On Processing Chickens for the First Time

Followers of the blog I just recently digested Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Afterwards I embarked on my own Pollanesque eating experiment.  This past weekend I visited a friend’s farm where I processed chickens for the first time.

My friends, Eli and Amber, worship at my congregation and began selling chickens, eggs and vegetables to us a while back.  We decided to volunteer to help them process some chickens one afternoon, partly as a “thank you”, partly as a learning experience.  I felt like Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs, which is funny, considering he usually explores jobs most of us know nothing about or easily forget happen, and plenty of people slaughter chickens or know something of how it works.  I figured if I was going to really absorb this literature and echo the message of natural eating, I should experience more food raw preparation.  Since I hadn’t been able to catch, clean and cook a fish on my vacation, I should at least process a farm animal.

The farm is out in Floyd, VA, where Eli and Amber raise chickens, turkeys and pigs, grow corn, squash, tomatoes and other vegetables.  They are currently selling to friends, but are expanding to sell at markets.  On our visit we processed about two dozen chickens.  Our morning went as follows:

1. Slaughter—They killed their chickens the kosher way, cutting their jugulars rather than chopping their heads off (which I was told causes the chickens to go into shock before actually dying).  Chicken blood is surprisingly bright red.
So much depends upon
the bright red blood
and the glazed eyes
of a white chicken.

So, anyway, how did I feel watching this chicken die?  For the first time, it was a bit sad, a tad bit gross, and and sort of relieving.  The chicken fought as it was put in the funnel, but once it’s throat was cut it clucked once and laid still as it quickly lost consciousness and died.  I felt especially good it was done in such a quick and humane way.  Oh, and no, I didn’t do it myself.  They recommended we watch.  Not that I was too chicken, or anything.  You know, too chicken.

2. Plucking—Dip it in hot water to loosen the shoots and pluck.  You can do it the ol’ fashion way, or you can use the neat homemade plucking machine we used, a drum with plastic do-hickeys and a wheel that spins it.  We just had to pluck the leftover straggler feathers.

3. Cleaning—Chop off the legs and head.  Cut horizontal above the groin.  Grab it by the stomach and pull out the guts slowly by the intestines.  Try to leave the fat.  Cut slits in the breast for the legs to be stuffed into.  This was the gross part, shoving my hand up a warm chicken and feeling things, having to grab them and yank them out.  I was a little grossed out by the process, but not made nauseous.  It was a necessary grossness, like changing diapers.  It did not deter me from wanting to eat the chicken.  It only made me appreciate it more.

4. Packaging—Rinse out, wrap in a bag, and store.

It was a good morning, my wife and I processing with another couple in a cool, shady place, a small rain beginning once we finished and washed everything off.  Afterwards I treated myself to herding the chickens out of their house and into the yard, where Eli lets them wander freely.  He takes the guts and dumps them in a ditch several yards away, to keep the foxes satisfied enough not to sneak into the pen.  I spot a hen quietly laying in a cubby, three fresh eggs resting below her.  I’ve had eggs from this henhouse before, and they were robust and rich.  I was eager to receive another dozen.

Amber takes one of the chickens and serves it up for lunch with corn and beans they grew, as well as rice and rolls.  It was a very pleasant meal, and the freshest chicken I ever recall having.  I could taste it in the meat, so soft and juicy, and having taken part in its preparation made it even more satisfying.

We took two of the chickens home with us.  One of them my wife used to make one of her famous dishes: Poppyseed chicken, always served with a side/dessert of cheesy pineapple.  A meal of much sugar and fat, but at least we could say we used real hearty chickens.  It was an early birthday present.

I learned a few more things about farming laws and practices.  When Pollan’s book came out, it seems, you had to circumvent USDA laws by having a no-walls processing space.  Now, walls or not, you can bypass some of the slaughter rules if you raise a certain minimum of fowl or livestock, qualifying you as a small, non-industrial operation.  I also learned that in many factory farms the chickens are so crowded together that they turn cannibal and peck at one another until they draw blood, so some farmers turn out the lights on them so they don’t see each other.   I was happy to have eaten a chicken I knew not only had “access” to roam outside the house, but was ensured to have it by a farmer who personally herded them out.

But I think the most important thing I learned was that my wife looks  stunning with a butcher’s apron and galoshes.

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