Transcript

116:

Poultry Slam 1998
Transcript

Originally aired 11.27.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/116

Prologue.

Ira Glass

There's certain conversations that those of us who do not live on farms get into with people who do live on farms, where you know, you just know. As the city person, or the suburban homeowner, you know that the farm person you're talking to is just thinking the entire time you're talking to them, "You are so naive." A lot of these conversations have to do with animals and their deaths.

Take this example. The woman who runs the website for our radio show, Elizabeth Meister, was at the annual exhibition run by the American Poultry Association in Columbus, Ohio. And here she is. She's standing in a room with 12,000 chickens. And she gets into this conversation with an 11-year-old girl.

Kamiko Overs

I've only been in poultry and waterfowl for a year. I'm more into waterfowl.

Ira Glass

This is Kamiko Overs from Bliss, New York, who was at the convention to show some of her own birds.

Elizabeth Meister

So do your friends think it's weird? Do they think it's strange that you show chickens and stuff?

Kamiko Overs

No, because a lot of people show. They'll either be showing pigs, or cows, or rabbits, or something like that. A lot of people in our school show different things.

Ira Glass

Kamiko and Elizabeth talked for a while. And then Elizabeth tried, very, very gently, to ask a question that was on her mind.

Elizabeth Meister

Do you-- this is sort of a hard question for me to ask. But do you ever eat them?

Kamiko Overs

Yeah, I do.

Elizabeth Meister

You do. And does it make you really sad when-- do you raise these chickens from little chicks?

Kamiko Overs

Yeah, we hatch them out. And then, yep. We get them right from the hen. And we eat them a lot. We do raise a lot for eating.

Elizabeth Meister

And so when you're cooking up this chicken that you've raised from being a little chick, do you feel a little bit guilty that you're eating this chicken?

Kamiko Overs

No.

Elizabeth Meister

No?

Kamiko Overs

No.

Elizabeth Meister

Do you ever eat the chickens that you show?

Kamiko Overs

If they're no good for show, the losers, yeah.

Ira Glass

Kamiko is untroubled by this. If a bird has bad feathers or a lopsided comb, it might be a nice bird. But it's not going to win competitions. You eat it. That's life.

Those of us who do not live on farms, we divide animals off into those we love and those we eat. In Kamiko's world, there's not such a hard line separating the two. You can get to know a bird on an up-close and one-to-one basis and still eat it. An animal's transition from buddy to dinner is a great deal less problematic than it is for us city folks.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And every year, during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the highest poultry consumption time of the year in these United States, we bring you a program about poultry, our annual Poultry Slam, stories of chickens, turkeys, ducks, birds of all kinds, and our relationships with them.

In past years, we have brought you an opera about the life of Chicken Little. We've brought you the story of a hand puppet duck that would not leave people's lives. And naturally, we've brought you real stories of actually growing up with turkeys, and chickens, and other birds. And in putting together this year's show, a very few particular ideas and questions kept coming up in story after story. Without us ever intending for it to happen this way, a lot of this year's show has turned into a kind of referendum about where you draw that line between friend and food.

Act One of today's program, Still Life with Chicken. Food writer Jonathan Gold tells what it's like to pan-fry a chicken with a live chicken watching you the entire time. Act Two, Last Meal. When Francois Mitterand knew he was about to die, he decided that the last food to cross his lips would be poultry, a tiny bird that is actually illegal to eat in France, a bird that, by tradition, is eaten with a napkin covering your head. Michael Paterniti set out for France to try the contraband capon himself. He has a full report.

Act Three, People who Love Chickens and Hate This American Life. Last year, a woman named Karen Davis started a national letter-writing campaign to try to get This American Life to stop the very program you're listening to at this very moment, the annual Poultry Slam. In this portion of our show, she explains what it is that we just do not understand about poultry, and why the whole idea of this poultry show was wrongheaded from the start. Act Four, The Meaning of a Bird. David Rakoff explains how his life was changed in a single evening in a room of 5,000 chickens. Stay with us.

Act One. Still Life With Chicken.

Ira Glass

Act One, Still Life with Chicken. It was an accident that Jonathan ended up living with the chicken. He was not living the kind of lifestyle that one usually associates with chicken.

Jonathan Gold

This was during the period when I considered myself to be a performance artist of a sort, a naked performance artist, to be specific.

Ira Glass

These days, Jonathan Gold is a food writer in Los Angeles. This all happened 15 years ago. He was putting together a performance. He had a PA system which could put out the requisite amount of annoying feedback sound at high decibels. He had the two full bottles of Glade American Beauty air freshener, which he would spray, in their entirety, in the performance space.

And he had a live chicken, which he bought the day before the performance in one of those Chinese poultry markets in Los Angeles. And it comes the day of the show. An audience gathers in a darkened warehouse in West LA.

Jonathan Gold

I don't know if you've been to a lot of performance art, but this was really typical of the stuff that was going on in the period. And I showed up, and I was naked. And I was carrying a machete, and I was blindfolded. And I stood in the middle of this pile of supermarket chickens, the broilers that you buy. And the chicken that I bought was tethered to a three-foot rope around me. And I hacked up and down blindly with a machete.

