Back in November I helped murder 21 beautiful geese. I did it in part because of my brother, Matt. We grew up together as vegetarians. Eating meat was always an option as our family were mixed veggie-meat eaters, but it was only I who turned to the dark side. During my teenage years it became obvious that I should eat meat to fit in with my peers. Yet it led to a persistent feeling of guilt. I knew animals had to die for my dietary choices (despite my grand ignorance of how and why food makes it to the supermarket). So I told Matt several times over the years that If I ‘had’ to kill, I would. This was how I justified eating meat to myself.
When the opportunity came up to kill geese, then? I didn’t ‘have’ to do it. Regardless, I felt a moral duty. It seemed simple: eat meat, animals die. Offloading the responsibility onto others represents yet another severance in the food system between individual knowledge, empowerment, and ultimately, consequence. Should I allow myself to be a mere “consumer” in the food system, or face the reality of my participation? Stay home to do coursework or stick to a moral standard I would expect of others?
If you are used to slaughtering and feel my post is somewhat melodramatic please bear in mind that I am an urbanite who had never killed a vertebrate animal before. For the rest, I give one warning – this post contains graphic descriptions and images of the process. For a version of this post without bloodied photographs, click here.
Our work gang stayed for the weekend at a charming smallholding near Arbroath, in Angus countryside. Most of us were from the MSc in Gastronomy at Queen Margaret University, but a few neighbours also joined, as did the author of The Ethical Carnivore, Louise Gray. Our car ride from Edinburgh was pleasant and started jovially. As we drove on, though, my bravado and self-congratulation were overtaken by uncertainty and nerves. By the time we arrived it was dark, cold, and slippery damp. Our hosts gave us a very warm welcome and explained the killing method over a cup of tea. And that was it: shoes and coats back on then out to the geese.
There are multiple ways to kill birds for food. Electrocution, decapitation, firearm. I had read that smaller operations tend to do geese with stunning followed by arterial cut. So I was intrigued to find that our hosts preferred neck dislocation. I know this is a routine way to kill chickens. But mind that geese have strong necks, and they’re pretty big birds. Wringing a goose’s neck is therefore an intimate method of slaughter.
We gathered in the dark with two wheelbarrows. The geese were beside us in a stone barn of sorts. Very quiet. A practical demonstration was given. Our host walked into the barn and carried out a calm, pristine white goose, and passed it into the arms of a gang member. He stroked from the head backward down the neck two or three times. The firm caress was bittersweet. It seemed our host was partly feeling for vertebrae, partly saying goodbye to the bird. Then, it took all but a second or two for the goose’s head to be firmly twisted around, one, two, three times, “And that it. That’s it. She’s gone.”
“It’s really struggling against me…”
“Yes, yes, yes, just hold on,” he said. “She’s definitely dead. Totally gone. That’s it.”
At this point I was feeling scared. Unsure if I’d actually be able to do it, and my stomach turning, I told myself I had to. Because that’s what I came for. But… Surely better just not to do it? Seeing that happen is enough. Just go back to being vegetarian. No Jim – take responsibility! It isn’t meant to be enjoyable. Face reality. Be reality!
My internal conversation went on and on as every other gang member tried their hand at killing. Some of them did a great job, quick and clean. The geese were very calm, and warm. I held several in my arms as they were killed – and as such I feel myself directly responsible for all those deaths. More than one of my birds struggled for what seemed several minutes after having their neck snapped, wings flexing and feet scrabbling against my waterproof coat. At least twice I could feel the heartbeat of the bird through my own chest slowing ‘til imperceptible. All the while corpses were laid in the wheelbarrows.
Not all the kills went quite to plan. One gang member felt the neck give and stopped twisting. As he stepped back I got a view of the limp goose’s head slowly unwinding itself and returning to the upright. It wasn’t vertebrae separating that the ganger felt, rather skin tearing. So with head raised high, the goose’s neck muscle was completely exposed by about an inch the entire way around. We were all hushed except for the goose, who honked quietly. The ganger tried twisting again – getting sprayed with blood in the process – but couldn’t quite get the kill, so our host put a swift end to it.
