On a balmy late winter night off early from work and on my way home the call came. "Let's do this, come over in a half hour" the voice explained. The call was Will, and the doing it referred to the slaughter of 4 of his chickens that had been raised for consuption (different then the egg chickens he has as well) that he had been harrasing me about for some time. It is hard for the two of us to hook up outside the restaurant sometimes as if I am not there, most likely he is. The chickens were to be slaughtered at 6 weeks and we were in week 8 almost. He had promised me a few, but I was required to do the harvest myself. I didnt grow up in a household that went hunting. I have only been fishing once or twice in my life and have never caught anything. As I thought about it in the preceeding days I couldn't think of one thing I have ever killed, other then a few small rodents. Since that makes me a touch hypocritical, in that I often argue that if you cant stand the sight/smell/or feel of raw meat/blood/inards then you shouldn't eat meat. I take serious issue to faceless meat. Am I anti-killing animals for food? Definately not. I love the idea, I just had never done it. This is especially important in our home as it is something that we have tried to teach the boys from a very early age. Of all the food things we could push on them this is the one we really have tried to hone in on. They understand that our food is animal, that it had a mom and dad, and that by being a consumer of it on any given night meant that we asked for that animal to be harvested. By buying it at a certain price we even promoted the quality of life and death or lack thereof that it had. Often they say things like "dad- we should get a pig so we can make bacon" and it cracks me up. I arrived at Will's house around dusk and we went over the plan. I am fortunate that he had done this a few times in the precceding days and many times as a child so he had a plan. We went over it, then went over it again. We wore overalls. I was nervous. We picked out the larger two of the birds (1 each) and went around the corner of the coop to the edge of the workshop. Out of site. Will went first, the tool of choice being a huge and extremely sharp 12" chef's knife that was long ago named Thurman at the restaurant.
Chickens are amazing animals, and I have so enjoyed watching my Rhode Islands here at the house. They are social, relaxed, and have an amazing natural (no pun intended) pecking order. We are getting an egg a day from each of our birds now and we have a large enough surplus that we are able to give them away to family, friends, and neighbors on a fairly regular basis. Maybe it is because of the relationship, with them as providers for our family, that I have with the chickens now makes me respect them more, or maybe because I don't think on any level the life of an animal is something to mess around with. Point blank I reiterate that animals die because we buy them. It is simple supply and demand. If you didnt buy that chicken breast at the megamart, it would still be alive. It would be one less that was harvested on any given day anywhere in our fine country. If ever there was something to be reverant and respectful about this was it.
The chicken while laid on his side (or upside down for that matter) becomes hypnotized. the body goes relaxed and with a strong, well placed blow by Thurman while perched on a wood bench the head was removed with one stroke. Without getting into to gory of details all that you have a heard a chicken will do with out its head is true. Will had been having trouble with a problem I have seen before where the bird will actually break a wing joint due to the excess flapping after this step. I held my hand on the bird gently to keep him in place for a few minutes. We set them aside and returned to the coop for the other half of our harvest. We repeated the same steps but both birds were a touch more on edge this time. While we tried to work as clean and quickly as possible this wasn"t a clean job, and I am positive the second round of birds knew from the silence involved, or the smells involved what was going on. We set the second set on the ground near the first, and quickly grabbed the feet of the first and dunked them in warm water. The water temperature has to be warm enough to penetrate the feather layer, but too hot will put heat into the meat and for obvious reasons that is to be avoided as much as possible. If I had to guess I would say the water temp was near the perfect poaching temperature of about 160-170 degrees. A quick blanch, then remove, then again, remove, and then again, each time swirling the bird around in the water a bit. There was much blood involved.
We set the blanched birds on a makeshift table and begining at the bottom began to pull the wet feathers. I grossely underestimated the time it would take to do this part and it seemed like even a true veteran like Will took about 15 mintues per bird or so. Removing as much as possible we discarded the feathers. It may have been that one of my killshots was a touch misplaced or maybe not as clean as I wouldve liked, but I had a bird that was making an almost wheezing sound as I pluked, and I will be honest it was more then a bit unnerving.
With the birds in tow we went inside to the kitchen and under the assistance of the back of a paring knife, some running water, and the aide of some artificial light we removed all of the remaining feathers. This again took some time and Will was insitent that this was how to do this correctly. I buy and process hundreds of chickens every month and I see firsthand how this job is done in even small facilities. As basic discipline we took the time to do the job to the best of our abilities. Every joint, crack, and crevice was cleaned. The feet were removed at the knee joint and frozen for what will be a stock packed with gelatin at my house at some point in the very near future. Probably close to a half hour for each bird leaned over the sink, while we quitely shot the breeze.
