A week or so ago, my friend and accomplished Alchemist and Chickenkeeper Natty called me and asked me what I was doing the coming Saturday. I was immediately suspicious, as Natty’s weekend activities usually involve things like fifteen-mile hikes across relentlessly hostile landscapes in pouring rain (Natty: that is totally an exaggeration. The most I’ve ever hiked in a pouring rain was 10 miles), and lately I’ve found that a drive to the CVS around the corner is a miserable ordeal. In self-defense I mumbled something weaselly about having to check my calendar.
Natty was undeterred. “You see,” she confided, “we have to do something about the chickens.”
The chickens. We have to do something about the chickens. (If you’re not familiar with the ongoing epic story arc of the Chickenkeeper, you might want to check these posts out right quick: Welcome to ChickenVille. The Case of the Broken Eggs. When Chickens Explode.) But here’s the backstory for the impatient: There were too many hostile or unproductive chickens, an attempted compassionate rehoming fell completely flat because everyone else also had too many chickens, and thus Something Had To Be Done. That Something would involve a live chicken, a sharp knife, and a great deal more fortitude than I’d ever give myself credit for.
Let’s just go ahead and start with the obvious: like most people, I buy chicken at the grocery store. It comes in surgically trimmed cuts, is neatly wrapped and sealed in plastic packages, and is completely unrecognizable as once having been part of an animal. (Natty: because, really, no normal animal should have that much, um, breast without undergoing extensive surgery.)
Seriously, what is that? It’s spongy, formless, and swimming in goo. It might as well have been produced in a low-orbital factory vat by our robot overlords. Moreover, the packages come prominently labelled with “safe handling instructions.” One might think such warnings would be more appropriate on purchases that could violently attack you in the car on the way home rather than something you’d make for dinner. But by now everyone knows about the Salmonella and C.dificil and Campylobacter lurking silently in those pristine sealed slabs of factory-raised food, and preparing meals with sanitization procedures worthy of a CDC Wildfire Lab is old hat to most of us. (Isn’t it great that we can all recite by heart the names of deadly dinner bacteria? Maybe we should make a little song to something from Gilbert & Sullivan). Next year the FDA is probably going to start recommending that we autoclave our chicken parmesan, as if all this is somehow our fault.
But the inconvenience and fear of contamination is not all of the matter, and probably not even the deepest part of it. There’s now a mournful cliche that we’ve become several steps removed from — and indifferent to — the real source of our meat: a living animal that we’ve caused to die. Everyone from food writers to PETA regularly bemoan this state of affairs. Chef Anthony Bourdain, who’s been around the block enough times to get it named after him, recognizes it as well:
Every time I have picked up the phone or ticked off an item on my order sheet, I have basically caused a living thing to die. . . . The only evidence of my crimes is the relatively antiseptic boxed or plastic-wrapped appearance of what is inarguably meat. — A Cook’s Tour, p. 17 (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001)
In the book, Bourdain tells the story of how he traveled to Portugal to his boss’s hometown farm for the slaughter of a pig, the graphic details of what happened, and its effects on him. I’d read the book years before Natty’s call and its gruesome descriptions roared through like some nightmare flashback as soon as it sunk in what the Something was about. On Saturday, Natty was asking me if I wanted to dispatch some chickens with primitive and violent prejudice, and I’d know at least three of their names.
I said “Yes” immediately.
Saturday morning I didn’t eat anything. This was not so much a wise precaution as a simple biological imperative, as I’d had a bit of a late night on Friday and the idea of food was appalling. I should have had more coffee, as I completely forgot the sharpened knives that Natty asked me to bring, but when I got there I found that the scene had been well-prepared.
I was surprised that it really doesn’t take much equipment to dispatch, pluck, and gut a chicken. There was a tarp-covered table, a traffic cone half-sawn off, and a plastic bag-lined bucket.
I asked Natty how she’d learned to do this, expecting a story about picking it up as a child in between foraging for exotic mushrooms, solving complex differential equations in her head, and dodging running-dog capitalists in frozen forests all at once. Nope, she said with her usual matter-of-factness, I learned it off the Web.
This site, in particular: How To Kill A Chicken. I’ll warn you — not only is that post a bit “graphic,” but what happens next in this one might be a bit upsetting as well to the tenderhearted among us. I don’t have pictures of the actual butchering, as I was the photographer as well as a heartless killer and was a bit busy at the time. But as master horror-film directors will attest, sometimes all you need is the “before” and “after” to make your point. So skip the “During,” if you’re sensitive.