Ira Glass

Toward the chicken, or just in general?

Jonathan Gold

Well, I was blindfolded, so I didn't know if it was towards the chicken or not. And I had fully intended that, in fact, I would kill the chicken in the midst of this performance. But chickens aren't that stupid. And this chicken wanted no part of the machete, stayed at the end of its rope the entire time, apparently.

And after 10 minutes, when I was completely exhausted, I fell to a heap, and everybody left. And the performance was over. I don't know if you've stuck around after an art performance, but the few minutes after an art performance are some of the most depressing in the world.

Ira Glass

How so?

Jonathan Gold

You've done your wad. You've done your bit for art, which has either worked or it hasn't. But you're sitting there. You're covered with chicken effluvia, in my case. It stinks to high hell. Everybody's gone, and you've got to clean up. And you're naked. It's really not a pretty picture.

Ira Glass

So Jonathan cleaned up. And when he was done, he had a chicken. And he didn't feel like he could kill the chicken. Destiny had brought them together. He felt like he could not turn his back.

He says it was the same as if a kitten shows up on your back door, scratching, and lonely, and needy. So he took the chicken home. And in doing that, he stumbled across that thin, thin line that separates food items on the one hand from pets on the other, that divides the animals we eat from the animals we love.

Jonathan Gold

So I get home, and I have this chicken. And I don't know what to do with it. So I spread out some newspaper on the top of my refrigerator, and I put the chicken up there.

I get a can of Green Giant brand niblets from under the counter. And I open it, and I put it in a little bowl for the chicken. And I give the chicken a little water. And the chicken's on top of my refrigerator.

Ira Glass

Because you think chickens eat corn. You had read that or something. And that was the available corn.

Jonathan Gold

That was the available corn. I wish I had thought better of the niblets idea.

Ira Glass

Why?

Jonathan Gold

Because in fact, if you're buying three or four cans of niblets a day, which is what the chicken ate, and you're existing on almost nothing, which I was, then your niblet bill turns out to be some two-figure percentage of your total income each week. If you can imagine living on $50 a week, but $10 of it goes for niblets. It's just hard to justify an expense like that.

Though at the remove of 15 years, I think I can probably safely admit to you now that one of the reasons that I stuck with the niblets is because I liked saying the word "niblets" so much. And this gave me the excuse to use the words like "niblet" in general conversation several times a day. Usually, it just doesn't come up.

And the chicken stayed there, on top of my refrigerator, for a long time, months, six months, I think.

Ira Glass

This is a one room apartment?

Jonathan Gold

A two room apartment. I had a kitchen and a bedroom. So I didn't have to look at the chicken when I was sleeping, though I did have to look at it when I was cooking.

Ira Glass

Did you ever cook chicken?

Jonathan Gold

Of course I cooked chicken.

Ira Glass

Didn't you feel intensely disloyal?

Jonathan Gold

No, I felt no particular loyalty to this chicken. I don't know if you've ever had chickens, but it's not like-- you don't pet chickens. Chickens don't really like you to pet them. And you don't hold them. There's really no love that you feel for a chicken in your life, I don't think.

Ira Glass

But yet you kept the chicken.

Jonathan Gold

I kept the chicken because I couldn't bear to do anything else. And it's not like I could have carried it out onto Pico Boulevard and said, "Be free, little chicken. Be free."

Ira Glass

Did you give the chicken a name?

Jonathan Gold

I never named the chicken. When I referred to the chicken in public, I always called it "the hen."

Ira Glass

How did you not name it? It was a creature in your house.

Jonathan Gold

The chicken always seemed temporary. It never occurred to me that I might have the chicken as long as six months. The chicken always seemed like something that I would have for just a couple days.

Ira Glass

And then what did you think was going to happen?

Jonathan Gold

A, I thought about the chicken expiring. B, I have to admit that there was a possibility that someday, I would actually cook the chicken. I went through a lot of chicken recipes, hundreds and hundreds of chicken recipes.

Ira Glass

Thinking, "Maybe this'll be the recipe for my niblet-fed chicken?"

Jonathan Gold

Exactly.

Ira Glass

Possibly, I have to say, the most delicious chicken that you could ever eat, because of those niblets.

Jonathan Gold

You can't buy niblet-fed chicken for love or money, I don't think. I'm not sure that a recipe existed that would have lived up to the fact of the chicken, this animal who you have come to know on fairly intimate terms, and who you have raised, and you have put a certain amount of emotion into.

Ira Glass

A chicken, if I might say, who has seen you naked.

Jonathan Gold

The chicken did see me naked, damn it.

Ira Glass

The fact is, we need food to be just food. And as soon as it becomes a living thing, especially if we're city people-- we're not used to the conversion of living things into our food-- it's hard to handle without thinking it has to be bigger than food, without wanting to make it ritualized or something bigger than food.

Jonathan Gold

Exactly. Can I tell you a small story?

Ira Glass

Yeah, of course.

