7/11/11 - class at the culinary institute

In today's excerpt - the Culinary Institute of America, perhaps the finest chef college in the world, includes among its many courses a class in killing the animals that will later be served as the culinary offerings of its students. Jonathan Dixon, a student at the Hyde Park, New York, campus, describes the experience:

"[My classmates] Adam, Lombardi, and I all signed up to go and kill animals the following Friday. Meat class would be over, and we'd be in the thick of fish class—Seafood Identification and Fabrication. But this was something necessary. If I really asked myself some tough questions, which I did in the days going forward, I realized that the truism was right: Unless you're a vegan or hard-core vegetarian, if you are going to consume animal flesh, then you should kill an animal. Not just watch the killing and the flow of blood, not be an observer, but touch an animal and end its life. ...

"The farm [where the class would be held had a] dirt driveway that cut through green fields, and a few yards down from the road a sign read WELCOME CIA STUDENTS AND BROOK FARM FRIENDS. For most of the ride, the four of us in the car had talked food, [restaurateur] Thomas Keller and the cult of celebrity, run down other students we didn't care for, and generally avoided the topic of killing. With the farmhouse in sight the conversation swerved down a darker bend; we made jokes that weren't all that funny and laughed too hard at them. We parked the car, gathered the knives, and took heavy steps to the backyard.

"As we walked toward a set of tables to put our things down, we passed a mobile chicken coop, presumably filled with the work at hand. A dozen or so feet beyond that was a fifty-five-gallon drum full of bubbling water on top of a propane burner, and next to it a cylindrical tube with finger-sized rubber pieces extruding off the interior sides and on the bottom. Nearby were a few tubs filled with water. And throwing their shadows onto the tables were six traffic cones upended and nailed to a crossbeam. ... I had a good idea what the traffic cones were for. Beneath the cones, someone had dug a trench about six inches deep. On this assembly line, no one part of the process was more than a few feet from another. ...

"By the coop there were two wooden cages. The [farm owner] took a few of us to the coop, crawled inside, and handed out chickens two at a time. Six chickens were put into each cage. The cages were carried back to the crossbeams; we reached in and each picked up a chicken by its feet and held it upside down—if held that way long enough, chickens go into a trance; they'll fight you, though, when you first try to turn them feet up. Once they were sedated, we drew them headfirst through one of the cones. Sebald spoke his softly accented instructions: Hold the head with your thumb under the chicken's beak. Put the bottom end of the knife blade against the bird's throat. Draw the blade across, applying firm, even pressure. The head should pop right off. All of us stood thronged together, knives in hand, waiting. The first bird went into the cone. ...

"That first bird: a young woman from school was the first to kill, and it didn't go as well as it could have. The knife seemed to stick; the bird freaked out; she responded in kind but got the knife through the neck. She had blood running down her cheeks and held the head in her hand. She was blameless; it's hard for your hands to know what to do. In the cluster of students around her, I saw one of the teaching assistants from school, her eyes also shining with tears. Most of us were shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. I held my knife with a tight grip. Other students were reaching into the cages and pulling out the chickens. I watched people lifting the birds up, watched their wings flap frantically, heard them squawking, saw them being killed. ...

"My turn came. I could feel the bird's pulse under my thumb. I positioned the knife as instructed and drew it hard across the chicken's throat. And then I was holding its head in my hand, blood on my arms and shirt, watching the body convulse. My foot slipped and slid into the trench. My work boot was glistening with blood. 

"The body was dunked into the same hot water that had cooked the corn. When the feathers began pulling away, it was removed from the water and put into the cylinder. The cylinder whipped the bird around and the rubber extrusions pulled away the feathers. Any feathers left were plucked by hand at a nearby table. Then we gutted the chickens, the viscera still hot. The carcass was then washed and put into a tub. We went through this for hours, until past dusk, stopping when the hundredth chicken was finished. ...

"At the end of the [class], the husband and wife [who owned the farm] asked us to gather in a circle and tell them what we'd learned. One by one, we each mouthed the same platitudes about respect for food, being closer to the food source, and like that. But what I actually learned I still only feel."


Jonathan Dixon


Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America


Clarkson Potter


Copyright 2011 by Jonathan Dixon


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