PLEASE NOTE: SOME OF THE PHOTOS LINKED TO THIS POST ARE NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH. I’ve used my best judgment and have omitted some graphic images but have included images that may be challenging in order to honor the nature of the material. I have also only included links (instead of embedding the images) to respect those in the community that would be shocked or offended by the material.
(edit) NB: I don’t know why the photo links are not "live" — I guess it’ll have to be a cut’n’paste thang…
Hey all —
This past Sunday four friends & I harvested 48 broiler chickens. A couple (T&S) had raised them up from chicks and at approximately 10 weeks of age they were ready.
(Although many breeds are ready for harvest at 4-5 weeks, our friend S deliberately did not choose a breed of the sort that grows so big so fast that it becomes top-heavy and keels over [or breaks its legs] — and he and T did not feed them artificial growth-enhancing drugs or chemicals. One of the whole points was to try on the idea that one could raise one’s own non-CAFO/non-chemical-ized meat.)
As we also live in the mid-Hudson Valley of NY state, the foul weather is beginning to loom and the ersatz coop (really a hoop-house lookin’ thing with chicken wire and tarps instead of heavy plastic) would not in any way be up to sheltering them from real cold (it partially collapsed in the freak storm we had the weekend before Halloween). So it was time.
Another major point of this whole operation — at least for me — was to finally put to the test my longtime belief that I could, if necessary, kill and process my own meat.
(In conversation with vegetarians/vegans who asserted that if I was actually to understand the process by which animals become meat, I would not eat meat, my rejoinder was that "some day" I would hunt or raise some animal that I would then bring to the dinner table. "Some day" was this past Sunday.)
First I must give thanks and credit to T&S, who laid out the money in advance (as soon as we have a tally of how many pounds of chicken we harvested, divide that into the total cost to get a price-per-pound, and then multiply that by the # of pounds everybody took home [four families involved], we’ll all reimburse T&S…but they fronted the finances), fed and watered the little chicks, built the hoop-coop (and fixed it in the wake of the early snow), and finally did all the research on the how-to regarding actually turning live birds into freezer chickens (the latter a not-inconsiderable task unto itself).
We met on Friday night to go over some of the logistics involved for Sunday. We thought we would have as many as 7 people to handle the harvest, but as it turned out we were only five (more on the numbers later). T&S shared the overall plan they had worked out, and we all watched some youtube vids showing how it was done. The best was a short video of Joel Salatin, who demoed the process of dressing the carcass (removing organs, etc.) they use when they harvest their birds for their customers. (He performed the whole thing in about 2 minutes, and that was slowed down so that he could point on this and that. He could probably do an entire bird in ~ 30 seconds. But he’s had a wee bit of practice.)
We gathered on Sunday at around 8:30 a.m. After S and I got the propane burner going (same as the sort used to deep-fry Thanksgiving turkeys) to heat the scald-water, he walked me through the stations they had set up.
STATION 1: the hoop-coop. 48 birds behind tarps & chicken-wire (surrounded by a triple-wire electric fence to keep off the coyotes, foxes, racoons, fisher-cats, etc. who might fancy a tasty night-time snack). The step here was simple: two people enter the coop, each grabs up a bird, and they head for station two.
STATION 2: the killing cones. I first became aware of this method during the ’08 prez election when Sarah Palin was interviewed (unwittingly I believe) with a killing-cone in the background, in which a turkey was bled out while she answered questions from the reporter. S basically cut pieces of construction flashing perhaps two feet tall and maybe two feet wide. These are then curled around and fastened to themselves to yield a conical shape. These were then nailed to a crossbar that was nailed to a tree at approximately 5′ high, narrow end of the cone down. The birds go into the cones head-down (the head hangs out of the bottom of the cone). The cone prevents them from struggling too much and makes a clean, quick killing stroke much easier. Below each cone was a 5 gallon plastic bucket partially filled with wood chips to collect/absorb the blood. We had a stainless steel knife of exquisite sharpness hanging on a loop between the cones. To kill the chicken, one gently grasps its head and turns it to one side. Just to the rear of the eye and below the beak is the curve of the "jaw" (really the edge of the skull). The cut happens across the neck (I preferred to cut from the side of the neck towards the center) and severs the artery. Although the skin is delicate, the cut needs to be deep enough to hit the artery. It took a firm, but not forceful, hand IME. There is an immediate spurt of blood. Within seconds the chickens eyes generally begin to close and according to the "experts" this is when the bird loses consciousness and feels nothing further. (Some birds make a squawk at this point, but most do not.) There is about a 15-20 second lull while the body goes limp. The heart continues to pump blood out, but in pulses, not spurts. Then there is anywhere from 15 seconds to a full minute of activity, ranging from kicking legs, to the neck curling or swaying back and forth, to the wings rattling inside the cone, to the eyes opening up (although I didn’t see any awareness in those eyes), to all of the above. Then this gradually fades away until the body relaxes completely. (On a few occasions I touched my hand to the side of the neck near the end of this latter stage — you can feel a tension and a sort of vibration in the body [I mean a real vibration, not a "vibe"]. This fades, fades, fades and the end of this tension signals the ultimate death of the chicken, where it can be removed from the cone and taken to the next station. Station 2 was by far the most intense and emotional for all of us who took part. It is the moment of the REAL: this is what being a carnivore means. You take the life of an animal and that vitality feeds your own. It’s bloody. There is no "nicing" your way around this moment. IMO, if you try to rationalize your way through it you’ve missed the whole meaning, and the beauty of it (more on this later).