There were three of her own that Natty had scheduled for the knife, as well as another victim that had somehow landed in Natty’s possession due to the aborted rehoming/trade scenario. Now this last random chicken was big and mean and I think even Natty was slightly afraid of it. When I arrived, it was seething with rage inside a decent-sized dog crate.
There’s a reason why the picture is so wretched. When I walked up to the crate and idiotically stuck my face right at the grate, the thing ran right at me with its eyes bulging and beak agape. The impact bashed the crate a good couple inches forward. I did the involuntary “Jesus!” step-back-and-look-around-pretending-to-be-casual routine while my heart was hammering like my kid’s drumline practice. If chickens could hiss, this one would have sounded like an anaconda. Suddenly what we about to do didn’t sound like such a bad idea, especially for this specimen. “Just you wait, tough guy,” I muttered spitefully as I took its picture. From a safe distance.
The other chickens, both doomed and pardoned, were milling about pretty much in the way chickens always do in the pen across the yard. Except for one — Nekkid was in her own crate next to the pen because she’d been proven, after Natty’s extensive detective work, to destroy and eat not only her own but the other hens’ eggs. The Case of the Broken Eggs.
To her credit, Natty had attempted to reintroduce her into the common pen after the hens had stopped laying for their molt (see When Chickens Explode). Nekkid immediately commenced a whirlwind of violent mayhem on her fellow citizens, whether out of resentment or florid chicken mental illness we’ll never know. Natty promptly plopped her back in the separate crate and there she crouched, with an expression no less poisonous than the other Dog Crate Psychochicken.
I was briefly saddened to find out that the other two were Pretty Chicken and Original. For them, their fate was sealed because they hadn’t laid eggs for a long time and almost certainly never would again. The critical factor here is that they aren’t pets. It’s nice to think that there are retirement farms for chickens, and maybe there are on the Big Rock Candy Mountain, but when you’re expending considerable amounts of money and effort on feeding, cleaning and caring for egg chickens, you have a completely understandable expectation of eggs at the end of the process. No eggs? Well, here’s your ticket, and it’s not for the bus.
Now, I knew these chickens. It’s not like I took them out for ice cream or we had sleepovers in our jammies talking about our hopes and fears, but I’d visited them more than a few times and had formed a pretty good idea of whatever nascent personality a chicken might have. (Pretty Chicken, for example, was famous for facing down enormous dogs through the wire while the other chickens ran for cover.) It was a different scenario than the one Anthony Bourdain faced regarding the pig. His introduction to his victim was brief, to say the least.
At the far end of the barn, a low door was opened into a small straw-filled pen. A monstrously large, aggressive-looking pig waggled and snorted as the crowd peered in. When he was joined in the confined space by the three hired hands, none of them bearing food, he seemed to get the idea that nothing good was going to be happening anytime soon, and he began scrambling and squealing at tremendous volume. — A Cook’s Tour, p. 21
The During (Caution)
Chickens are a lot smaller and dumber than pigs, and that’s a grace, because to kill a chicken you have to catch it first and it’s nice to be able to do it without “three hired hands.” Natty extracted the first Psychochicken from its crate with only a few choice swear words and a moderate amount of thrashing. She immediately turned her upside down, with a firm grip on her extravagantly feathered feet, and the chicken seemed to calm almost instantly. We then fitted the chicken’s head down through the sawed-off traffic cone, gently arranged her feet so that they were over the top lip of the cone, and waited a moment again for the sleepiness to set in.
And here is where the artistry, and the only amount of kindness that can be mustered in this event, comes into play. You (in this case, Natty) sit on the chair with the cone and chicken positioned over the lined plastic bucket. You gently turn the chicken’s head and throat back to bare the exact area of the throat where the major arteries are closest to the surface. You can feel the heat of her skin and gentle thump of her heartbeat with your thumb. You cover the chicken’s head and eyes with your free hand while you bear the knife in the other. And then, as quickly, firmly and confidently as you can, you cut through the chicken’s throat deeply in a single swipe. The blood will gush immediately and the chicken may spasm for a few short seconds. Once it is quiet, you remove it from the cone by the feet and allow it to bleed out into the bucket. This takes surprisingly little time and there is surprisingly little blood. We’re not talking about CSI-worthy bloodsprays all over the backyard and clothing splattered in gore. That just doesn’t happen.