This is were it gets a bit tougher. While I cant remember the exact steps involved, incisions were made on both the top and bottom, then the process of removing the tube that went from the head into the cavity of the animal. While I had surprisingly less issues with the whole process until this point then I was expecting to have, the smells and feeling involved at this point were rough. The smell of the inside of the bird is impossible to put into words, and it lingers on your skin. As is the feeling of putting your hand into the cavity of the still warm animal to remove the gizzards, lungs, testicles, intestines, everything. Things were lossened and then removed gently as a break in the intestines could easily cause seepage of waste onto the skin or meat, a step that is extremely important not to do. At the tail end a small oil gland is also removed, it is somehow inovled in how the bird keeps its feathers from falling out. The empty cavities were packed with ice and the birds were placed in five gallon buckets packed with ice and water to drop the temperature as quickly as possible. The inards were sorted and while I toyed with the idea of using the livers at my own house I knew that would go over very well with my family so we added them to Will's growing collection that he sears and purees for one of his dogs that has some dietary restictions. After about another hour the birds were properly chilled, patted dry, and bagged. Not until after they were weighed and tagged with a date. The weight of the final product is recorded and then the math of what the bird consumed in feed, and scratch can easily be figured and subsequentially costed accurately.
I thank Will and left and still concerened a tad about the temperature of the bird I placed them i my freezer at the house. My gardening clogs were covered in blood, my overalls were dirty and I still smelled like the inside of a chicken. I showered and tried to sleep but was so enamored with the whole process I played it over and over again in my head. While their are hundreds of wives tales about the harvest of poulty this was the way we did it. I know a few people that have an approach that is much different then this one. In all the whole process probably took just under an hour for each bird. Much harder then driving them to a small slaughter house and picking them up a few hours later when they were cool, clean, and dry. Again though it was a great thing for me to experience and I am undoubtely a better cook for doing it. In a pinch I could easily do it again, or do it here at the house. A thought that I have been playing over and over as my chickens while not edible at that point, won't lay forever, which makes you make the tough decision of continuing to feed them without production, or replacing them. It isnt like their is a farm in the country that takes used up old hens.
I went back and forth on cooking techniques for the bird and even more then usual, out of repect for the animal wanted total utilization. I went with a whole roasted approach. While I have talked aobut how the whole roasted chicken from a technical standpoint makes absolutely no sense to me here before I still thought it was a nice way to showcase the bird. Since the idea doesnt seem to be getting any less popular (have you seen the amount of chickens on the rotiessirie at Costco in the late afternoon/evening) I have been working the technique a bit more often around here. The boys love drumsticks and thighs and it seems to be the perfect meal for a family of our size. Like turkeys chickens have white and dark meat and when you get to raw technique they require two different temperatures and even cooking applications to be cooked to their optimal doneness. their are some tricks that can be used to help you to not overcook the breast while getting the thighs to get the temperature you need. The chicken was brined on the day before, then allowed to totally dry. It was brought to room temperature for at least an hour, then trussed, then seasoned liberally inside and out at the last minute and started in a hot oven. It tasted as amazing as you are imagining right now, but I am a bit spoiled. I have cooked chickens raised in this manner before, I have cooked these same chickens before, just a different batch, and even a few turkeys raised in the exact same manner. The breast to dark ratio is much different then a factory farmed animal, thighs are larger, breasts smaller, and the hue or tint of the meat is different, also these were obviously expertley cleaned, and didnt have a trace of feather folicle (I tried, but need some practice). After dinner any remaining meat and the bones were to make a quick stock, again something I wouldnt normally do (their are many chefs who argue that once the bones have been roasted for that long they lose the ability to give up flavor, nutrients, and gelatin into water) but the stock turned out great. The feet are still in Will's freezer as I continually forget to get them from him. It was interesting to explain, in much less detail, the process to the boys, and while they made a few jokes about it, they still ate (I wasnt sure that they would) and enjoyed it. the next batch of one day old chicks should be on the way here in just a few days, in time to harvest so that turkeys can be started in time for a pre Thanksgiving harvest. I am curious to know how many have you done this yourselves before. So many people in the generation older then I seem to have grown up doing this with their uncle, grandpa, or parents and it is just the norm for them. Others my generation and younger seem absurdly detached from the whole process. While it may be the natural transfer of the way we live in this nation, I find it fascinating. All of the effort, skill (lack of on my part), time, and money, it took to do this was paid for more then ten fold when I pulled this bad boy out of the oven, and again when we ate. I know this was a bit grafic, and I apologize for that, but I felt obligated to get it recorded for referance in an accurate way. Thanks for reading.