Jonathan Gold

A few weeks ago, I was in this Korean restaurant in Koreatown in Los Angeles. It was this place called the Living Fish Center that I'd always wanted to go, because the name of it was so splendid. Living Fish Center, I imagine some sort of vast vivarium where Flipper was jumping through hoops and stuff.

And I go in there, and of course, it's just a crummy Korean restaurant. It's not that clean. And there are tanks and stuff, but I didn't know what to order.

So I order a fish soup because it looks like they have a small fish soup specialty on the menu. And it comes, and it's just really strong-smelling and not that great. And I try squid fried with bean sauce and onions, which wasn't that happening.

And I'm about to give up and pay the check and go home with a vast table filled with uneaten stuff. And it suddenly occurs to me what the specialty of the restaurant is. And I wave the waitress over, and I tell her that I'd like a prawn.

And she is puzzled. She didn't expect me to ask for a prawn. But I repeat my request. And she shrugs and goes and tells the sushi chef.

And he goes to one side of the restaurant. And he climbs on this chair, this ordinary folding chair. And he reaches into this long tank that's running just below the ceiling. And he wiggles his fingers in the water. When he wiggles the fingers, the prawns just become enraged.

And they start nipping at his fingers, and they start attacking him. And he picks out a couple of the liveliest ones and brings them back to his counter and, without washing his hands, mind you, just makes a few motions over it. And a couple seconds later, the waitress comes over with the prawns on this huge mound of ice.

Now what he'd done is he'd taken off the exoskeleton. The head was intact, and that little part of the tail that is always on prawns was still there. But the middle part is naked, like a grub.

And I picked up the prawn with my chopsticks. And it was not dead, this prawn. It was extremely alive. And it was wiggling its legs. And it was wiggling its antennas.

And its eyes were swiveling madly on its eye stalks. And it was looking back at me, seeing me as actually the predator, the creature that was going to eat it. And that was a really freakish moment, because as much stuff as I eat, and as low as I eat on the food chain, and as many prawns as I have dispatched in my life, I have never before killed a living being with my teeth.

And the prawn knew what I was going to do. And he did not like it. And I wasn't quite sure what to do, but if I put it down, the prawn would have died anyway. It's not going to live without its shell. Somebody else would've eaten it, blah, blah, blah.

So I bit into it. I bit its body off with my teeth. And the prawn just relaxed in this way that was really eerie.

And the taste of the prawn, the taste of the meat of it, was extraordinary. It was sweet. It was like there was life coursing through it. It was the most alive thing I've ever eaten, obviously, literally. But again, it was freaky. It was getting too close to the actual nature of consumption, which is killing a living creature with your teeth.

Ira Glass

When you bit into the prawn, did you actually bite off its head, its living head, and have its head and its eyes in your mouth?

Jonathan Gold

No. I bit off its body, and I held the head in my hands.

Ira Glass

So you held the head in one hand and the tail in the other, and you bit the center.

Jonathan Gold

Right. And I thought that I'd killed it. But in fact, when I put it down, it still had so much life in it that it grabbed a piece of salmon sashimi and wouldn't let go of it. And I don't think I ever want to do that again.

Ira Glass

Did you feel like there was something about the experience that made it more-- this word is a little cornier than I intend, but it's the only word that I can think of-- sacred, that took it out of the mundaneness of the way that we eat, which for most of us is eating without actually tasting and experiencing and thinking about what we're eating and what on the earth it is that we're killing to survive? Do you think in some way that it's more acceptable to eat an animal if you are more awake to the fact that it is an animal and what's happened to it? Or do you think it really doesn't matter?

Jonathan Gold

I think it matters a great deal. One of the greatest metaphors in Western civilization is that of Christ, who gave his life so that others might live. And I don't want to be sacrilegious, and I don't want to belittle that myth in any way.

But a pig is giving its life so that we might eat. A chicken is giving its life so that we might eat. And I think the least that we could do is to think about that chicken, to think about that calf that we're eating. Not necessarily to be sad for it, but to celebrate it, to be aware of the being that it was, that it wasn't just this bit of bioengineered protein that somehow managed to find its way onto our plates.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Gold writes his food column, "Counter Intelligence," for the LA Weekly. He's also the restaurant critic for Los Angeles magazine.

Act Two. Last Meal.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Last Meal. Consider, please, poultry consumers, the role of poultry in Francois Mitterrand's last meal. Mitterrand, you'll recall, was the president of France, died at the beginning of 1996. A contradictory and enigmatic man, the French press used to call him the Sphinx. He once actually staged his own assassination to help himself in the polls. Obsessed with history and his place in it.

Michael Paterniti wrote about Mitterrand's last meal for the magazine Esquire. Mitterrand found out that he was dying of cancer. Our story begins just weeks before his death.

Michael Paterniti

Right before Christmas, Mitterrand went to Egypt to commune with the pharaohs. Even though he was extremely ill, he decided that he had to go there one last time.

Ira Glass

You said he went to Egypt commune with the pharaohs?

Michael Paterniti

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Literally with the pharaohs?

