Our chickens are made of meat

April 3, 2008 | By | Comments (8)

by Elizabeth Jardina, Sunset researcher

When it comes down to it, our chickens are made of meat.

They cluck, they peck, they’re covered in feathers, but underneath it all, they are bones and fat and skin and muscle — dark and light meat. Suitable for soaking in buttermilk, breading, then frying.


It’s an inescapable fact of chicken-raising. We have these chickens with names, chickens who are pets and who we raised from tiny babies, but all of us who care for these chicken are meat-eaters. Chicken-eaters, even.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, especially because of this comment we got on the blog a few weeks ago. (Reader Emily, I haven’t been ignoring you.) Here’s what she said:

My understanding is that you are not planning to harvest the chickens for meat, only their eggs. I can understand why, but I ask that you reconsider. If we are going to include meat in our diets, there is no better source that I know of for personal, animal and ecological health than happy chickens raised in our backyards. I think it would be a great gift to your readers if you share with us how to handle the difficult business of bringing home raised chickens to the dinner table.

When we got our chickens, we knew that we were not going to kill and eat them. This is primarily because we’re urbanized, soft-hearted, lily-livered wimps. I, for one, had never even touched a chicken before we visited Jody Main’s chickens last summer.

Our favorite chicken reference book (The Chicken Book by Page Smith and Charles Daniel) is even sterner on the subject:

Never make chickens into pets. … Chickens are not pets; they are chickens; they are producers; they exist to lay eggs and be eaten. Never name a chicken. To do so is merely cute  — and silly — and an abuse of names. That does not mean that you must not enjoy, admire, and love chickens individually and collectively; it just means that you must not sentimentalize and falsify your relationship to chickens. This, for the most part, is why I feel keeping chickens should involve killing chickens as well. Somebody or some machine has to kill chickens, so why shouldn’t you, especially if you are going to eat them?

I’m not volunteering to swing the hatchet or anything, but I do understand the hypocrisy of our position. I was a vegetarian for a decade. And not the fish-eating, occasional-poultry kind. I didn’t eat anything with nerves or eyes. So what changed my mind? Partly, this Michael Pollan article in the New York Times magazine from 2002.

Partly the fact that I got a dog. I’m annoyingly crazy about her, but despite my devotion, she is absolutely not a person. Not a person at all. When she dies, it won’t be like a person dying. (Although, trust me, I’m going to have to take a few days off from work, dear bosses.)

It occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about cows, pigs, chickens, or fish. Nothing. I wasn’t going to eat them, but I didn’t know anything about them. And people who did know them — farmers and ranchers and such — didn’t have any qualms about it. They raised them to be eaten. And I was some urban kid from Dallas who was taking the moral high ground by not.

Thus began my non-vegetarian transformation. (I also got my ears pierced. My brother joked that I should be on The Swan.)

So now — here we are, with these chickens. Their fate is not in question, but I do think about it. Could I kill one? I read the Backyard Chickens forum "Meat Birds ETC" board with some regularity. It leads me to links like this one. (Warning: If you click around, it will teach how to pull the heads off your chickens to kill them. Not for the squeamish.)

Right now, um, no, I’m not going to kill our girls. For one thing, it’s so unnecessary. There’s lots of food available on the San Francisco Peninsula at any of our dozens of nearby grocery stores. There’s no need, no tension, no reason.

When the revolution comes, and we actually have to subsist on what we can grow? Chickens, you’re on notice.


  1. Kinsey

    My chickens were bought as pets, raised as pets, and live as pets- and always will. I started with a pair of chicks whom I very carefully raised, one of whom is still with us. Sure, eggs are great, but I have 8 hens and we get more eggs than we will ever use. Even when the birds finally slow down we will have more than enough to eat. It’s out of the question to eat one of my birds and it is staying that way.

    June 29, 2011 at 4:38 pm
  2. Jessica Blischke

    Waste not want not. If our local grocery wasn’t stocked to the brim with factory farmed food. Most people would look at their backyard chicken
    “pets” very differently. When you get hungry enough cooking up that old bird is a fairly simple equation. We live in luxury in the US and so it seems do our old hens.

    April 11, 2008 at 8:10 pm
  3. Sara

    I get asked this all the time. Many people are surprised when I reply that no, I don’t plan to eat them.

    And as an avid reader of Michael Pollan, I’m well aware of all the good arguments FOR eating your own chickens. I just can’t do it.

    The way I look at it is, I have my dog for companionship (and bed warming), my cat for affection and the occasional rodent control, my chickens for eggs. I don’t see why they can’t be pets AND bring me food. In return for their loyal egg-service, they will get to live their life out in comfort on my grassy lawn. I think it’s a fair trade.

    April 9, 2008 at 11:37 pm
  4. Reeves

    People always ask us about our intentions to eat our chickens. I thoroughly enjoy knowing exactly where my food is coming from and what went into it. We have always planned on one day eating both Viper and Josepa. Sure they’re pets. We have dogs and cats that we love for their personalities, and we have chickens that we love for their eggs and meat. Sue: I’ve heard that Coq au Vin (sp?) is a recipe originally intended for old tough hens.

    April 9, 2008 at 7:33 pm
  5. Mark

    I found your post very interesting and it provoked me
    to write a response on the Urban Chickens Blog at:

    I submitted a trackback but it didn’t go through.

    April 5, 2008 at 4:24 pm
  6. Sheila

    If chickens are made of meat… what does that make us? 🙂

    April 5, 2008 at 2:58 am
  7. sue

    We, too, get a lot of questions about eating our chickens, especially when they stop producing eggs. They are now almost four years old and still laying an egg or so a day. We only have two, so its difficult not to think of them as pets. Sorry, they have already been named. I think respectfully killing and gratefully eating our well cared for chickens would be OK and in the proper order of things. I, however, have no idea how to cook an old chicken. Soup?

    April 4, 2008 at 6:24 pm
  8. Heidi

    This is a very interesting topic. We are gearing up to get some laying hens ourselves and I’ve debated how to approach the issue of naming them. While the bantams will be pets, the larger birds I do plan to stew when they are no longer productive. I think not naming animals you will one day eat is a good rule of thumb.

    April 4, 2008 at 12:22 am

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