Warning: This post is not all middle-aged puppies and stately roosters co-existing and having a lifetime together. Turn back now if you're squeamish in the least.
As I am frequently known to be not-so-serious, I must offer this statement up before you proceed or scroll down to look at the pretty pictures: There are no pretty pictures. There is only gruesome chicken slaughter and tales of slaughter - chicken and otherwise - contained within this post. If you are offended by blood, headless chickens, innards, or by discussion of those or any related subjects, I'd advise you to skip past this post to another more pleasant one. Say one on killing squash bugs. Or one on first bringing meat chickens home to roost. Until, of course, they are slaughtered.
With this disclaimer now behind us, I will proceed with the story of JR and my New Year's Day Chicken Slaughterfest 2010. It starts as I had originally envisioned the post starting, before I realized that some people might be a bit taken aback if they were not forewarned so, switching gears, now:
Many cultures have New Year's food-related traditions, designed to bring good karma and good fortune; among them the Italian tradition of eating lentils (they do resemble coins, do they not?), or the Spaniards' eating 12 grapes at midnight as we cross into the new year, each grape representing a month, and the hope being that every grape/month is sweet. JR and I do not generally celebrate with a food tradition, unless consumption of prosciutto every New Year's counts ("We will have a year filled with wonderful cured pork product - hurrah!"), though we have, on the suggestion of a friend, placed a hundred dollar bill in a plastic baggie, tucked it under our door mat (that was purchased expressly for this purpose the first year we did it), and then made sure that it was the first thing to pass our threshold on New Year's Day. Money flowing into our house, or at least that's the idea. (Dear neighbors and those who know where we live, we no longer do this, nor will we ever do this again, so don't come 'round here looking for a hundred buck bill, okay?)
Unfortunately, the Universe has been using a ShopVac to remove money from our house for the last couple of years, so in lieu of transporting a crisp Benjamin into the house on the holiday, I suggested a different ritual. Chicken slaughter.
When we first purchased our roasters, it was to increase our ability to feed ourselves meat in light of the Universe's ShopVac activities. We calculated that 12 roasters would give us 12 weeks of chicken meat, providing us a very likely 4 to 6 meals per week (including lunches from leftovers), depending upon the size of the bird. This, in conjunction with our laying hens' eggs and the yield from our garden would be enough not to altogether eliminate our reliance on outside sources of food, but to greatly decrease the amount necessary to spend on food through the harvest season.
For a variety of reasons, we haven't slaughtered as regularly as we'd planned - a busy weekend here, a lack of desire there (can you blame us?), the seemingly ever-present foul weather. Our chicken-killing apparatus is just barely under cover, and killing in the rain or snow seemed like undue stress. For us. We hadn't considered the birds' feelings about the weather, though I'm sure they'd like to put off slaughter no matter the weather. Sunny? Hey, let's not slaughter - why don't you humans go to the beach? Rainy? Boy, don't you humans want to hunker down inside and make a nice vegetable soup? You see where this is going, and the point is, our budget wasn't so horrible that we had to slaughter birds each week in order to have meat, and, while we didn't purchase much chicken (right - much. I did buy at least two small chickens after our roasters were ready for slaughter, I admit it. And I am not ashamed.), we still worked within our (new-normal) restricted budget for food purchasing.
The other reason, for me, anyway, to get the roasters, was for me to slaughter one of them myself. At 39 years old, I have harvested my fair share of fruits and vegetables, but I have never slaughtered (or hunted, or fished) my own creature for dinner, and it seemed like, so long as I had the option to completely understand what it takes to get that chicken to my plate, I should seize the opportunity.
One Saturday in late October, I visited my local poultry shop. It's not just any poultry shop, though when you enter, it appears just like any tiny grocery in any city. The walls are a honeyed wood, with shelving built in on the left-hand side, pantry staples stacked within, a glass butcher's cooler on the right, chicken carcasses tucked neatly into the ice, the cashier at the register waiting to process your order. But if you walk beyond the cashier, through the large, floor to door-jamb, clear poly flaps normally reserved for walk-in coolers, you enter a whole other world. Cages and cages of live chickens, rabbits, ducks, quail, guinea hens, all stacked atop one another - some cages of plain old galvanized steel, others coated a dark hunter green - and all on casters, so that these towers of caged dinner may be wheeled around easily, customers able to select from the cages which animal they want for their tables.
I had come in search of a rabbit. Rabbit is generally not considered food here in the United States, I understand (I know, I know, poor Thumper), but in many, many countries, it is a staple, and an inexpensive staple at that. Rabbits reproduce readily, may be kept in small spaces, and, as I was about to witness, are slaughtered and dressed rather easily. The tallest man in the livestock room approached me to take my order. "A rabbit," I replied.