Michael Paterniti

Well, he felt this spiritual connection to these leaders of the past. And he studied the lives, and in particular, how many of these people died, what their last gestures were. And he felt that his last gesture would have to be equally fitting.

Ira Glass

Equally grand.

Michael Paterniti

Yeah. And while he was there, he decided that he was going to have this amazing last meal. What he did was call back to France and made sure that they had this menu that he decided would be it, which was this amazing feast of oyster, and foie gras, and capon, and finally, this little songbird called ortolan, which symbolizes the French soul. And it was this completely forbidden thing to eat ortolan. It's illegal in France to do so.

Ira Glass

Because it's an endangered species, right?

Michael Paterniti

Yeah, and people who have served ortolan, chefs who've served it in France, have been fined. And I think in one case, a chef was imprisoned for serving it.

Ira Glass

Did you look at all into why the ortolan would come to represent the soul of France?

Michael Paterniti

It was the food of kings in France. And once it was caught in these tiny traps, in very old times, they would actually poke the eyes of the bird out. So the bird would live in complete darkness and just eat 24 hours a day. And then when it was fattened, they would drown it in a kind of cognac. And there was this ritual associated with the preparation of the bird, as well as with eating the bird.

Actually, in Proust and Fielding, ortolan appear. And they symbolize seduction, and adultery, and virginity.

Ira Glass

And one of the things about ortolan is that people eat it with a napkin over their head.

Michael Paterniti

Right, people put a large cloth napkin over their head. And apparently, what the napkin does is it keeps the aroma inside this tent in which you're eating. And the French say that it also keeps God from seeing you eating the little birdie.

Ira Glass

Meaning what?

Michael Paterniti

Meaning that it's sinful, that the bird is so innocent.

Ira Glass

And the pleasure so great?

Michael Paterniti

And the pleasure so great that it's a sin.

Ira Glass

And Mitterrand, when he had his last meal, he knew he was dying.

Michael Paterniti

Right.

Ira Glass

And he continued to survive for quite a while after the last meal, right?

Michael Paterniti

He lived eight days. And he didn't eat or drink during those days.

Ira Glass

He just decided he wanted the last food that he had eaten to be the ortolan.

Michael Paterniti

Yeah. That was what was most incredible to me is that he had this huge dinner, and then consciously decided that would be his last meal, and then just readied himself for death.

Ira Glass

So you arranged to go to France to try to taste this bird and have this meal, in fact, to try to recreate Mitterrand's last meal.

Michael Paterniti

Right. And it started with 100 phone calls just to try to locate somebody who would even entertain the notion. And after, literally, months, there was one chef in Bordeaux who said that he would cook the meal.

Ira Glass

And so you have this massive meal, ending with the bird.

Michael Paterniti

Yes.

Ira Glass

And what do we know about when Mitterrand ate the bird?

Michael Paterniti

Well, we know that during the meal, he slipped in and out of consciousness in between the courses. And he would eat ravenously, and then he would just sort of pass out. And he sat at a table separate from the table where all his guests were seated. There were about 30 people there, extended family and friends.

And Mitterrand would rise up with each new course and eat. But he really wasn't talking to many people. And he was really focused on trying to finish the meal and taste, apparently, every note in that meal.

Ira Glass

When you had your meal, do you feel like you were able to achieve that level of awareness, where you were tasting every note of the meal? It seems like such a high standard to aspire to.

Michael Paterniti

I felt like it was the most incredible meal I've eaten. And it was because I was very focused on everything that went into my mouth, and also, because when it came to the ortolan, there's no easy way to eat ortolan. You are forced to taste every bite. And it goes from being completely sublime to being excruciating.

Ira Glass

Describe what it's like to eat the bird. We should say that the bird, you describe it as the size of your thumb, smaller than your thumbs.

Michael Paterniti

Yeah, it is. It's about the size of your thumb. And they serve it in a white cassoulet. And you put the napkin over your head, and you duck down toward the cassoulet. And so you are in this space that is completely white, the white napkin, the white plate, the white cassoulet. And then you have the bird on its back that you lift up and put into your mouth. You cool it by breathing in and out.

Ira Glass

And this is the entire bird, every part of it.

Michael Paterniti

Yes. In our case, the chef insisted that we bite off the head and leave the head on the plate. I think in Mitterrand's case, he ate the head, too.

Ira Glass

OK. So you bite off the head. You leave the head on the plate.

Michael Paterniti

And then you cool it, and then you begin to chew. And that first bite is incredibly difficult to describe, because it's terrifying. I was terrified. I was nauseous with the idea of it.

But the first bite of the bird changed that. It was incredibly and almost immediately delicious. And all these juices were flowing out of it into your mouth and mingling and commingling with everything that was already in your mouth. And it's like this very finely evolved consomme.

And then you begin to taste the meat. And they're little, tender bits of meat. And then, I think you begin to taste the organs. And it becomes more bitter. So the sweetness and the tenderness turns bitter.

Ira Glass

And then?

Michael Paterniti

And then, well, you keep chewing ortolan until you have chewed it completely. And then you're supposed to swallow it all at once. And there's no other way, really, to consume it. And as you continue to chew, it gets harder and harder, because you're working the bones, finally.

