you what: those chickens are EXPENSIVE. Totally worth it, I’m sure, but it was always a financial balancing act between the factory-farmed chickens that had almost no flavor, tons of fat, and questionable feed and medication going into them, and the featherbed chickens I preferred but couldn’t afford.
And now, we raise our own chickens. Some for eggs, some (mainly the roosters) for meat. Chickens have their own natural balance, since you absolutely cannot have as many roosters as hens. A good ratio is somewhere between 6-10 hens per rooster, which keeps them all happy, without a yard full of cock-fighting. Frankly, you REALLY don’t want to see what equal sex balance looks like in the chicken world: overbred hens who’ve had all the feathers ripped out of their backs, and roosters that will happily try to fight you (as well as each other) to keep dominance over the girls. It’s not pretty.
So in our little flock, it’s mostly hens, plus Nelson the rooster to help warn them of danger, find all the tastiest worms, and give us fertile eggs. I love my hens, and find them to have definite personalities, but I think that’s true for all animals, even the ones you’re buying wrapped in plastic and resting on styrofoam trays. We give our girls names (super helpful as we track who’s laying well, in molt, or might be off her feed a bit), and our rooster as well, but generally don’t name the young chickens unless we’re pretty sure we’re going to keep one or two of them. Our first ‘hens’, in fact, the ones that turned out to all be roosters (buyer beware: this could happen to you!) were named after E’s aunts, but that didn’t slow us down at all when we needed to process them all before we got in trouble with city for breaking the chicken ordinance. In our former location, you could have hens but not roosters, and once they hit puberty they sure let us know!
We’ve had chickens named after Harry Potter characters (Minerva, Tonks, Hermione), named by friends (Spotty, Maurice), labeled when they escaped processing at the last possible moment (Gloria Gaynor Chicken, who will survive), after swiping a fresh baked chocolate chipper right out of E’s hand (Cookie), and now our Impulse Chickens (Buffy, Marilyn, and Treacle).
None of this has stopped us from processing and eating our birds, or their delicous eggs. They have a wonderful life, 3 and half acres to roam, safe housing, good food, plenty of care and attention, and then a quick and painless end. We are grateful for them, and are sure to take a moment to be thankful both during process and when they are consumed. And having raised them from the egg, I know what went into that meal, something that makes me much more mindful of what I am putting into my own body, to nourish and grow on. It’s a good life, both for them and for me. Frankly, I think it’s a good thing to feel connected to your food. It feels far more rational than thinking of animal meat as a commodity.
So. We named our first pig, the delightful Acorn, and will probably name the two new ones as well, even though we mostly end up calling them Pig to their faces. We likely won’t name the small rabbits, since they’re headed for freezer camp, even though our breeding stock of Rhetta, Grace, and Mr. Bigfoot are members of the family. Two of them will be headed out as pets for a friend, and in the fall we’ll likely sell another round, since American Blues are a heritage breed and pretty rare. Named or not, though, they’ll have a good life. And we are grateful for them.
Until next time,
This post shared on Homestead Blog Hop #25. Thanks for visiting!