Would You Kill a Chicken with Your Bare Hands?
The chicken de-featherer is nothing short of a marvel. It's a 55-gallon drum lined with rubber fingers and a motorized, spinning floor that keeps chickens tumbling in the drum. The first time I watch Steve Montgomery lower two dead birds into the machine only to pull them out seconds later, nude and ridiculous-looking, I feel like I've just seen street magic.
"Someone should Vine that," says Tim, the guy next to me. He's referring to the latest social media platform that allows users to share six-second videos. It's a brilliant idea. So I do it.
Tim happens to be a line chef at Salt of the Earth, an award-winning restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that specializes in dishes prepared with local ingredients. But they are by no means alone. The local food movement has been gaining steam, ever since somebody discovered that the average distance food travels before it reaches your table is 1,500 miles. Those concerned about the economic and health implications of long-distance food supplies have coalesced into a movement, complete with a string of indie documentaries decrying commercial food production, and a bevy of artisan restaurants sourced with locally grown ingredients in almost every major city. Foundational to the movement is the trust between consumers who are close (relationally and geographically) to the people who grow and prepare their food, something that dramatically reduces the "food-footprint" of any meal. It's the dietary equivalent to "I know a guy who knows a guy."
And Montgomery is happy to be that guy. Which is why I've come to Lamppost Farm, a 75-acre patch of land near Columbiana (pop. 6,400) in eastern Ohio that Steve and Mel Montgomery have run since March 2007. After leaving college ministry, the couple founded Lamppost to raise cows, pigs, and chickens for slaughter, and established it as a nonprofit ministry—a subtle signal that more is going on here than the sale of fresh eggs.
Slaughter as God Intended
I join the huddle just as Steve is demonstrating each of the steps of the process to the restaurant members. We're gathered beside a truck full of caged chickens that seem a little alarmed. They won't shut up, actually. From the cages in the truck bed comes an endless cacophony of 50 chickens all asking the same question: "WHAAAT? what, what, what? WHAAAAAT?" We all try to ignore them as Steve demonstrates how to hold the knife.
Which is, of course, the first step. One by one, the birds are hung by their feet on a backboard of metal sheeting with wood bracers, where their throats are cut and bled out. Next, the limp birds are scalded in 150-degree water before visiting the de-featherer, then the stainless-steel cleaning table. There, the feet, head, organs, lungs, and trachea are removed, in that order. Finally, the birds, now meat and bones, are rinsed and stored in a tub of ice water.
Everything about the morning is "by the book," meaning in accordance with the Ohio Department of Agriculture's protocols to ensure that food preparations are sanitary—and humane. That's why Salt's chefs and servers are here, to learn how to process the birds they will sell to patrons. But Montgomery is reaching for more than just a workshop in keeping with agricultural protocol. He wants to kill chickens as God intended—and, by that, connect people with the goodness of God and his grace that overcomes human sin and limitations.