STATION 3: The scalding pot. We were using half of a food-grade steel drum (held kosher grape juice concentrate in its former life) heated by a large propane burner (in ~ 6 hours we went through about half a gas-grill size tank of propane) to 140 degrees F, give or take. Too cold and it doesn’t loosen the feathers — too hot and you get tearing of the skin at Station 4. Holding the chicken by the tips of the feet (so you can get the feathers on the thighs into the water), you dunk the bird in and swirl it around for 3-5 seconds. Repeat two or three times, then test: can you easily pull feathers out? No? Dunk again. Yes? Then you’re ready for…
STATION 4: the plucking machine. Yes, for thousands of years we pulled those feathers out by hand. And if one is processing just one chicken, that’s probably fine (if you have half an hour to spare). But if you’re doing 4 dozen? You oughta have a plucking machine. (Renting it added about $1 to the price of each bird.) It’s a plastic drum about two feet in diameter lined with dozens of rubber "fingers" pointing in towards the center. The base of the drum is a spinning disc with the "fingers" pointing up. The inside top lip of the drum is encircled by a hose that shoots water down into the drum as it spins, which washes the plucked feathers down to a wide out-spout at the rear. You put a couple birds in, turn it on, and thirty-forty seconds later you have a pair of mostly-plucked birds.
STATION 5: is a wooden table with a built-in sink. On it was a big aluminum baking tray. The birds get plunked down on the tray and we finished plucking any stray feathers manually. Then we removed the feet and lower half of the legs (leaving just the drumsticks). This is accomplished with a sharp knife — you cut the ligaments around the knee until it comes right off. These went into a water-filled pot and will be used by T to make what is evidently the most kickass chicken broth there is. Then we rinsed the birds with clean water. At this point you have something that looks very much like what comes shrink-wrapped at the market. Except the offal are still inside, which leads to…
STATION 6: Another, larger, wooden table with several large aluminum trays. This is where Joel Salatin’s expertise came in handy. (here’s the vid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRF4EFOW2Vk) This station was the bottleneck, even with two people working it, for the first hour or so. Once they had each done 4-5-6 birds, though, they began to breeze along and the kill station became the bottleneck (only 2 cones, and bleeding the chicken just takes as long as it takes). The real point being: if you want to try this for yourselves, don’t be intimidated. One of our Station 6 experts-in-the-making swore the day before that all she wanted to do was anything but gut chickens. By the end of the day she was quite good (and comfortable) with it. Maybe because her grandparents owned a butcher’s shop it’s in the genes?
Beyond Station 6, the now-cleaned carcasses get another clean-water rinse and go into coolers with icewater to chill. At the end of the day, we took the coolers inside, weighed each carcass, rinsed them again, then patted them dry and put them in open containers (soup pots, plastic bins) in the fridge to "cure".
There are any number of opinions out there on whether to cure the birds before you freeze or not. Some say if you don’t dry-age them a bit, they’re tough when you cook them. Others say if you don’t dry-age them until rigor mortis has passed (again, depending on who you ask, 6-48 hours), then they’re tough when you cook them. T&S’s research ultimately led them to prefer the dry-age process. We have 13 birds in the 2 fridges in this house and will bag them for the freezer tonight before bed (which means they’ll have aged for 30-36 hours). Once we cook one we’ll let you know if we got a tough bird or a tender bird.
