Bend the Round

…where the madness is recorded.

To Henry… January 14, 2008

Filed under: food — bendtheround @ 6:58 pm

This is going to be a tough post to write. This weekend, I was involved in something most people would consider in a negative light of some sort, ranging from “gross and totally unnecessary” to “murder.” My cousin keeps chickens, which she very very occasionally slaughters to eat. (Mostly, she keeps them for eggs, pest control [they eat ticks and other bugs], recycling [they’re living garbage disposals], and entertainment purposes [they’re damn funny animals].) My sister is interested in one day owning chickens and wanted to learn about how to take care of them…including how to kill and prepare them for cooking. When our cousin found out about this interest, she invited my sister to come up to learn.

My sister mentioned the excursion to me, and I asked if I could go along.

See… I eat chicken. But I’m VERY removed from the actual life cycle of that particular food (I’m very removed from the life cycle of pretty much all my food, to be honest). I know that chickens are raised, killed, prepared, and plastic wrapped for my consumption, but I really had little appreciation for the process. I get to cook and eat without the burden of blood on my hands – ever. It’s all very neat and clean on my end. Would I feel differently about my eating habits if I had to actually be involved in the process from start to finish instead of just picking up some nice frozen chicken breasts at the grocery store? I’ve run into vegetarians and vegans who insist that I would. Now I had an opportunity to find out.

I found out at the last minute that my sister also invited a friend of hers who is a professional photographer and artist. Her interest was similar to mine – only she’d have the extra protection of observing the whole process through a camera. So, yes, there is a photo-journalistic record of this trip out there somewhere.

First, a short description of the setting. My cousin lives with her husband up on a mountain in Maryland. Her immediate family owns most of the mountain, and they all live up there as neighbors in the woods in their own custom-built houses with their kids and their many animals. They’ve got cats, dogs, fish, chickens, bees, and horses. If you’re into rustic settings, it’s a small chunk of paradise. And the cell phone reception is excellent.

We all arrived around 10:45 on Saturday morning and hung around in the kitchen for a while catching up. Around 11:15 or so we went out to the chicken coops to meet the flock.

Chicken coops have to be at least somewhat secure. People aren’t the only things that eat chickens. Dogs apparently LOVE chickens. There are a number of wild animals that like chicken when they can get it – foxes, for example. My cousin had her coops set up with an electric fence on the outside to discourage animals. She didn’t mention any losses to dogs, etc, so I guess it works. So, the chicken coops had plenty of chicken wire, gates, and some logs, etc for them to sit on and run around.

At the moment, they really have two small flocks, one they’ve had for a while made up of about half brown ones and half white ones with red combs (those things on their heads and throats), the second flock is a whole bunch of different kinds (most of them were more colorful). It turns out that chickens are xenophobic. They don’t like noobs and they aren’t shy about showing it. If you just chuck new chickens in with the old flock, they’ll peck and scratch and can even kill the new chickens. So, they separated the coop into two adjoining sections so they could all get used to each other.

We went into the colorful flock’s coop first. And immediately learned that chickens are friggin’ hilarious. The way they move and the sounds they make are pretty damn funny. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen anything funnier than my sister chasing a flapping clucking chicken around and failing miserably to catch it. (I didn’t do so hot myself.) They’re fast, and too dumb to realize it’s probably not a good idea to run through people’s legs and therefore get away with it frequently. Even when my sister moved her foot to try to prevent the chicken from going through her legs and accidentally punted it, they didn’t quit trying that avenue. (There’s another hilarious thing… the look of horror on my sister’s face when she realized she’d just punted a chicken.)

Our favorite in the colorful flock was a tiny rooster. Including all the tail feathers and whatnot, he was about the size of a standard size piece of paper. Actually, probably a little smaller. His coloring was like the Kelloggs rooster – pretty greens, ambers, ect. They had a female of the same breed (no idea what breed that might be) who was white with black spots. The male ran around puffing his chest out crowing trying to impress the female, which was awesome to see. When he got pissed off at the other chickens in the pen, he’d walk around kicking his little feet out in front of him to show them his spurs.

