Last week I butchered chickens, and with some of the leftover feet I made chicken stock. This may sound gruesome, but it is quite normal—or at least was quite normal in my great grandmother’s generation. The stock is more flavorful than most, and has a richer consistency because of the gelatin in the feet.

I wouldn’t have touched chicken feet if I hadn’t started farming. But there is something about raising an animal, keeping it for months as a living being, and then throwing away perfectly edible and useful parts. Raising a whole animal makes me want to eat the whole animal. And though I admit that I have been a little tenuous with some parts, I have been making an effort to eat as much as I can of every animal I kill. 

I think that there is an inverse proportion at play in our relationship with the earth and our ability and desire to eat an animal in its entirety. For the modern, America, middle-class urbanite, the only part of a chicken to eat is the breast. On occasion there is a leg or wing, but mostly it’s just a breast. That chickens have feet, backs, necks, and even combs that are all edible is beyond most of us because we never experience chickens as whole, living chickens. We only see nice, boneless white meat that tends to be low in calories.

That we are tentative about eating many parts of a chicken makes some sense because only 2 percent of the US population farms, so our relationship with food is extremely impersonal. Very few of us have chickens or have killed a chicken or have seen a chicken killed. 

Compare this with Asia where every part of the chicken except for the squawk and feathers are eaten. In Asia farming is still very close at hand. Even in countries like China where industrialization is proceeding rapidly, 43 percent of the population is still involved in farming. It will be interesting to see how eating changes in Asia as it becomes more urbanized; pretty soon, open-air markets where you can buy and witness the butchering of a chicken may give way to American-style supermarkets. 

If what we eat marks our relationship with the land and animals, then it is time to begin changing our eating habits. People like Chef Chris Cosentino have already done a good job of starting this work, but much more needs to be done. Ask yourself: Does it gross you out to make soup with chicken’s feet? Does a slug on your salad seriously bother you? If your answer is yes, then maybe it’s time to branch out a little. I can’t say that I found chicken feet appetizing myself at first, and I still haven’t gotten used to many of the other lesser-used parts of an animal. But that is the direction I think I should move if I want to eat from the earth and become closer to it. 

Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008