After the morning walk-through on Sunday, we began. As a group we all went to the hoop-coop and gathered 2 chickens. The general plan (folks just kind of self-sorted into various jobs) turned out to be for S and myself to cover stations 1-2, then bring the birds for dunking and de-feathering (3-4), then remove the feet, rinse (5) and present birds for the gutting table (6). But on the first bird, along with cutting the throat S cut one of his fingers. Lesson: leather gloves, gang, even if they make you feel clumsy (in an operation we all wanted to be as delicate as possible to the animal). The cut was deep enough that B (one of the women on the gutting crew — and who happens to be a nurse) had to work some of her nursing skills so that S could continue. He ended up running the plucker and manning the rinsing hose since he had one hand more or less out of commission. My wife took S’s place although I ended up doing all the bleeding of the birds at Station 2 (S’s wife T did 2 birds in the afternoon because she wanted to understand that moment. Nobody else was interested.)
Which means I bled 45 chickens (more on that later).
We settled into a pretty solid routine.
Hike up to the hoop-coop. Gather 2 birds. (This became more difficult as the day wore on and the flock grew smaller. More room to run = harder-to-catch birds. Also, the birds that were left tended to be the ones who were quicker or more wary of people = harder-to-catch birds.) Head back to the cones (halfway between coop and the dunk-pluck-gut area). Put birds in cones, cut. Wait. Take birds to dunk (careful not to dunk your fingers), put birds in plucker. 1 minute respite (maybe drink some water, or take deep breaths). Remove birds from plucker, de-feet, rinse, give to gutting crew. Hike back to hoop-coop. Which went on for over 6 hours (with a 20-minute break at mid-day). But it never became dull or humdrum. The several minutes spent standing in front of the cones during each 10-minute cycle kept it intense. I felt that not to watch would have been disrespectful. We could have set it up so that I merely walked back and forth from coop to cone, cut bird, left to go grab another chicken — and had a runner waiting for the cut bird to die and then carry it to the dunk. There was no way I could do that.
Picking up a live chicken — I generally held them against my chest — and heading to the cones, I’d stroke the neck with my (gloved) finger and quietly say "hush" or "shuu, shuuu" to calm them. Breathing deeply and rhythmically also seemed to work. In the 30 seconds between the coop and the cone they quieted. Something in that 30 seconds made me need to be there and witnessing until life (which I took) had gone.
FWIW, as soon as they came back out of the cone I didn’t pay them any special regard. As I walked toward the dunk/pluck/gut area I pretty much was watching the folks there do their thing — or looking around at the surrounding woods and beautiful sky (yesterday was a gorgeous day: sunny and 60 degrees). The chicken went into the cone as one of the world’s creatures (just as I am) and out of it as an object. An object still worthy of respect, but more because it was now destined for my table (and body) — or the table (body) of a friend or loved one.
If each chicken took 90 seconds to die, then I spent about a total of 1-1/4 hours standing two feet away, observing and absorbing those seconds. So many of the thoughts and feelings I had in those seconds are either not relevant to this post or more personal than I’m ready to share (and than most folks are interested in hearing, I reckon).
But I will say that I’m still a carnivore (curious to actually taste one of these chickens), and humbled, gladdened and provided with a lot of food for thought (no pun — really) by what I experienced yesterday. And apart from the happy thought of lots of (clean) meat in our respective freezers, everyone there yesterday acknowledged that sharing this experience has deepened our community/family bond. Seriously: a bunch of middle-aged NE college-edumacated white-collar-type folks got together and slaughtered 4 dozen chickens on a sunny November afternoon out in the woods. Not your everyday/average bonding-type experience here in 21st century America. At least not yet. In the same way this sort of day used to be routine for many, many people, I think it could become so again. But between here and there, it will remain an extraordinary sort of day.
Viva — Sager
1. For the operation we were running yesterday, it would’ve been ideal to have one more person helping out, mostly just so we had an extra body to flow wherever help was needed in a given moment. But overall we did fine.
2. I heartily recommend this experience. No matter what role you take, being a part of this process will help you understand (or at least get you to wrestle with) so many things that a day spent doing this cannot be a waste of your time.
3. You cannot have too many super-sharp knives (a good role for a "floater" on a day like this is to sharpen knives on the fly so all the processors are working with excellent edges).
4. 5 people and 48 chickens (esp. for a first-time crew) was probably a little too much. By the end of the day, we were all spent. No regrets, but I think 36 birds would have left us less fragged at the end. (Nothing that some wine and jacuzzi time didn’t remedy…)
5. If anybody has questions, I’m happy to dish.