First things first: This story does not end with me killing and dismembering a chicken, although that was my goal when I signed up for a poultry-processing workshop. Unfortunately, watching the demonstration bird meet its maker caused the following symptoms: cold sweat, field of vision darkening around the edges, seeing stars in the vision that remained and rapid heartbeat. I had to excuse myself and go sit in the car for a few minutes before returning.
Even though I didn't do the deed, I can give you the skinny on exactly how to turn a live, squawking chicken into something that looks like food.
In my last post, I wrote about my recent trip to Cardo's Sprout Farm Project, the Ponder-based farm that offers educational workshops on sustainable agriculture in exchange for volunteer work. Today, I'll tell you about what it was like when I went back to attend my first-ever chicken slaughter.
Let me set the table for you: I'm a dedicated carnivore, but I've never been hunting. (I'm trying to rectify that, so if you have any tips on a good hunting guide for a beginner, let me know.) The only animals I've ever killed for food are clams and lobsters.
Still, I've been thinking about where our meat comes from -- not from plastic-sheeted Styrofoam trays at the grocery store, but from animals that lived and breathed and presumably wanted to keep doing so. I've been thinking about the whole question of the kind of life the animal has lived before it ends up on my table. Did it spend its entire life hopped-up on antibiotics, crowded into a cage at a factory farm, never seeing daylight or getting fresh air? Or did it live a more "natural" life, wandering around in the sun until its moment of truth arrived on the edge of a blade? How much does it matter, when the end result is the same?
Eventually, I decided that if I'm going to eat meat, I ought to be willing to kill the animal it came from. Or failing that, at least be honest about what happens to farm animals at the end and see how it happens first-hand. So that's why I spent a Friday night, along with eight other people, learning how to kill and process chickens.
(It turns out that this is in no way an original idea. According to recent news reports, Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook, has decided that he will eat no meat that he hasn't killed with his own hands this year. He's already dispatched a chicken, a pig and a goat.)
It went down like this. Torrential rains earlier in the day left the farm a sodden mess, but temperatures were cool and it was a beautiful May evening. As people started to arrive for the workshop, most wandered over to the fenced-off area where the chickens scratched to watch them strut and peck their way through the grass. The chickens for the workshop had been isolated the day before, so these birds were safe.
Amanda Austin, the farm's assistant manager and community coordinator, met us and described how our birds had been chosen. "This is a producing farm. Once the hens stop laying, they're just eating money, and they have to be taken out of the flock."
Butchering takes place in an open-sided shed about 50 yards away. To get to it, we walked past a gnarled old tree with one branch reaching out nearly parallel to the ground about 6 feet up. Tied to the branch was a tiny noose. I thought: Do you hang them by the neck? Like in a western?
Turns out the noose is for the feet. Austin walked us through what would happen. "Today, we're going to process chickens. We'll take it through the kill, scalding and plucking, and then eviscerating."
Dan Moon, the farm's manager, arrived to show us how it would work with a demonstration bird.
"You'll take a bird and hold it upside down by its feet. When they're upside down, they relax. Lower it into a feed sack. Pull the head through the hole in the corner of the sack. Tighten the noose around the bird's feet so it's hanging over the bucket."
"Then, you cut the bird's throat while cradling it against your body. That keeps them from thrashing around in the sack. Hold the bird for a few minutes while it bleeds out."
Moon picked up one of the birds. It squawked a bit, but sure enough, it quieted right down when held upside down. He lowered it headfirst into a canvas sack with a hole cut into the corner. He tightened the noose around the bird's feet, and then gently reached into the hole in the canvas sack and pulled the bird's head through. He made sure the bucket was directly underneath. The bird stayed quiet, calmly peering at us through its beady eyes.
Moon showed us where to place the blade by feeling for the pulse. You have to find and cut the carotid artery to make sure the bird dies quickly. He took a sharp knife and with a quick, firm stroke, cut its throat. Blood began to run quickly into the bucket.
The bird didn't seem to suffer. It didn't fight or make a sound, although as death approached, its nerves kicked in and it started to thrash around inside the sack. Moon held the bird against his chest until it went still again, and it was over.
(Cue the almost-blackout.)
After the kill, the next step is to scald the bird so you can remove its feathers. Holding the bird by its feet, you dip it into a cauldron of hot water (around 180 degrees) for a minute or two and then lay it onto your work table to cool. The hot water loosens the feathers so they're easier to remove. The feathers make a very specific noise when they come out that's a little like tearing the cover off of a paperback book. Because the bird is still warm from the hot water, the steam that remains takes a wet animal smell straight into your head.
It took at least 20 minutes to remove the feathers. Still, every minute that passed made things easier. A live chicken doesn't really look like food, but a plucked bird, even when its head and feet are still attached, does. It didn't make me hungry, but it did help me brace up for what came next.
Plucking doesn't require a lot of finesse, but eviscerating does. It's important to be careful not to cut the intestines to avoid contaminating the meat. You cut all the way around the tail (the "pope's nose," Moon called it) and then gently widen the hole enough so that you can get your entire hand inside. Once you're in there, you make your hand into a claw and start pulling stuff out.
This kicked off some dark comedy, by the way. At this point, the chicken's voice boxes were still intact. When you shove your hand into the cavity, it can compress the lungs, which forces air through the voice box and out of the bird. The first time one of the dead chickens started clucking, everyone stopped. Eyes got wide.
"What. The hell. Was that?" And then, of course, everyone tried to make it happen again.
The head and neck come off. The feet come off. You wash the cavity out with a garden hose. And two gory hours after you started, you have something that's ready for the oven.
Later, I had a conversation with another workshop participant. Kati Trice is the founder of the Denton Community Market, an artist's and farmer's market in downtown Denton. I asked her why she signed up for the workshop.
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"I went to the harvest because I feel that culturally we are disconnected from a lot, but especially from where food comes from. I know that harvesting chickens is a natural part of the farm process, so I wanted to learn about it and really get clear on what happens between the live bird and the chicken we buy. The process that transforms one to the other," Trice explained.
Asked how the workshop had affected her, Trice added, "It was a pretty intense experience. I recently started eating meat, but only local and sustainably raised meat, after being a vegetarian for a long time. After this, I don't think I'm going to eat it anymore. Knowing all that it takes and feeling that animal die, taking its life, I don't think it's worth it."
I'm not ready for Trice's kind of enlightenment; it's not at all clear to me that a life without brisket and cheeseburgers and fried chicken is worth living. Still, I understand her point: killing and processing an animal, up close and personal, does change your perspective on the cost of meat -- beyond what you pay at the cash register.