To my gentle townie mind that slowly unwinding head and shiny muscle was like something from a horror movie. The goose must have suffered. Was the pain worth it in order to give someone the opportunity to connect with the reality of our food system? I can’t say. And at the time I just couldn’t bring myself to try the wringing. I felt that if I mucked it up and the goose suffered, that it simply would not be acceptable. Or did I? I was already disturbed from holding the warm, wriggling corpses. Thinking back, I’m not sure quite how to untangle what thoughts were going through my mind by the time we were nearly done.
In the end I just couldn’t do it.
But no time to rest. With all the geese dead we had to cut off the heads and hang the bodies overnight. Speed was the name of the game. We barrowed the corpse piles into an adjoining stone work room, tied the feet, and took up a variety of knives. I forced myself to cut off several heads and it was more disturbing than expected. The birds were just so warm, clean, and soft. It felt wrong, and ungracious, to lay them out and practically saw the head off. I was unexpectedly squeamish about holding the head whilst cutting: How to avoid touching the half-shut eyes? Would I accidentally push my fingers into some join between the neck and skull?
My hands were very cold. The bodies were being hung in clutches above two plastic bins, to collect the blood which would be later cooked and eaten. One of the hanging nails couldn’t take the weight and we had to do an emergency translocation. But once that was sorted, plus a little wiping up of blood, we simply returned to the house for food and drink.
At least, my body returned. My mind was half-stuck by the barn. Through imagination I could still feel the heartbeat of dead geese against me. Was I upset? A sort of numbness had descended and I knew that the thousand-yard stare had set in. Several other gang members gently asked me if I was OK, and Louise spent a little time talking over what we had just done. Later, after dinner and a few beers, I started to perk up. As I went to bed I resolved to do every task the next day. Because I somehow felt that my inability to twist a single goose head off was weak, I also mentally claimed ownership of whatever the most repulsive and disgusting work turned out to be.
Claim that task is exactly what I did. Over breakfast there was some discussion about the severed heads. Our hosts used as much of the geese as they could to minimise waste: feet for dog treats, fat from the intestines rendered for cooking, feathers for pillows and quills, and so on. Heads were one part they just couldn’t do anything with. I forget who it was but someone floated a question: Has anyone ever had goose tongue? The answer was (unsurprisingly?) No all around.
Butchering out goose tongues sounded horrible so I volunteered to do it. I used to be a chef and am still handy with a knife. But first, some group work to be done. Before all else the bins of blood required emptying/collecting and cleaning. In the case of the latter this saw me half crouching-half laying in a full size, bloodied wheelie bin, scrubbing as quickly as possible. Afterwards I hung around to watch how the feet were cut off. But I was wet and freezing cold, and with so many of us it seemed pointless to wait for a turn. So back into the kitchen with a box of 21 goose heads.
Heads. With brains in. Again, the eyes – must avoid touching. Two others joined me for the task, one a fellow gastronaut and the other a neighbour of our hosts. We had to get the beaks open to cut out the tongues but it proved difficult. Thank you, rigor mortis. Not to go on about it, but fumbling and straining to prise apart the palate of a severed head is utterly uncomfortable for the initiate.
Once open, we realised that cutting out the tongue required more room to manoeuvre. How? Well the neighbour used his hands to pull apart the jaws and split a head wide open. I tried to do the same but couldn’t manage. I don’t know whether or not this was a strength or commitment issue, or perhaps just his goose versus mine. So I took a knife and, because there was company, told myself to give a goose head a ‘Glasgow smile’. Frankly I felt sick. The thing about geese is that their various body parts are still so much like our own, it is easy to imagine oneself in their position. Similar for fellas seeing another lad get kicked in the ghoulies.