So the meat and the juices fade. And you suddenly are chewing these bones. And that is when you really, I think, fall into a bit of an existential crisis. Like, what the hell am I doing? And then also, I really think I'm going to throw up.

Ira Glass

And how am I going to swallow these bones?

Michael Paterniti

And how am I going to swallow them? Many people who have never had ortolan before end up spitting it out on the plate. And in fact, at Mitterrand's last meal, a number of the people in the room did spit out their ortolan.

Ira Glass

That seems like incredibly bad form, though. You're spitting out the soul of France.

Michael Paterniti

Yeah, you're incredibly gauche if you pull that stunt.

Ira Glass

Did this experience change you?

Michael Paterniti

Yeah, it definitely changed me. I didn't eat chicken for a long time.

Ira Glass

Why?

Michael Paterniti

Because I think I felt guilty.

Ira Glass

Guilty like you didn't feel like it was right to eat a bird without the sacred quality that it had to eat the ortolan?

Michael Paterniti

Yeah, I think it has everything to do with feeling, in some ways, like I had actually eaten the last meal. And for me to put anything else inside of my body would mean that it would have to be somehow as sacred, or holy, or as good. And it's not like I am suddenly a vegetarian now. Finally, I ate whatever, because I was hungry, without thinking about, for instance, the life that I was putting inside of me.

Ira Glass

Was it a relief not to taste the food again?

Michael Paterniti

Yeah, because it takes a lot of energy and concentration. And it takes faith, and all of these things that we don't associate with eating, when you really taste a meal. It takes concentration and silence. And at the same time, understand how that meal came to your table.

Ira Glass

The way you describe it, it's almost like you're saying that if we were really awake to what the world is giving us in a given meal, it would be hard eat the meal every single time.

Michael Paterniti

Yeah, I feel like we would age really quickly.

Ira Glass

Do you think we would age because we'd be doing so much thinking and so much mental work during the meal?

Michael Paterniti

Yeah, it'd be like a time-lapse version of your life, if you were psychically, spiritually, physically, intellectually, erotically present at every meal.

Ira Glass

But you're saying that we have to deaden ourselves in order to live.

Michael Paterniti

I think we do, to a degree.

Ira Glass

But I think-- I have to say, what's radical about what you're saying is you're saying, maybe that isn't such a horrible thing. Maybe that actually has to be the way.

Michael Paterniti

I wish it weren't. But I don't think we make enough time to eat. And if we haven't made enough time to eat, then it's better not to taste what we are eating. It's easier.

Ira Glass

Michael Paterniti in Portland, Maine. Coming up, a woman who thinks that This American Life is bad for an entire species, and when a perfumed handkerchief does not do what you want it to do. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. People Who Love Chickens And Hate This American Life.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today, during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the time of year when poultry consumption is at its greatest in this country, we bring you our annual Poultry Slam, stories of chickens, turkeys, ducks, fowl of all kind, and our relationship with them. We have come to act three of our program, Act Three, People who Love Birds and Hate This American Life.

Well, I hold in my hand a stack of, I'd say that it's about 50 letters that I've received from around the country. Here is one from Yonkers, New York. It begins, "Dear Mr. Glass, I was profoundly shocked to learn that for two years in a row, during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season, you have produced a Poultry Slam program, in which cruel and demeaning jokes and anecdotes are told about chickens and turkeys." Here's another letter from Santa Monica. It begins, "Dear Mr. Glass, we were profoundly shocked to learn that for two years in a row, during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season, you have produced a Poultry Slam program--"

The wording is identical in these. In fact, the wording is identical in most of the letters. The first wave of mail was organized by a woman named Karen Davis, head and founder of a group called United Poultry Concerns. We invited her onto the program to correct whatever misinformation she thought we were spreading. She, in turn, invited me out to her home, out in poultry country in eastern Virginia.

Karen Davis

OK, birds, let's go.

Ira Glass

Every morning, Karen lets 55 birds out of the converted garage behind her house. They stay in there overnight as protection against predators.

Karen Davis

It's OK. Come on. Hi, birds. Come on out.

Ira Glass

It's a lovely, friendly chaos, like a scene from Dr. Doolittle.

[ROOSTER CROWING]

Karen Davis

All right, good. Go on outside.

Ira Glass

Nearly all of these birds are refugees from the commercial poultry industry. Karen started taking care of birds that had fallen out of trucks, or had been left behind, or escaped. She let animal shelters know that she would care for chickens. People started bringing her birds. She gets birds from school hatching projects. And now, she's got a big, fenced-in back yard full of them.

Karen Davis

These two roosters are the kinds of birds who are used by the meat industry. As you can see, they're extremely large, very overweight. They're crippled. They're typical.

Ira Glass

When you say crippled, how are they crippled?

Karen Davis

Well, one is sitting because he can't get up. And they have skeletal problems. It's their entire skeleton through their system is just not able to accommodate the rapidly growing body that's imposed upon the skeletal system when they're young. So they are very susceptible to being crippled and to having a wide range of skeletal diseases.