Once it was over, the chicken was rinsed thoroughly and placed to wait for the completion of the event. Natty had to go into the pen to fetch the remainder of the victims, one at a time. It was a fairly rapid process, although it did involve a little bit of running and squawking. (Natty: there really is no graceful way to catch a chicken that doesn’t want to get caught.) I’m pretty sure I ushered Nekkid and Pretty Chicken to the Great Pen In The Sky, and Natty handled Original after Dog Crate Psychochicken, though I will admit to being a little blurry in memory at this time. Both of us wanted to cause as little pain and fear as possible. We were fortunate in that all of our efforts went well, and soon there were four chickens washed and laid out ready for plucking. (Warning — picture might be disturbing to some.)
I found that once the killing was done, there is an aftereffect as the adrenaline of the act drains off — it can leave you a little tired, but not spacy or even emotional; and there’s a profound and focused recognition that not only have you done something both basic and significant, but that there is more work to do. There is nothing trivial about what you’ve just done. Anthony Bourdain touches on this, though his experience seems to have shaken him up a great deal more than mine did. It might have been because pigs are profoundly different than chickens, or that he stood to one side, simply watching the process instead of bearing the knife himself.
And I’ll never forget the look on Jose’s face, as if he were saying, This, this is where it all starts. Now you know. This is where food comes from. . . . I was a pathetic city boy, all to comfortable with my ignorance of the facts, seeing for the first time what was usually handled on the Discovery Channel (just after I changed the channel). . . . I was smoking and trying to look cool, as if what I’d just seen hadn’t bothered me at all. — A Cook’s Tour, p. 23
The pot of 140F warmed water, with a few drops of Dawn dishwashing liquid added, comes into play after the chickens have been washed. A rinse of a few seconds will loose the feathers so they can be plucked easily and efficiently. (Natty: for me, the process of plucking was where the chicken suddenly transformed itself from “OMG it’s a dead thing” to “food.”) Let me tell you, chickens have a lot of feathers, and all of them need to come off. The big wing feathers are the absolute worst in terms of physical effort — you’re yanking like you would on an old-fashioned lawnmower starter chain — but the tiny little pinfeathers can actually make you insane. You end up picking and picking and picking over an object the size of a bread loaf for half an hour if you’re not good at it, like me. By the time I’d finished plucking one bird, Natty was done with hers and well into cleaning one after rinsing off the table. (Natty: memo to the staff, never ever dispatch a chicken that’s not done molting. You will be picking out half-formed feathers until it gets dark outside. Trust me, I had to do it, and it was horrible. Let them grow out their feathers first.)
And then there’s the gutting. Even after the catching, the killing and the plucking, there’s more to do. Yup, the insides have got to come out, and there’s a specific technique for doing so cleanly and safely. Descriptions and pictures are best left to the website where Natty learned it and then from it taught me, because I wasn’t going anywhere near the camera during this process. (How To Kill A Chicken. Very helpful photos.) Because the chickens drain of blood so thoroughly using this method, the cleaning is surprisingly straightforward. No zombie horrors here (though I’ll admit this was the part where I was originally most fearful of turning into a barfing, useless git). Getting your hand up into the gut of a chicken (Natty: it’s still warm, too) and pulling goopy things out carefully and slowly is more a tactile experiment and learning process than a grotesque thrill suitable for a horror movie. Although, now that I think about it, maybe too many horror/slash flicks have desensitized us to the sight of intestines and hearts and lungs. I didn’t hesitate a bit.
After the chickens were gutted and cleaned, they were tossed into a pot of very cold water. And then we were done except for the cleanup — the bucket of blood and feathers and guts, the separation out of choice pieces for the dogs, the rinsing and cleaning and folding of the equipment. All told, I believe the process lasted a little over two hours — and that’s with self-taught beginners.
At the end of the day, I was a little shaky from dehydration and low blood sugar, due to my failure to eat something before coming over. But we ended up with this, something we’d done from start to finish, ourselves:
What to make of our chickens was the next question. Believe me, there is no wasting food if you’ve dispatched it yourself. Both Natty and I were in violent agreement on coq au vin — the classic dish that is traditionally prepared with an old, egg-laying breed of hen (like ours) or a particularly mean rooster that had run its keepers out of patience. (Making coq au vin from a tough old rooster is particularly funny). I was interested in what kind of stock an old hen would make, so that was my first plan. And in the next post, we’ll go over what our culinary experiments made out of these tough old birds.