The cockerel was accidental. Lily and Marshall, my daughter and son-in-law, are fans of fresh eggs. Following the backyard chicken trend, they built a coop and ordered day-old chicks. Seven chicks arrived and thrived. But after a week or two, one began to strut and they knew he wasn’t going into the egg-laying business. So when the rooster began to crow (illegal in most Bay Area cities), his fate was sealed. And that is how I ended up at Saba Live Poultry, a halal butcher, with Lily, my grandson Max, and the cockerel.
Lily and Marshall wanted to learn how to shecht their chickens (kill them in a kosher manner), but that wasn’t an option in the Bay Area. In fact, when Urban Adamah tried to hold a shechting workshop a couple of years ago, animal rights activists shut it down. And so Lily settled for the halal butcher.
I went along for curiosity’s sake. In theory, I want to know how the food I eat gets to my table. In practice, I buy it from the grocery store or farmer’s market. Taking the cockerel to the butcher’s was a chance to fill the gap in my knowledge.
At the butchery, Lily handed him to an employee and settled down to watch the monitors displaying videos of the back room, where workers were efficiently dispatching the animals. Max and I looked at stacks of cages filled with placid chickens, pens of goats and sheep, and a small black cow. Finally, a man emerged from the back and, without a word, handed Lily a plastic bag filled with chicken parts.
Neither Lily nor I had felt any attachment to the cockerel, but we both felt responsible for a living creature’s death — and for how it died. “Next time,” Lily told me later, “I’ll do it myself. It’s my responsibility to take care of my chickens right until they go into my body, just like I’m responsible for taking care of my garden. I don’t need to experience killing my food but they’re my birds, and I care about them more than the butcher does.”
At almost 4, Max took the loss more personally — he was distraught. Though carefully unnamed, the cockerel had become his favorite. “It was fun picking him up. His cock-a-doodle was too loud, so we had to kill him. I didn’t want that to happen,” he said.
Still Max continues to eat roast chicken, saying with simple logic: “It’s OK to eat animals that you don’t know, but not animals you do know.”
His 5 1/2-year-old sister Frances agrees: “I don’t mind eating either the rooster or the girl chickens. Any animal with a name I remember, I don’t want to eat.”
Where do we draw the lines between food and not-food? All animals — carnivores, omnivores, vegetarians — live by killing and consuming other living things. As omnivores, humans can consume a wide variety of plants and animals. Yet all human cultures draw lines between food and not-food and suffuse those choices with symbolic and moral meaning. The experience with the cockerel brought home how Judaism and Jewish practice inform those lines.
Max’s line was knowing and Frances’ line was naming. Naming evokes the earliest stories in Torah: God names things, Adam names animals. We name and know other people — we don’t eat them. We name our pets and imagine we know them, giving them symbolic human status — we don’t eat them.
Lily’s dividing line is not as simple as naming and knowing. She sees herself bound in a web of responsibility: She both cares for and makes use of the plants and animals she raises. This complicated attitude also hearkens back to Genesis: Humans are put on this earth to care for it, but also to benefit from it.
Yet the balance between responsibility and utility does not account for the visceral response we had in watching the cockerel go from a living creature to chicken parts for the dinner table. My line between food and not-food has not changed. Still, the experience at the butcher’s has left me feeling more mindful of and grateful for the food I put in my mouth.
Patricia Keer Munro is a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies. She is the author of “Coming of Age in America: Bar and Bat Mitzvah Reinterpreted.”