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.
The Montgomerys drew their farm's name from the first book in C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. When the four Pevensie siblings tumble through a coat closet into the strange world, they first see a lamppost, inexplicably burning in the middle of a snowy wood. For Montgomery, the scene references a window into a new world and a new way of thinking. He and Mel want to teach visitors about the connectedness of creation and the goodness of the Creator—something most Westerners can miss when the sources of our food are obscured. They've found that putting someone on kinetic tilt, using tactile experiences like slaughtering hens, is the best way to teach this.
"Farming, because it is 'rooted' in the creation of food, caring for the land, and doing so in a hands-on manner, enables us to see beyond the blur of our fast world," says Montgomery.
Fear—all types and kinds—might be the largest barrier for many people to overcome. Believe it or not, there are plenty of things to be afraid of at the chicken workshop.
Getting electrocuted is at the top of the list. The first stage in the chicken processing involves an electrified knife that, in accordance with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, stuns the birds momentarily before they are cut. The current is not very strong, but killing birds kind of makes you jumpy to begin with.
Then, there are the live animals. More than once I hear someone mention, chuckling nervously, something about getting their eyes pecked out by hens.
But worst of all is the peer pressure. I'm a little surprised to feel anything of the sort out here in the Edenic serenity of Lamppost Farm. But I feel it nonetheless, that low-grade anxiety not unlike waiting your turn at little league bating practice as other teammates are ripping fly balls into center field. Today, each of us is taking turns at station number one, killing the bird. While killing a hen is not nearly as complicated as the coordinated step-twist-swing of hitting a baseball, there are still ways to do it wrong. I for one would rather get pecked by hens than look stupid in front of peers I admire.
Steve is masterful at coaching the group past our limitations. Luke, a former Lamppost intern, is about to cut into a bird when Steve stops him: Luke has the insulator glove on the wrong hand, the one holding the electrified knife that momentarily stuns the bird before cutting it. And he is holding the bird's head in place barehanded. It's an honest mistake, particularly for someone who is not totally clear about how an electric current travels through conductive materials.
"Listen up, everybody! We just learned something over here," says Montgomery, explaining the proper procedure. Cornelius, a tall young man wearing suspenders, halfway raises his hand to get Montgomery's attention. "Yeah, the same thing happened to me," he admits. Montgomery has created a culture of mutual discovery, where we're not afraid to make mistakes because we understand that they can benefit everybody.
Today's workshop with Salt is possible because of rich relationships between the Montgomerys and their "core partners," who help host events and draw visitors to Lamppost. Currently, ten families have made a one-year commitment to partner with Steve and Mel.
Cornelius, a former core partner himself, works for Salt as a farmer, filling its kitchen with produce from a local garden run by a pastor who also happens to be a Lamppost board member. Through this network of friendships, Cornelius connected Salt to Lamppost Farm, the type of free-range chicken provider that the local-food eatery had been looking for.
Life in the Blood
We're about halfway done processing chickens when a doughty Buff Orpington rooster, curious as to what all the commotion is about, be-bops around the corner and freezes. Before him is the grizzly scene of hens in various stages of processing. Eventually he bobs his head and saunters off, as if to say, "I'm going to pretend I didn't see that."
At this point I wish I could join him. Before this morning, I'd been blissfully unaware of modern food production. Every now and again on a visit to the grocery store, I would see a succulent chicken on a rotisserie and try to visualize what the bird must have looked like with feathers and a head. But I could never mentally bridge the gulf between a live hen and the oddly shaped "chicken" turning over the heat, holes conveniently positioned at either end for the spit.
And now it's my turn to kill such a bird. I retrieve two hens from a cage in the truck. The chickens are heavier than I thought they'd be, and warm (but of course). Their legs have a fleshy texture (what did I expect?). I turn them upside-down and hang them from the cutting board. I put the glove on my left hand, flick the switch to give the knife juice, grip the bird's head and—buzz! Electricity zings through my index finger on my knife hand. Steve and I look to see a small gap in the tape that's supposed to insulate the handle. I move my hand down a bit on the knife and get back to business.
I press the tip of the knife into the bird's head, behind the cheek. The tip sparks, and the bird flinches, drawing in its wings. The cut requires more pressure than I thought it would, and Steve tells me I can cut deeper, that I can press until I feel the blade against the spine. Finally, the artery is cut, and the bird goes limp and bleeds out.
The next bird does not die as gracefully. I make the cut more quickly, drawing the knife deeply through the throat in a single back-and-forth, like a violin bow. But when I release her, she flaps wildly for a moment in spasms that don't seem involuntary. So violent is the reaction that the chicken actually kicks loose one of her legs from the holding prongs, and I must refasten her. Then, she's still.
I look at the blood streaming down the corrugated metal and soaking into the sawdust on the ground. The life is in the blood. Then I look up at Montgomery.
"How are you doing, Mav?" he asks. I grimace. Montgomery is as interested in helping me face the trauma of killing an animal as he is in ensuring that the animal dies with dignity.
"It's supposed to be," he says. "We're not supposed to take a life and then say, Well, whatever. That's not how we're made."
That simple truth resonates long afterward. Everything at the farm, from Steve and me to the chicken to the land, has a Creator. And because of this, I hold no ultimate mastery over the bird I have just killed, because it wasn't mine to begin with. The hen was a gift. I'm intimately bound to a chicken in a relationship because I took its life, in the sight of God and with my own hands, to nourish mine.
Suddenly, I'm thinking new thoughts, the kind the Montgomerys had hoped for. Food doesn't come from a grocery store. The grocery store delivers to me, a consumer, not chickens but pieces of chickens, without a trace of the process, much less the living animal. Food doesn't even come from Lamppost Farm, a sustainable, gmo-free, free-range paradise that's as close to Eden as you could hope for in Ohio. No, food comes from God.
Here, at Lamppost, knowing this enhances what you're eating because every hen is a gift, and has been received as such and treated as such every step of the way. And if we've overlooked gifts as bountiful as these, where else have we missed God reaching out to us in small ways, maybe all the time?
"I want to change the way people pray before dinner," says Montgomery. "We have people that will come and buy 50 chickens, and those are the birds they eat for the whole year. Eating that chicken is so much more than just consuming. They're connected; they're interwoven; they pray with knowing."
After the birds have been processed, Salt of the Earth packs up and heads back to Pittsburgh. But they'll be back, every month in fact, to process all of the chicken that is served in their restaurant. As we say goodbye, I experience a flutter of satisfaction at the thought that some happy patron of theirs would be enjoying the very bird I processed, cooked sous vide and paired with outlandish and inventive ingredients. I'm interwoven.
At the table that evening we're all tired. We're eating chicken. Montgomery has lightly fried a few birds, then coated them in herbs and spices. The flavor of North Woods, a spice mix that Cornelius has introduced to the Montgomerys, enhances the sense that I've stepped through a wardrobe into someplace patently more magical than Ohio. But before we feast, Montgomery says grace.
"Thank you, Lord, for work, and for the opportunity to work alongside those whom we love." It's a hearty thanks for the gift of food, the relationships we share, and the animals God has given us to eat.
God is great. God is good. Now let us thank him for our food.
Bret Mavrich is a journalist living in Kansas City. He writes about faith and startups and blogs at BretMavrich.com.
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