We took a break from chicken chasing to actually learn something about them. They kept a small enclosure in each section for the chickens to roost in – somewhere for them to get inside in bad weather, and nesting areas for them to lay eggs. The nesting areas have to be scooped out once a week so the eggs aren’t gross when you go get them. The whole coop has to be mucked about once a month. Let me take this opportunity to mention that chicken coops smell. Each side had about a dozen or so chickens, and it had rained a day or two before, so it was a bit rank.

As mentioned before, chickens eat bugs. They’ll eat all the ticks and ants and whatever you’ve got right out of the ground. They also eat table scraps of all varieties – veggies, leftover biscuits, even chicken, which is gross. Basically, anything you could put down a garbage disposal, you can feed a chicken. They even eat broken eggs. So if you’re collecting eggs and find a broken one, you can just chuck it out to them and they eat it right up. Which is even nastier than chickens eating leftover chicken. All this is supplemented with chicken feed, which appears to be mostly ground up corn. To feed chickens chicken feed, you just chuck it on the ground and they scratch and peck until they’ve got it all. It’s a bit like a feathery feeding frenzy only without the danger of being eaten yourself.

I’ve mentioned chicken chasing. The goal, of course, is to actually pick up a chicken. Turns out it’s quite a challenge. You’ve got to be fast, and you CAN’T be afraid of the chicken. It’s a little alarming when they squawk and flap, but you can’t let it shake you. It turns out that you handle roosters and hens differently, too. Hens, you chase down and grab them with one hand on the outside of each wing (pinning the wings to the body). Once you’ve got them with their wings pinned and secure, you’re golden. Roosters, you grab by the tail feathers and lift them up in the air. Then you pin their wings down and you’re good. I was able to snag the roosters OK, but I’ll be damned if I could figure out how to go from upside-down rooster (which, by the way is also hilarious – the bird continues running and flapping in mid-air) to pinned rooster with just one free hand. I had to have my sister swoop in and pin him. By the way, we were assured that this is the proper way to handle the animals and that NONE of this hurts them. At worst, they get stressed out and don’t lay eggs for a day or three. As a matter of fact, once you’ve got the chicken pinned, it becomes very relaxed and docile. They seem to really like being held by their feet and hung upside down, which, personally, I think it kinda weird. You can hang them upside down and then put a hand under the back and raise it up so the chicken is essentially laying on it’s back and they seem to like that, too. You can even tuck the thing under your arm like a football and it’s totally cool with that. Chickens. Go figure.

While we were in the chicken coops having our chicken chasing lesson and lecture, my cousin’s husband was prepping the actual instruments of destruction. I understand there are several methods of killing a chicken, but they opt to use an old mulch bag to hold the animal still and a hatchet to cut off the head. They made sure the hatchet was properly sharpened so that the chicken would be killed as quickly and humanely as possible. They also get a large pot boiling, but I’ll get back to that. They cut a hole in a corner of the mulch bag and put the chicken in it head first until his head comes out and his body is inside. Then they use the bag to keep him still without hurting him. They put him on an old stump and do the deed.

My cousin decided that she had too many roosters, so my sister and I chased one down. My sister decided to name him Henry right at that moment. I don’t know why. I guess it was good to have something to call him. Lord knows I’ll never forget him…  Anyhow, I took him over and helped get him in the bag. My sister did the actual killing. She took a couple practice swings to get an idea of just how hard she was going to have to hit him. She really, really didn’t want him to suffer. It took her a few minutes, but she eventually worked up the courage and swung. The first hit didn’t kill him unfortunately, but the second one did. It took a third swing to completely sever the head. It was really, really awful.

In case you’re wondering, yes, there’s a lot of post-decapitation movement. That chicken WOULD have run around if he hadn’t been in the bag. The head moves, too, which is just AWFUL. The sight of the severed neck thrashing around now tops my list of most horrible things I’ve ever witnessed. And I’ve been an observer in the operating room.

At this point, you have to let the chicken bleed out. There wasn’t nearly as much blood as I thought there would be. And it looked very fake to me, too. I guess I’ve been more desensitized than I thought by special effects, etc. It didn’t take long at all. In fact, I think it took longer for all of us to recover from the shock than it took for the chicken to bleed out.

