Playing Chicken

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My obsession with the urban chicken started with a persistent “bock-bock” noise a few months ago. I had friends over, and one of them looked out the window in surprise. "Was that sound what I think it was?" he asked. 

The answer came a few days later from a contractor who was installing windows on our house in the Richmond. "Want some eggs?" he asked. "I got a whole bunch from my friends," he added, jerking his thumb toward a neighboring building. 

A week of quiches, meringues, and way too many omelets followed. They were all delicious. 

But there was a down side to those firmer whites, bright yellow yolks, and the unmistakable smell that filled the house as I made my scrambled breakfast. I had become an egg snob. Even at independent groceries like our beloved Arguello Super Market, the cardboard cartons no longer seemed appetizing. Where did these beige orbs come from? How old were they? Where were their parents? 

 And then: disaster. The nearby chickens were forced to make an abrupt exit, the result of a visit by an unimpressed building inspector. Now what? 

 My husband could tell what I was thinking. “You are not getting chickens,” he said. 

“Oh, come on,” I pleaded. “How hard could it be to keep a couple?” And as soon as I said it, I realized I had absolutely no idea.

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To find out exactly how local chicken fanciers keep their flocks, I got in touch with biologist Davin Wentworth-Thrasher through The Ecology Center of San Francisco. Davin’s Visitacion Valley home is a full-fledged farm, with chickens, ducks, and planters full of crops tended to by Davin along with his friends Jessa and Rick. 

As I patted a chicken, Rick brought over an aphid-infested leaf of kale. One hen delightedly pecked at the bugs, while another busied itself with a snail that Jessa found in the carrot patch. On this urban backyard farm, the food chain careened from plants to bugs to chickens to people. 

“We get four to six eggs a week,” said Davin, opening a trapdoor in the side of the coop and pulling one out to show me. 

The birds require frequent cleanup, but a few sliding trays make it easy for Davin. Their coop smelled like freshly turned earth. 

I was sent home with a cardboard box of fresh eggs, herbs, leafy greens, and a bunch of violas. "They can be for decoration, and they're great in a salad," Davin said of the flowers. 

I feasted on another week of quiches, this time augmented with fresh produce and a surprisingly tasty bouquet. At this point, I wondered, could I ever shop in a supermarket again?

I was no longer surprised by the lengths that folks are willing to go for their backyard chickens. The birds aren’t as difficult to keep as, say, an emu, but they’re still challenging. 

After my farm visit, I was chatting online with a chicken owner named Shelley when we discovered we lived just a few blocks apart. I biked over to meet her two hens, Lena and Lucy. 

They live a happy life: soil to scratch in, plenty of bugs attracted by Shelley’s garden foliage, and a fence to keep out scary raccoons. Shelley likes to come out in the morning with her coffee to watch them peck around. 

“My son sacrificed his play structure to make room for them,” she said as we watched the girls examine a freshly filled water tank. 

A rec area is nothing compared to the larger issue chicken owners face in raising baby chicks. This flock once numbered three, but after a few weeks, it had to be trimmed back. One of the babies grew up into a rooster – forbidden by the city’s municipal codes, due to the noise and aggression of the males. 

Shelley dealt with the situation by taking a day trip with her three-year-old son. When they returned, her husband had converted the bird into food. When their egg-laying days come to a close, Lena and Lucy may join him. 

"I knew that I would grow attached to them," Shelley admits. "But I wasn't prepared for parting with one so soon. I couldn't eat it. I still eat chicken, but I couldn't eat that one." 

This was an issue that hadn’t occurred to me: Could I bring myself to personally kill a hen? 

I asked some local experts if they slaughter their own chickens. 

"I don’t know anyone who raises and butchers their own birds," said Ellie Sadler, an animal control officer for San Francisco and caretaker for two chickens of her own (Cluckles and Daphne). "That's pretty hardcore. I admire anyone who would have the balls to do it, and I certainly approve of that over factory farms and slaughter houses." 

In fact, Ellie doesn’t even eat eggs. "Not for any moral reason,” she wrote in an email. “I just don't like them." 

San Francisco, it turns out, doesn’t have much stomach for slaughter. Are there any professional killers in this city? Perhaps: I got a tip from a friend in a 4-H club that I should head down to Heart of the City Farmers Market at Civic Center on a Wednesday.

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I arrived early in the morning and followed the sound of muffled clucking to a stand called Young Poultry. It was tucked all the way in the back, with big blue tarps covering everything except a young woman at a cash register. 

"We don't kill," said owner Christina Young as Asian women stuffed live chickens into brown paper bags and stapled them shut. She gestured to the line of shoppers. "These people kill the birds themselves."  

"Are there any businesses that kill chickens in the city?" I asked. 

"Try Chinatown," Christina said as she zipped herself into a papery white jumpsuit and disappeared behind a tarp. 

I hopped on my bike and pedaled up toward Grant, the birds’ oblivious squawking still ringing in my ears. 

The gulf between butcher and slaughterer is huge. Local boucheries like 4505 Meats furnish pre-killed creatures for their slicing-and-dicing classes, but if you want to witness the death of your food, I discovered you may have to learn another language. 

I pulled up to a row of poultry shops just behind City Lights: New On Sang, Man Sung, and Ming Kee Game Birds, wondering if I was about to have blood on my hands. 

But everything dies, and will eventually be eaten by something. Is it any worse if the time and manner of death is intentional? I wasn’t sure. 

Inside New On Sang, I found cultural and linguistic barriers between myself and the philosophical answers I was seeking. The ladies behind the counter weren’t interested in discussing slaughter – or anything else, in fact – in English. 

"Were these killed here?" I asked. 

"Ah, I don't know," replied one woman. 

"How much does this one cost?" I asked, pointing to a dead chicken. 

"I don't know, sorry," she said between comments to her coworker in Chinese. 

"Twenty dollars?" I offered. 

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A few minutes later, I was outside with a chilled, gutted chicken in a plastic bag. This, at least, was familiar territory to me. I brought the bird home, brined it for a day, and slid garlicky olive oil under the skin before roasting, just like I’ve done for years with factory-eviscerated birds from Safeway. 

Except it was different this time. I’ve eaten thousands of chickens over the years, but meeting a few in the flesh had solidified the connection between tasty dinner and living thing. 

And once I grasped that concept, it stayed with me. At a barbecue that weekend, the steak wasn’t just steak, it was a sliver of an animal that once walked around a farm. And when I stopped by the fish counter on Monday, I couldn’t help imagining plaintive eyes on the blobby white scallops. 

“Still want chickens?” my husband asked at the barbecue, poking a grilled breast with his fork. 

I did – but I knew I couldn’t say yes. 

In the end, making the acquaintance of my potential meals ended my visions of backyard farming. I like fresh eggs, and fresh meat too. But forever associating my chicken breast sandwiches with a trusting hen strutting obliviously around the yard? Not so appetizing. 

I’d looked my food in the face – and flinched.

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Want a chicken of your own? Skip the farmers market and check with a rescue organization like Mickaboo or San Francisco Animal Care and Control. For newborn birds, you'll need to contact a farm outside the city like Love Apple Farm in Santa Cruz. 

Building a backyard shelter can be a weekend project. Check out How to Raise Chickens and Living with Chickens at the San Francisco Public Library, and join ECOSF to meet fellow farmers. 

For fresh-killed birds, visit a poultry shop on Grant Avenue in Chinatown – and bring a translator just in case. And it couldn't hurt to learn how to say, "I want to buy a chicken" in Mandarin: 我想買一隻雞, or Wǒ xiǎng mǎi yī zhī jī.

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Published on August 4, 2010, 2010

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