Now it wasn’t a question of touching the eyes. It was something beyond: Pulling a head in half. Not with a machine of human fabrication but my own skin, against the cold tongue, the serrated inner beak. I yanked, meat tore, and the tongue protruded.
Six heads later and something changed. Suddenly I didn’t give a shit. I felt for the first time in years like a chef. Cut, pull, tongue oot, knife in aaaand. Meat released! The last few heads were nought but an opportunity to stick something gross in the face of my mates. Cynical millennial after all?
Or maybe just a biologist. During my undergraduate degree I dissected a wide range of invertebrates. Animals of all sizes are fascinating when you spend time studying their anatomical adaptations. A sort of ‘biomindfulness’ turned out to be a major part of my day, as I was left alone to consider the best method of preparing 21 excised goose tongues.
The domestic Embden tongue turned out to be much like in other Anserinae. It was a rough, tough, and horny piece of gear, good for tearing vegetation and sucking grain. There was a fleshy part towards the front and top. Underneath, an incredibly hard spoon-like structure (that I now understand to be called the entoglossal bone). Large projections, known as the lingual nail, pointed back towards the gullet. “Why would anyone eat this thing?” I thought, “You’d have to be starving!” I played around with one tongue to see where the knife would go. The liberated flesh was thin and spongy, very light pink below the soiled surface. Some sort of cream-coloured gland was visible on the reverse side which could be everted from the flesh by squeezing. I carried on rubbing back against the rough papillae of the dorsal surface to figure out how much skin to cut off.
Eventually I got pretty good at cleaning up the little slivers of meat and could produce a uniform, smooth pink amuse bouche. As I prepared the final handful one of our hosts came to the kitchen. A small tub was placed on the stove and he filled it with hot water. My gang mates had processed the bodies so far as clipping the wings, removing feet, and slicing off the necks. It was now time to prepare the carcasses for plucking. In our case wet plucking, where a minute-long blanching in hot water helped to loosen the feathers. With my tongues all ready I went out to the work room for some plucking and socialising.
Joining a small group in the stone work room was fun. I was proud of myself for cutting out the tongues, so was up for a bit of bolshy chat. Fellow gastronaut Luke showed me how to pluck. We all laughed, chatted about Christmas, how we felt about the killing and today’s work. There was a bit of chat about national identity, journalism. At first the feathered bodies still very much felt like an animal and were a reminder of the previous evening’s murders. But as the plucking progressed the carcass started to look like the meat one buys from a butcher or – as most of us do – supermarket. Plucking the ‘armpit’ was a standout moment, reminiscent again of shared testicular pain. Pulling the fine feathers made me want to clamp my own arms to my sides. Ouch, ouch!
Once again my hands were absolutely freezing. Goosedown was everywhere, and my hoodie sodden. With one bird a seemingly never-ending source of feathers my temper flared and I had the urge to lash out. I wanted to punch that piece of shit goose! I didn’t, of course. It wasn’t my goose and besides, we were with company. So I did the next best thing, which was to share my desire with the others. “Jim! I can’t believe you!” said Louise. “What? I’m just being honest…”
Crass, of course. Still, the sentiment was on point. The bird was well and truly meat. Something to be bought, sold, and traded. In a poetic linguistic turn the goose had become a goose.
And that wasn’t the only turning point. Our manipulations of the carcasses during plucking meant two things. One, our dearly departed geese would periodically honk as air was pressed out of the body cavity. Two, they would fart most odiously. We laughed and laughed at the sounds and smells. Later – though I didn’t see this personally – one gang member played a dozen geese up and down as if they were a biological piano.
I ought to stress at this point how complex the emotional run had become. I was very cold and hungry, most certainly tired, desperate for a laugh, for release from my thoughts. Louise gave a good summary of my state of mind, “It would be wrong if we just came and killed the geese last night but didn’t come back today, right?” Another gastronaut, Dave, “You have to laugh.”
At some point we stopped to eat a late lunch/early dinner. I think the plucking was finished. We brought the tongues back to the kitchen and our host chucked one in the air, gulping it down raw. Well, why not? No one else was so brave.