Once the chicken bled out, we took it over to the pot of boiling water I mentioned. It turns out that if you dip the chicken in boiling water for 15-30 seconds, it makes it much easier to pluck it. Wet feathers are unpleasant. The fact the wet feathers are on an animal you just helped kill doesn’t make it a whole hell of a lot better. Actually, it’s worse. My sister and I plucked the chicken bald, which was very time consuming. I absolutely understand why the job was relegated to the kids when people did this on a regular basis. Once the feathers are off, it starts looking VERY familiar. At least to someone who is used to cooking/roasting chicken.

We had some considerable help with the actual gutting. You have to be careful not to puncture the lower digestive tract or you’ll wind up with chicken poop still inside your chicken. I’m a bio-geek, so I’ve dissected things before, though, they’ve always been soaked in formaldehyde first, and I’m fairly comfortable with a scalpel. They didn’t have scalpels. They had hunting knives.

My cousin made the initial incisions on the underside of the chicken and removed the lower digestive tract for us. There was a good sized hole at that point, and it was time for someone to reach in there and pull out the rest of the organs… I had the smallest hands, so in I went. Several seconds later, I had a literally steaming pile of chicken insidey-parts in my tiny, incredibly gory hand (it was pretty cold out that day). I had to go back in several times to get everything. I’ll never forget pulling out a still-warm chicken heart. I found out that fresh chicken gizzards are dark red and have a beautiful metallic-blue colored membrane on them. Ew.

My cousin’s husband took it from there, thank goodness. The neck has to be entirely removed so that the upper digestive tract can be removed. Chickens have a craw…kinda like a first stomach where their food is crushed up by bits of stone and gravel that they eat. Well, that’s gotta be gotten rid of. To do that, you made a sort of Y incision at the neck and chest area to reach and remove the craw. He did that part and also cut off the feet.

Then, we took the chicken inside and rinsed him, inside and out and popped in him the crock pot. We went about the rest of our day (which was wonderful) and eventually took the cooked chicken home to Mom and Dad. The rooster had not been fed to be an “eating” chicken – he was just kinda an extra one that was beginning to make a nuisance of himself – so he was extremely tough. Enough so that he had to be stewed for a good long time before he was ready to eat. So long, in fact, that I did not get to taste him. Which is OK, I guess. My family ate him, anyway, so it’s not like he went to waste.

That was about it.

I wasn’t sure that I’d want to eat chicken again after this experience. I doubted that I’d become a vegetarian or anything, as I am a dedicated consumer of animal proteins, but I was willing to take a good hard look to see if I’m really OK with my dietary values in light of the reality of the thing. Turns out I am. If chicken was not available in grocery stores – if the only way you could get it was to raise and kill it yourself, I probably would. I DEFINITELY wouldn’t eat chicken as often as I do now, but I think I would eat it. I don’t know for *sure* if I’d be able to swing that hatchet. I think I’d have to be pretty damn hungry for chicken – or maybe just pretty damn hungry in general. Or if I had a family to provide food for – I could do it if failing to do so meant that my family was going to go without something to eat. The truth of the matter is that human beings are omnivores. Our bodies require fruits, veggies, grains, and protein to function properly. Sure, you can get that protein from other sources, but nutritionally, animal protein’s where it’s at.

In the meantime, barring some apocalypse that destroys the chicken industry, I will be getting my chicken from Giant. The difference is that I’ll be more grateful that it’s there neatly wrapped in plastic instead of running around my backyard. That part doesn’t surprise me. The part that surprises me is that I kinda liked chickens. I didn’t expect to, but I did. In fact, I think that if I lived in a very different area, and no one living with or near me objected, I would seriously consider owning a couple. They’re practical animals, and highly entertaining. Not pets – not like a dog or a cat – but they could be fun. (And all that is beside the moral and environmental arguments of raising chickens – concentrated chicken farming can be incredibly cruel and incredibly destructive environmentally.) Even in the highly unlikely event that I do get my own small flock of chickens, I seriously doubt I’d eat them. They’d just be my own personal egg producing, table-scrap eating, bug-zapping, entertainment flock. 🙂