For most meat eaters, dinner is purchased from fluorescent-lit groceries, where it is sold in plastic-wrapped foam trays.
Rarely, are we on a first name basis with our meat.
Elizabeth McDermott, a philosophy master’s student in the College of Arts and Sciences, is an animal lover. She is also a meat eater and student of ethics. These traits, it seemed to her, were not in moral conflict. This, despite claims by vegetarians who suggested she couldn’t in good conscience eat an animal, unless she was also able, emotionally and physically, to kill it.
So began a 10-week relationship with the bird who would become her dinner.
Since Plato learned the trade, philosophy students have been subject to the Socratic method. But in Professor Evan Berry’s Food Ethics course last spring, students did the usual reading, debating, and writing of papers, then were further challenged to run a community activism project of their own design. It was ethics as experiment, the world as laboratory.
That challenge brought McDermott to a local farm with a cockerel problem—an abundance of roosters was exhausting the hen population through harassment and over breeding. The largest, named Blazer, was the worst of the batch. “I didn’t plan to name him,” McDermott clarifies. But on the farm where free range is the rule, a soft-hearted farmer habitually christens her hatch.
McDermott stepped onto the farm with her question in mind: As a meat eater, am I under ethical obligation to kill my own food?
Know Your Food
On day one, the farmer scooped up Blazer and placed him in McDermott’s arms.
“He’s beautiful,” she said. “I really love animals. I was raised to have a strong appreciation for nature.” Her father hunts. She fished as a kid. “They’ve always been in the world with me, not for me to study and examine.”
Over the next 10 weeks, McDermott got to know her rooster. When the day came, McDermott packed friends into her car for support. She was uneasy. “What was making me nervous was that this had been really built up. The act of killing Blazer took on so much.”
The farmer’s sons taught McDermott to wield an ax. Petite with a pixyish mien, she spent hours perfecting her swing. Soon, it was time. She held Blazer before the farmer’s sons prepared him for the ax and remembers feeling sad, watching him be tied.
McDermott trembled as she readied herself. The ax fell. Blazer died.
She shook for hours after. But the job wasn’t over. With a friend’s help, she dressed and cleaned the bird. The hardest part for McDermott was cutting the bird’s skin.
That part made her nauseous. “We don’t think about who does these jobs.” Her mind strays to factory farms, where these activities are done by rote.
This was different, “I got to continue caring for Blazer after I killed him.”
When McDermott took the chicken home to her kitchen, she had to bone and shred the meat. It was a more familiar experience, something she’d done hundreds of times with store-bought birds.
It cooked for four hours, stewed with spices to soften the cockerel’s notoriously chewy flesh. McDermott shared the resulting mélange with friends, a communion of sorts. They toasted Blazer.
In the end, McDermott’s moral queries were answered with a call for greater mindfulness. “I would not say everyone should have to kill their own food to eat it. We don’t live in a world where it’s possible. But people should know what goes into meat consumption and vegetable production.”
McDermott’s process was in itself a meditation. Knowing Blazer taught her many things, among them, that her moral obligation is to think through her food choices, and to do so, “you have to come from a different starting place.”