Luke flicked some butter in the pan and I gave a quick demonstration of tongue butchering prep. After thirty seconds on the hob we passed around the twisted little sputterings. Even the idea of eating tongue was enough to put me off but yet again I forced myself on. I could see the gland had expanded in the hot butter. The flavour was OK – not much to it. Texturally it had a bit of bite, kinda like squid or snail, but it did leave me feeling a bit funny.
Around a big table we tucked into Soay lamb, roast tatties and so on. I quite like lamb. But the warm bodies of dead geese suddenly dominated my mind’s eye. Those fading heartbeats and the torn neck. I had no idea how this lamb died. It could have been the sheep version of Horror Movie goose. Now the meat was sour in my mouth and it took plenty of wine to wash it down. I felt bad for my hosts who were so happy to have us and to present the lovely meat. I also became acutely aware of my place as a known ‘sensitive’ in the room. Tired and disgusted with my part in goose murder, I swallowed back a panic attack and thought about my wife at home in Edinburgh.
Thankfully even a cheese course and pudding couldn’t stop our hosts from moving on. Sunlight fading, it was time to finish up by eviscerating the geese.
We gathered back at the work house. Another practical demonstration. Cut here, reach in this way, feel for such and such, pull firmly on the gizzard. Avoid breaching the gall bladder. Slide the fat off the intestines like so. And that’s it!
“And that’s it.” Except that every viscera was still warm after a day and a half in the freezing cold. For God’s sake. Hadn’t plucking finally put a nail in these damn birds? I realised once and for all that temperature plays a big part in my own sense of when an animal is alive or not. All of us were deep into a carcass. Packed in side by side. Someone over here tore the intestines. One unlucky individual split open the gall bladder, releasing the most intensely green pigment. I was completely confused for the first bird, not really sure where or what my hands were groping inside the cavity. Don’t split. Please. Oh God, is that..? Oh no, just a bit of poop. OK. Pull… pull…
The smell was revolting. Luke couldn’t hack it. He kept coming in and out, heaving. My own guts were churning as I excavated avian organs from a second carcass. And once that was done I’d had enough. We trickled back to the kitchen for weighing, packing, and thank-yous. At some point two pans of fat made their way onto the stove to render. Thirty minutes later and the room smelled of a thousand concentrated goose farts.
Once all the carcasses were clingfilmed our hosts gifted us each with a goose to take away. I couldn’t thank them enough for their hospitality, good company, and generosity.
The ride home was somewhat muted. Back in Edinburgh my wife listened sadly as I described the killing. We put the goose in the freezer, and every day since (more or less) I’ve thought about those two days. It was horrible. It was illuminating. It was fun.
This whole blog post has been written from my perspective. Killing and processing the geese was something I did. My motivation, recollection, and reflection, apply to me only. The other people in attendance will have had a shared experience to some extent because we did it together, but I don’t assume anything beyond that. Obvious to say, I know. But meat is a touchy subject. So let me say it straight: I don’t believe everyone else should think or act like I do regarding non-human animals.
My family certainly don’t. My dad knows how the goose was killed. After eating it for Christmas dinner he declared it to be the best he’s ever had. But he didn’t like seeing pictures of the severed head on Facebook and refused my private invitation to see photos of the tongues. My brother Jason wouldn’t kill an animal to eat it but he consumes bucketloads of meat. All my gastronomy coursemates and lecturers (bar one that I know of) are meat eaters. I’m sure that every single one would give different reasons for their dietary intake.
I want to reduce my environmental impact. I’d rather other animals not suffer at my expense. So, I can’t kill a goose with my bare hands, and I know that certain animals tend to be rather poor contributors to climate. Even if other people are OK with killing animals for me, a proportion of the slaughtered will experience panic or pain. It is inevitable. Therefore, it only seems right to go vegan.
But I won’t.