Ira Glass

In nature, it takes a chicken six months to grow to full maturity. But with selective breeding and specially formulated feed, the poultry industry now raises a bird to full size in just six weeks. Then they're butchered.

What Karen Davis is doing is keeping birds alive that are not designed to live very long. Putting on all this extra weight so fast, so young, strains the heart and lungs, she says. And typically, their bodies give out when they're just two years old. That's versus traditional breeds, which can live 10, 15 years.

And what she finds when she cares for these birds in a loving way, outside the crowded chicken houses they were born into, is that they defy the stereotypes that most people have about chickens. They're not stupid, or dirty, or cold-hearted. Take Henry, one of the first birds Karen brought home.

Karen Davis

Henry had fallen off a truck. He was from a breeder operation. He had a severely debeaked upper beak. And he was covered with filth. He eventually became very snowy white. And he was very scared of people. And he was like anybody who's lived as a creature with no identity in a mass situation. He had no sense of who he was or where he was.

But this changed. After he had been with me and my husband for about three or four months, he became very, very affectionate. He liked to be held. His feathers came in very beautifully. And he became a very sweet, affectionate bird. And he would come when I would call him up the back steps. And he--

Ira Glass

Here's one area where Karen Davis is completely in the right, and I and my radio staff have been absolutely wrong. In our earlier Poultry Slams, three or four times, people referred to chickens as stupid, as having no personality. In last year's show, at one point, I myself declared that if chickens had a personality, that personality seemed to be that they're a pain in the ass. And while this may be true for the chickens I observed, which were raised in the crowded gulag of commercial production, chickens raised properly, well, they can be kind of sweet.

Karen Davis

Want to demonstrate your sweetness? Do you? This hen has been with us since she was 10 weeks old. Haven't you been?

Ira Glass

Karen showed me Ella, who likes her neck stroked. And Elise, who jumps over the fence every morning and jumps back in every night. And Lois and Lambrusco, a pair who stick together all the time. And Dolores, who's sort of shy. She says meat-eaters like me usually don't like to think that chickens have personalities, because then it would be too hard to eat them.

Karen Davis

They're very homey birds. That's another thing is if you brought a chair out here, and you were sitting out here reading a book, or working on something, or you sat out on the steps, they'll all collect around you. They like to be with you. They like to sit with you. They like to preen themselves next to you. And they'll sit with you for hours. That was one of the first things that drew me to them.

Ira Glass

We hung around the yard for half an hour and then went inside. She made a pot of coffee. And when we got to discussing This American Life, I have to say the mood got a good bit chillier. Karen Davis sees our annual Poultry Slam as one long piece of insensitive, anti-chicken propaganda.

Karen Davis

I thought it was a disgusting show. And it was just in the typical tradition of let's make dirty jokes about poultry and do it in a variety of voices. And it's just a mean-spirited show. It's very irresponsible, very irresponsible, to present lies, to really just take a collage of hostile attitudes and complacent, smirking voices and put them all together and feel that we're doing something worthwhile. I understand that the show says something to the effect that this is about America, and this American life, and how we see ourselves. And it's really about us and not about them. But it's the birds who get the bad rap.

Ira Glass

If you've heard much of today's program at all, if you didn't just turn on your radio a moment or two ago, then you got a pretty good sense of the tone of our previous Poultry Slams. And even stories that actually tried to document cruelty to poultry, for instance one woman's rather grim memoir of growing up on a turkey farm, even this, Karen found offensive in tone and in spirit.

I pointed out that half the stories in previous years had not even been about real chickens. One was about a duck hand puppet. One was about a radio superhero called Chicken Man. One was an opera about Chicken Little, staged entirely with finger puppets.

[MUSIC PLAYING FROM "LA PULCINA PICCOLA"]

But Karen would have none of it.

Karen Davis

I remember this woman speaking about the chicken as opera diva, which again, of course, was just a joke, and about Chicken Little being an opera diva. That itself is, again, disparaging. It's not the worst kind of thing you can do. But the woman's whole voice, the very tone of her voice, the attitude, the way she talked about chickens, was not in a spirit of goodwill. It's an ill-willed presentation.

Ira Glass

I just have to differ with you. When I think about the woman in that story, she's very affectionate towards the characters in her opera.

Karen Davis

She made some hostile comments about chickens, again, that had no connection to who chickens even are. And maybe she doesn't even know any chickens herself. She's just doing what so many people do. She's just talking off the top of her head. And chickens are easy to, again, make into characters who you can laugh and smirk over.

Ira Glass

But I guess I'm saying, she's not laughing and smirking. She loves her chicken characters, like all the birds in the thing. She clearly loves them.

Karen Davis

She said something to the effect on that show that chickens had no personalities and didn't know who they were. I don't remember exactly what it was. But it was one of those kinds of statements.

Ira Glass

But that was just one moment in a story that, in a certain way, had less to do with chickens and much more to do with what it means to create something emotional and grand out of something so small as finger puppets. Karen Davis and I argued for a long time about whether there was anything in our program at all, besides slander against chickens. And in the end, we simply do not agree. I asked her why, if there's this genocide of millions of chickens a day, with ads on television encouraging people to tear at chickens' flesh with their teeth, ads that reach many more people than we do on our radio show, why go after us?

