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Butchering the Chickens at Home

January 12, 2010

July 28, 2009

The chickens, we did them in. 5, 10, 15…30. The little transistor radio perched on the woodpile played Michael Jackson songs as I lopped off heads and felt around for organs inside warm, freshly plucked birds. Heads down, hands moving, we worked our way through the job.

Calmly crate six birds. Set them in the shade far enough away that they can’t see what’s coming. Pick a bird and bring it to the killing cone. Cradle the head and carefully slice the neck, avoiding cutting into the trachea or esophagus. (We want them to bleed, not choke or drown.) Get another bird, repeat. After a thorough bleeding and assurance of death, scald them in a hot water bath, approximately 140 to 150 degrees. Plunge and agitate until tough wing feathers pull out easily, then hang the birds by the feet from the plucking line. Pluck up to the head – the necks will be included in the final package. Eviscerate after cutting off the head and feet. Carefully cut around the cloaca, or vent, (poo, pee and egg hole – yes, that’s right, there is just one hole – remember that when you are cracking eggs.)  Remove all the innards, reserving liver, hearts and kidneys. I’m over gizzards, but my 10-year-old daughter has her own area to process gizzards and her own bag of them in the freezer.  Be sure to get the crop out one way or the other, either from the neck or the body cavity. Scrape out the lungs. Cut the oil gland off the back of the bird just above the tail.

Rinse the gutted fowl and deposit in an ice bath. We are using a giant Igloo cooler filled with water and chilled with big ice blocks made from freezing recycled water jugs. After half an hour or more, the chickens are rotated into a cooler filled with just ice blocks, no water. When the job is finished, move the birds to a refrigerator to chill and rest for two days before vacuum-sealing them.

Our broilers were nine-weeks-old when butchered. For a flock of all females, which I believe are more tender though males grow faster and thus are usually chosen by meat chicken growers, I think they grew well in the cool weather. They consumed 17.5 bags of feed, including half a bag of cracked corn fed in the last three days of their lives. Most of the birds weighed six-plus pounds, and we had many six-and-a-half and even seven-pounders. I don’t want to get into price per pound, as it is hard to figure. Let’s just say it’s a number I know and don’t want to admit. We drive more than 1/2 an hour to attain feed (Orleans to exit 5) and it’s difficult to calculate all the additional expenses, including water, electricity for two heat lamps, the price of the heat bulbs, the multiple bales of pine shavings, propane to fire the scalding set-up and all the other little expenses that seem to accumulate as the weeks wear on. The birds aren’t worth selling – they would have to fetch at least $20.00 a piece to make sense. And that’s giving away the labor, butchering and packaging. Like gardening, raising your own meat birds should teach you the true value of food, and that to rely on just your own small plot of land would probably mean starvation. Any questions?

It started with a question, “What is it like to butcher chickens? I eat chicken, and I would like to know how it feels to get the bird from the farm to the fork. Someone, somewhere has to be in some way responsible for this moment…why not me?” And, to be honest, there is a moment. It is that instant at which a curious, warm, moving being is cut from the trajectory of its existence. It is the movement of the hand that says, “You now cease to exist on this plane.” It is the intentionality of that movement. After that, it’s all average kitchen work.

Truthfully, killing a chicken freaks me out. It gives me a head rush; it makes me shake a little, both outwardly and deep inside. Sink too deeply into that moment and one could easily become a vegetarian, or in my case, a fishitarian, as those sleek creatures of the sea yield to my blows in a way that I can handle. But the chickens, whom I’ve raised by hand, trouble me. So I have mostly passed that job on to my partner. Over the years, we’ve specialized. I pluck, I eviscerate, I monitor the ice bath and cold storage. He gathers the birds, kills and scalds, and all is well, with a winter’s worth of unrivaled, mindfully slaughtered chicken in the freezer.

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