By Kayoko Akabori
Photos by Erin Gleeson
I met Erin in 1998. We were both freshmen at UC Santa Barbara, and I was immediately drawn to her warmth, and soft spoken, laid-back ease. She is the epitome of a California Girl, and for as long as I had known her, she was a vegetarian. She was raised vegan, so for her, being meat-free was a way of life. We lived together in Italy for a year, and somehow she managed to stay away from all those glorious porcine products. How she avoided the hanging legs of prosciutto at every corner, I have no idea.
Then, a few years ago, she started expressing a curiosity in trying meat. The bacon craze had just started in New York, and as she began regularly photographing star chefs and their magical creations, the curiosity slowly turned into an obsession. Foie gras! Peter Luger Steakhouse! SUSHI!
She wanted in.
Still, as a life-long vegetarian, she could not, in clear conscious abandon vegetarianism altogether. I would egg her on at dinner, dangling a slice of sashimi or steak in front of her. Her eyes would light up, but she withheld. Erin wanted to complete what she believed to be her rite of passage to carnivorism: killing a chicken with her own bare hands.
"I want to understand and experience the whole process that happens before that chicken hits my plate. If I still feel like eating meat after going through that, I will."
Erin's chicken slaughtering determination led her to Dawn Russell, the founder of Ranch Hag Hens-- a small, charming farm in Petaluma, California. In a town once known as the “World’s Egg Basket,” Petaluma was the epicenter of the booming chicken industry from the mid-19th century through the 1950s. With her own family roots in Petaluma’s chicken farming history, Dawn started the farm in 2007, leaving behind a seven-year stint in the District Attorney's office in San Francisco. Raising chickens was in her blood, afterall.
I accompanied Erin on a hot, sticky July morning, along with her parents to Ranch Hag Hens. We sliced the throats of a dozen roosters that day. The necks felt rubbery, its feet, scaly. We were instructed to pierce a soft point in the neck, and in one even-handed slice, the blood would drizzle out slowly, in spurts, into the metal pail below.
Erin wanted to be as close to the killing process as possible, to learn all the steps from animal, to farm, to table. One of the chickens she killed would be her first taste of meat. Certainly, there were tinges of regret, remorse, and even devastation. But this had to be done-- no questions. Silence.
By taking on such a challenge, Erin overcame an obstacle that not many of us will ever have to face, in such a world of mass-produced farming and neon-lit, big-box grocery mega malls.
Thank you, dear chickens, for your life. We promise to never take you for granted.
Happy Día de los Muertos.
"Perhaps harder than cutting the chicken necks was putting our hands inside their still warm bodies to clean them out. I was surprised to see all of what we had to take out of the chickens. It was weird to me that there were parts of the chicken that people who buy chickens in grocery stores never see. It is so strange that most people would never see these organs, which is why I photographed them."
"My parents raised us without meat mainly because they thought it was healthier; but they also wanted us to be aware that factory-farming was unhealthy for the planet, the farmers, the animals and us. If I'm going to eat meat, I'll eat it minimally and try to be aware of where it's come from. I know I won't be able to control everything I'm served, but the only way I'm doing this is if I promise myself to be picky about what I buy."
Erin's first bite.
Dawn Russell and her husband.