Ira Glass

Do you feel like somehow by stopping us, that that's going to change the situation for chickens, that that's going to have an impact on the number of birds killed and mistreated?

Karen Davis

It could. You're part of the problem. As long as you do this show called a Poultry Slam, you're part of the problem. You're one of the reasons. You're one of the many components of the abuse. You're part of the problem.

[MUSIC - "CHICKENS" BY HARRY BELAFONTE]

Act Four. The Meaning Of A Bird.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Meaning of a Chicken. For most of us who have little to no contact with living, breathing chickens, the fact is that chickens mean what we decide that they mean. We have this story from David Rakoff, which begins far, far away from any chicken house.

David Rakoff

Friday nights of my childhood and early adolescence were spent at weekly meetings of a socialist, Zionist, youth movement. My brother, sister, and I were members. The meetings took a variety of forms. There were the earnest discussions of Marx and the great labor Zionist thinkers like Theodore Herzl and A. D. Gordon, bull sessions about who in the group had hurt whose feelings, and playing air guitar to "Come Sail Away" by Styx. All activities that formed us into pretty deeply committed young socialists, ready at the age of 15 for the ultimate prize the movement could bestow, a summer living and working on a kibbutz, one of the collective farms that were a central part of settling the Jewish state.

There, we would meet other members of the movement from all over the world and spend many a happy hour engaged in honest labor, laughingly baling sheaves of wheat, picking olives, oranges, peaches, grapes, the sweat on our brows a shining reminder of the nobility of collective farming. In the evenings, we would gather together and dance around the fire, sing Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young songs and, if one's older siblings were any indication, lose our virginity. Years later, we would renounce our bourgeois upbringings and return to Israel, making lives of simple, agrarian bliss. This would all change for me in one single evening, in a shed of 5,000 chickens.

The kibbutz I was assigned to was one of the oldest in Israel, settled in 1928 by Jews from Russia, Poland, and Germany. For the most part, our arrival was met with little to no notice. We were just another group of volunteers, no different from the countless other Europeans and Australians just passing through, taking time out to pick fruit, work on their tans, and contract cystitis from their rampant and unchecked coitus. But we were different. We were members of the movement.

I thought that our political ardor would be immediately apparent. I had visions of our bus being greeted by garlanded, folk-dancing youth, so happy to have us there to share in their dream. I had been raised on a fairly steady diet of just such socialist, utopian Ziegfeld numbers, songs, film strips, and oral histories that all attested to just this scenario.

Trees weren't simply trees. They were jungle gyms of plenty, with smiling children clambering over their branches. A field was somewhere you brought your guitar, so that your comrades could dance down the rows after the day's work was over.

I was assigned to pick pears. Work would begin at 4:00 AM and finish sometime mid-morning, before the heat had set in. How filled with fervor I was that first morning, the light barely dawning as I headed out in the back of the truck, wearing my simple work shirt, a pair of shorts, and the traditional sun hat worn by so many pioneers who had come before me to make the desert bloom. I should pause here to point out that we actually said things like "make the desert bloom," all the time. So off I headed to the orchard.

I know I sound like the Central Casting New Yorker I've turned myself into with single-minded determination when I say this, but the main problem with working in the fields is that the sun is just always shining. Dyed-in-the-wool Northerner that I am, it became apparent after about two days that I was completely unsuited to working outside. And I was moved around among the kibbutz's various interior jobs, the furniture factory, the metal irrigation parts factory, and the kitchen, assured all the while by the group leader that there was nothing emasculating or ersatz socialist in being moved inside. After all, each according to his needs, each according to his abilities. My abilities seemed to lie in passing out from heat stroke after a scant two hours in an orchard.

This continued for weeks. It was a somewhat idyllic, if not a mite monotonous existence, that is, until the long night of the chickens. The boys of our group were gathered together one day and told in the hushed tones reserved for trying to avert impending disaster that we would forgo our regular work details and spend the night from midnight until dawn packing truckloads of poultry.

Why this needed to be done with such urgent secrecy under cover of night and why the girls were excused was never explained to us. And we didn't ask. We greeted the news with the respectful Hemingway silence of the Y chromosome, no dopey girls allowed. It was all imbued with nocturnal, testicular melodrama, like some summer stock production of Das Boot.

We slept that evening from 9:00 to 11:00, what I would come to know later, in a far different context, as a disco nap. We rose, drank some tea. The girls sprayed perfume into some handkerchiefs for us to wear around our noses and mouths. And we were off in trucks to do battle with the insurgent chickens. The scene had everything but the diner waitress standing in the road watching us go, worriedly wiping her hands on her gingham apron.

The chicken coop of the kibbutz was a one-storied structure of corrugated iron, about half the size of a football field. It emitted a low rumbling, a vague buzz that you could hear from far away. And of course from even farther away, there was the smell, a smell of such head-kicking intensity as to make a perfume-sprayed handkerchief almost adorable in its valiant naivete, Wile E. Coyote warding off a falling boulder with his paper parasol. And the combination of floral scent and dung merely increased the vileness.

