Margaret and Dick   


July '09: Where meat comes from

Warning:  Vegetarians and those who prefer to think that meat comes from factories are advised to skip this story.

Our friend Lawrence has a secret life that helps him manage stress.  During the week, he’s an upper-level manager in a multinational corporation.  Outside work, he raises pigeons.  Like his grandfather and father before him in rural France…except Lawrence maintains his pigeonnier under the radar in the stylish suburbs.  Neither his superiors nor his underlings – nay, nor even his neighbors – know about this return to his roots.  His children have a full understanding that meat doesn’t come from factories.  Lawrence had told us about his hobby over dinner last year, and he promised to include us in one of his harvests. 

I’ve been thinking recently that it would be proper to pause before a meal to honor and thank the beasts who died to make the meal possible.  I’m no longer vegetarian – it’s almost impossible to be both foodie and vegetarian – but I still reflect occasionally on the morality of meat.  A recent weekend with Lawrence and Marie gave us occasion to reflect on this issue. 

Lawrence has a five-star pigeon hotel that provides a life of luxury for his birds.  The birds are gentle and relatively tame.  Pigeons are monogamous, so it’s easy to control bloodlines and prevent inbreeding.  Lawrence keeps three couples.  The males (Youssef, M’Pokora, Anakin) enjoy a long life of leisure; the females are usually unnamed, as the ordeal of egglaying shortens their lifespan.  Lawrence prefers small females (which produce more eggs) and large males (which produce meatier young). 

On Sundays when pigeons are slaughtered, nobody sleeps in; there’s plenty of work to do before the midday feast.  “Ready?” Lawrence asked as I finished my coffee.  I noticed that Dick had disappeared.  Lawrence and I went out to the pigeonnier.  I had expected that we would kill one or two, but Lawrence explained that all six of the young were to be slaughtered.  After about a month, the young are fully grown and ready for harvest, and the hens are busy with chicks and eggs for the next round.  The condemned young easily sorted themselves into the outside room of the pigeonnier, and Lawrence picked one up and handed it to me, showing me how to hold it securely.  So soft and warm!  We left the pigeonnier and went into the garage to do the deed.
It’s a good life until the last ten seconds.  Lawrence does the job himself to minimize the bird’s suffering.  The bird is then weighed and laid on the table.  Successive victims are carefully protected from seeing the carcasses to prevent unnecessary stress, and the birds in the pigeonnier know nothing of the events in the garage. 

One of the young was rather small.  Lawrence reflected that he should get rid of its father, old Youssef.  “But he was my first, and I can’t bring myself to do it.”  Sentimental attachment. 

The rest of the process is straightforward if messy.  The birds are boiled for 20 seconds so the feathers can be removed easily.  After plucking, the residual feathers are removed over a gas flame.  Marie showed me how to cut off head and feet and clean the birds.  I wasn’t able to meet her exacting standards on cleaning, so she did the finishing touches inside each.  Six neatly cleaned birds, looking just as you might find at the supermarket, were finally lined up on the counter.  Each weighed about a pound. 

“I’m pretty sure we can split one,” I offered, wondering whether I would have any appetite at all.  “Ha!  I’ve seen you eat!” Lawrence answered.  “We’ll have one each.”  We were about to cook ten percent of his annual harvest!  To our amazement, Marie partially deboned the little birds without cutting the skin so she could prepare them à la crapaudine (spread out like a toad) in a frypan. 

Appetite was no problem; the meal was delicious.  But I did pause to thank the birds who gave their all so that we could enjoy our Sunday feast.  Over dinner we talked about the morality of the corrida, bullfights where the bull is put to death by a matador.  The corrida are the subject of protests around here, and we’ve certainly avoided them.  “Those bulls live like kings until a few minutes before they die,” Lawrence argued.  “They run free in pastures and never see the inside of a building.  Compare that to your agribusiness cattle that spend their entire lives in a cramped cell.  Which is more cruel?” 

Since our visit chez Lawrence and Marie, I’ve noticed that our meat consumption has dropped.  Meat, as it turns out, doesn’t come from factories.  You want meat on your plate?  Somebody’s gotta die.

We brought home a dozen long feathers for the cats, who no doubt find my ruminations foolish.

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