It was my grandfather’s small holding not much bigger than 50 feet squared. Housing noisy, busy chickens it was dominated by one large cockerel with a huge flopping red crest-it was his sole harem. His powerful claws, caked in dark, stank excrement, sharp and ready to tear to shreds any challenger-grandad made sure there were no challengers to test his pedigree-it was not a financially sound manoeuvre. The other inhabitants were ducks. Always more docile than the noisy chickens-they were plump and white while two goats relaxed on moderately rotting hay. The chickens and ducks were kept in old wooden pens with chicken wire-working conditions were cramped.
On this day while on summer break at my grandparent’s small but comfortable home, my grandfather suggested we have duck for Sunday lunch. I deliberated and realised roasted duck, with sweet and rich gravy, a side of salad and nicely roasted potatoes would be beautiful. I positively confirmed that duck would indeed be nice.
My grandfather disappears into the cool of the house. I listen to the intent murmurings of the chickens while the ducks look on. The chickens seem to be in deep conversation about their living standards whil ethe ducks look on possibly agreeing with their verbose neighbours. The low murmurings could indicate they were considering a revolt-reducing egg production, or something to that effect? My concentration on such an important idea was broken by the sharp sound of metal against metal grating to teeth jangling effect. The murmurings from the animals abruptly stop. I am not sure why they stopped. Have they realised I am listening and one of them has said to the gathering ‘quiet’?
My grandfather strides out with a smallish knife. The gathering turn and intent silence yields to intent noise. Squawks, quacks and the bashing of wings against the wooden pens reverberate. Feathers are flying and then falling lightly even serenely to the floor-it’s a contradiction to the mayhem ensuing.
Grandfather walks over to the pen and the noise escalates. It is now clear that the previous conversations of unity are not on their mind-it’s every pullus for itself. The chickens and the ducks are trying to get to the back of their respective pens-it’s like the worst rush hour. Grandfather opens a pen. He is completely oblivious it would seem to the increasing noise (he’s done this before I think).
He pulls out a duck by the feet-it’s a tremendous yet ultimately futile struggle. The plump duck quacks furiously while contorting and folding its body in all manner of positions-origami. With a single deft but assertive stroke, grandad takes the ducks head off. He puts the duck on the floor and the headless carcass runs around the yard looking for an escape route that it will never find. Blood spews out of the stub, subsiding as the second’s cascade. The duck eventually drops to the floor and the chaos slowly subsides. The squawking and the quacking slowly turns to mummering. The gathering coalesces once again. This conversation will not be about revolution.
Grandfather hands the duck to granny who asks me to help her pluck the duck. She throws the body in hot water. The flesh reacts to the intense heat-the feathers pop up and so begins the process. With amazing speed and agility her fingers roam over the carcass. My hands are much much slower. Granny completes the task, gives the duck carcass a quick clean and then proceeds to gut the duck. It still looks like a duck just white and raw. The brown warm guts roll out. It’s cleaned rigorously with lemon and other secrets of granny’s kitchen. She then adds spices and leaves it to marinate.
Later she places the duck in the oven and it roasts to that appetising brown that signifies crispy beautiful skin. She plates up and the dish looks wonderful but I can’t help but think back to the fact that this animal was alive, breathing and possibly talking about revolution until grandfather came in. It was the first time that I really understood the relationship between the animal and the meat on my plate- I must admit I felt a little bit queasy when I proceeded to bite into the meat. The queasiness passed only to return when my teeth crunched into the white gristle-the image of the headless duck returning with clarity.
In a world of mass produced food, made enticing by beautiful adverts, engaging packing, the latest celebrity chef cooing and ahhing about the latest dish of slow cooked lamb with seasonal vegetables all for the small price of a week’s wages we are disconnected to our food. Children and adults alike only see the finished product, the sanitised product disconnected from the process that brings that meat to the table. Yes, we acknowledge the death of an animal but we do not really acknowledge the death of an animal: A leg of lamb, ox tail, ox tongue, chicken wings, duck breast, cubed beef, pig trotters, turkey drumsticks, bacon, ribs, cow foot, shank, sirloin, sausages, pork belly, T-bone steak.
oversized cows fed steroid enhancing food and chickens sitting in their own excrement
At a small family butcher where highly skilled butchers completed the butchery of large cows with amazing speed #itchysilk witnessed the process. Unlike the mass-produced food supplied to the ever-rapacious appetites of the supermarket, the owner was proud in revelling in the ability to know what his animals are fed and to chart every aspect of their journey. Rather than oversized cows fed steroid enhancing food and chickens sitting in their own excrement unable to stand-this family butcher seemed to cater to a more wholesome and organic approach.
In this #itchysilk photographic project; Revolution, Guts and Dining we take the viewer from the beginning of the abattoir process right through to the eventual dismemberment. Ultimately, this is not an exploration for or against eating animals but rather an exploration that seeks to re-connect us with that necessary journey which ends with the consumption of flesh.