Chicken [BLEEP] is horrible stuff. Unlike cow manure, which according to David Foster Wallace, smells "warm and herbal and blameless," chicken [BLEEP] is an olfactory insult, a snarling, saw-toothed, ammoniac, cheesy smell, needlessly, gratuitously disgusting, a stench of such assaultive tenacity that it burns your eyes. Rather than making you never want to eat a chicken again, it simply makes you angry. It makes you hold a grudge. You'll eat chicken again, by god, and you'll chew really, really hard.

One of the barrel-chested Israelis shows us what to do. Pick up four chickens in each hand. This is done by grabbing hold of the birds by one leg. "If the leg snaps," he says, "it doesn't matter, just to get four in each hand. B'seder?" he says. OK?

He faces us, holding the requisite eight, four in each hand, living masses of writhing feathers. He looks like some German expressionist cheerleader, his pom-poms alive, convulsing, filthy. "Who will see their dreams fall away into the abyss and eventually succumb to the crushing sadness and meaninglessness of it all? We will. And what does that spell? Madness. Louder. I can't hear you."

He crams the chickens roughly into a blue plastic crate smeared with wet guano. "And you close the lid, and tchick tchack," he tells us, clapping his hands with "that's that" finality. Before I even try, I know that I will not be able to do this. It is midnight, and we will be here until dawn, or until the truck is piled to capacity with crated birds.

I walk out into the sea of chickens. I reach down and grab one, its leg a slightly thicker, segmented chopstick. I recoil and stand up. I take a fetid breath, regroup, and bend down with new resolve, grab the chicken by its body with both hands, thinking somehow that might be preferable. Although how I think I'm going to get eight of them this way, I'm not sure. Its ribs expand and contract under my fingers, a dirty, warm, live umbrella. I drop the bird as if it were boiling hot.

I leave the coop and go out to the trucks. Hoisting myself up onto the flatbed, I start to help with the stacking of the full crates. I know that my unilateral decision to change my task is met with displeasure on the part of the men who run the coop, but I do not care. Their muttered comments are predicated on a direct poultry-penile relationship. I might as well have spurned the stag party whore or gone to the woodshop and fashioned myself a sign that said "fag." "Ma ito? What's the matter with him," the head of the work detail asks when he sees me on the truck.

[SPEAKING HEBREW], he is answered, using the female pronoun when referring to me. "The lady doesn't like the chickens."

It would be years before I was referred to as "she" again, and then very rarely and only as a joke by friends. I turn around to look at the man, making it quite clear to him that I understand what they are saying. The man who called me "she" avoids my eyes and busies himself with straightening a pile of crates and tightening the tarpaulin on the side of the truck. "You're right," I tell him in Hebrew. "She doesn't like the chickens."

Have you ever had one of those moments when you know that you are being visited by your own future? They come so rarely and with so little fanfare, those moments. They're not particularly photogenic. There's no breach in the clouds to reveal the shining city on a hill, no folk-dancing children outside your bus, no production values to speak of, just a glimpse of such quotidian, incontrovertible truth that after the initial shock at the supreme weirdness of it all, a kind of calm sets in. So this is to be my life.

At that very moment, I saw that I would never live on a kibbutz. I would not lose my virginity that summer to any of the girls from the group. Indeed, I would not care to do so. I am grateful to that macho blowhard. He made me consciously realize what I had always known but been somehow unable to say to myself. He's right. I don't like chickens. I like men.

Now, I live in Manhattan, the un-kibbutz, where nobody would dream of touching a live chicken, where whatever spirit of collectivist altruism people might have had dried up long ago. At camp, when I was young, I and the other children of affluent professionals would gather under the trees every day to sing before going into lunch. One of the songs was always "The Internationale," the hymn of the proletariat. One summer, we were even taught to sing it with our left fists raised.

We were, none of us, by any stretch of the imagination, what could be described as prisoners of starvation, wretched of the earth, or enthralled slaves. Admittedly, they are all catchier metaphors and easier to scan than, "Arise, ye children of psychiatrists," but they had little to nothing to do with us personally. And yet, for those few moments when we were singing, those words seemed so true. How can I describe to you that 11-year-old's sense of purpose, that thrill of belonging to something larger, something outside of my own body, the sheer heart-stopping beauty of a world of justice and perfection rising on new foundations. And that one line, "We have been naught. We shall be all."

Naught. It spoke as much about my wish to be delivered from this pre-adolescent self-loathing as it did to any consciousness of liberating the masses. But it held such promise of what I might hope for that even now, as I write this, I can still call up that old fervor. It still makes my breath catch in my throat.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff's a writer in New York.

Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder, contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from [? Emmie Takehara, ?] Sylvia Lemus, and [? Leah Pogatchnik. ?]

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WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who describes the experience of listening to our radio program this way.

Michael Paterniti

You really, I think, fall into a bit of an existential crisis. What the hell am I doing?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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