Not yet anyway. I have vegan acquaintances, enough time and money for ingredients (I think), ample access to the internet and its vegan communities. So there isn’t an information or skill barrier per se. But it would be difficult and time consuming to make the transition. And no one else in my family is vegan. Sitting at my Dad’s place now I know that he would make the effort to accommodate my choice if that’s how I went, but it would also be difficult for him at a practical level. Being vegan just isn’t who I am right now.
And that’s important. Emotion is key in food. I can’t look at a bird in the supermarket without thinking of my goose weekend and grimacing. But having well-reared meat for special occasions still draws me. That’s just what families like mine do. Certainly in Scotland there is a strong cultural norm to eat meat. So strong in fact that it may override concern for the climate or negative health outcomes from overconsumption. While I do eat meat it isn’t much. As other folk struggle with the concept of a ‘meatless Monday,’ my wife and I cook and eat vegetarian for weeks. I only order vegetarian pizza. Steak was once my treat when eating out. Now, I prefer to get a vegetarian burger.
So it could happen at some point. What about vegetarianism, then? Unlike veganism, it mean animals will live and die for my milk, eggs, and cheese. I don’t really know much about the quality of life or death they will have unless I know the farm. But like veganism, it means relying on plant and fungal based foods. I’ll be honest though. With the exception of fruit and veg most of the time I don’t check where food ingredients come from. My knowledge of their production is extremely limited. Palm oil is in everything and I’ve no idea if it comes from a plantation built on rainforest. Equally, the organic label can’t tell me much about sustainable practice or inclusion of biodiversity. Not all crops are bred equal in their impact to the environment, or to people, and the same is true for the sliding scale of farm management techniques. Unfortunately, being a vegan or vegetarian is no magic bullet for pure ethical eating.
For the > 95% of us Scots who buy from supermarkets, we generally don’t know where or how anything has been grown, processed, or transported. The small amount of information available from packaging is little help. Where exactly does one stop in the quest to understand the environmental impact of their food, or the quality of an animal’s life – or death?
Like all people, then, I have to choose an option that fits my current circumstances and sociological desires. It has to be practical. So vegetarian is alright. It’s acceptable to most everyone I know and we already have the skills to do it. Animals will still die, but far fewer than as a meat eater. I’ll still think of the geese and my cowardice. There’s no way around it.
But just going vegetarian is too simple, isn’t it? I’ve just described a couple of agronomical unknowns. The food system is incredibly complex. I am doing an MSc in Gastronomy. Socially, I don’t want to shut myself off to the experiences and norms of others. The older I become the more important it is to try new things and connect in unexpected or intimate ways. Food must absolutely be part of that. What’s more, I don’t want to shut myself off to the experiences and norms of my past self.
And because occasionally I’d like to be easy in a social situation, or experience food that is important to other people, I’ve decided this: I am now a pragmatic vegetarian. Or as most people know it: a meat eater who barely eats meat. Which is exactly what I was before this whole escapade!
I know that our actions are what leave a mark on the world, and are what everyone else sees. In some ways my dietary conclusion feels underwhelming to describe. But it is important to me to have changed my mindset somewhat. My animal diet will be stricter and meat eating will come from outside influence, rather than from inside. After seeing off the geese I feel like personal responsibility for non-human animal suffering is more important to me, emotionally. Environmental consequences of diet are generally in favour of vegetarianism and one reason I don’t eat much meat already.
Now importantly. Would I do it again? Would I try killing other animals?
Honestly I’m not really sure. Probably not, on both counts. It was a bonding experience and a change of pace that had me laughing. It was also downright disturbing. At the same time I still plan to eat meat even though I don’t have to. So really, looking back to my initial moral standard and justification for eating meat, if the opportunity comes up again I should do it. Murdering a gaggle of geese may be only the beginning…
PLEASE NOTE the smallholding did not rear these geese for sale.
Credit for photos: Stan Blackley. Thanks buddy.
Edited 06/01/2017 at request to remove a reference to someone.