"Just one, thank you."
He reached around a mottled gray behemoth rabbit to fetch a pure white rabbit. Snatching it quickly by its neck, it squealed in that high-pitched way that rabbits do, then very rapidly accepted its fate. He weighed it, and then handed it off to the slaughter man, asking me something unintelligible as he did, to which I answered, "yes." Perhaps I'd get a rabbit fur out of it, I thought. Or maybe it's the liver he's offering me - the liver would be good. He looked at me expectantly, as though to usher me out, back into the serene calm of the storefront, or even into the crisp fall air in the square outside the shop. Instead, I stepped back to make room for other customers to place their orders, and settled in to watch as my rabbit was killed.
In a room with that much livestock, slaughter, and gutting of animals, the smell can only be described as rank; a heady mix of all-day sex, blood, and wet feathers - not a place to spend any significant time if one isn't feeling well, had too much to drink the night prior, or is hungry. Fortunately, I was none of these, yet I still had to make my best effort to ignore the scent as I watched the slaughterman cut the throat of my rabbit - one clean slit, not too much blood spilled onto the white fur, though now I had decided I'd be quite happy if the sure-to-be-bloodstained-once-removed fur wasn't what I had agreed to moments earlier. The rabbit's legs were hooked into a modified wire-hanger-looking contraption to allow it to bleed out, and a few minutes later, the slaughterman began removing the fur. First the tail is cut off, and then, almost in one motion, the entire fur is pulled from the neck to the space where the tail once was, leaving behind only the rabbit's furry feet against the exposed muscle of its body.
He moved the now-naked rabbit to the stainless steel gutting table, hung it in the rungs above the table for a minute, then slapped it onto the table and gutted it. A move to another table for piecing, and then the tallest man returned to me with a bag of rabbit meat, "$26.79" written on the bag. Holy Egads! I have wild rabbits (free, and plump besides) running all around my yard - this is supposed to be peasant food, and here I am, paying almost $27 for 3 pounds of meat. Clearly not a good solution for those of you reading this who also need to mind a budget, but I had caused the rabbit to be killed, and I wasn't going to back out at that point, so I ponied up, was chagrined to find the rabbit's head in the bag, yet pleased to find that I had also agreed to the liver and kidneys being included in my $27 rabbit order (no fur, though), and after the rabbit stew was finished off, we ate mostly vegetables the rest of the week. For budgetary reasons, not for squeamishness reasons.
About a month later, JR and I had planned for my rooster slaughter to happen on a Saturday. I went to the farmers market in the morning, where I happened to chance upon a farmer I know. "I'm going to slaughter my first chicken today," I said, oh-so-proudly. "Oh, really? I bring mine to Antonelli's." Cripers - this was the second time I'd heard of small-scale chicken farmers bringing their birds to my little poultry shop of the rank, sex-and-death smell. A very hands-off approach, and these were real farmers. If they wouldn't slaughter their own, why would I?
That day's slaughter was postponed - perhaps for JR and me to mull over how we would get the chickens to Antonelli's (in the backseat of my SUV? Or in the way-back?), but having them slaughtered at Antonelli's defeated the other primary purpose of us getting these chickens, regardless of what the real farmers do. And the first primary purpose - increasing our homegrown food supply and decreasing our need to spend money on meat - had, I suppose, been met, but not really. I mean, we were able to live for months with five of the original 12, basically pet, roosters parading around our yard without going hungry - any of us. No, I would have to slaughter at least one of them for us to call this homegrown meat experiment a success.
"I know what we should do on New Year's Day," I said to JR a few days before the holiday.
I'm sure he expected my response to be something along the lines of, "Let's take a ride to the beach," or "Let's see what Kristin and Ian are up to."
And then came, "Let's slaughter two birds. You do one first, then I'll do the second one."
"Yeah. Let's do it. We're killing it in 2010."
Downy underbelly feathers seem to contain a secret adhesive, I thought as I tried to shake them off, unsuccessfully, then finally resorted to letting JR splash some of the hot dip-the-chicken-in-it-to-loosen-all-of-the-feathers-(save-the-downy-ones)-for-plucking water on my hands, then rubbing the lacy white mini-feather dusters off of my fingers with a nasty-looking rag. Direct dipping of my fingers into the water didn't appeal. Odd, for I had just, with my own (gloved) hands, carried the rooster to what JR has dubbed The Guillotine (a hangman's rudimentary gallows, with the top crossbar containing an upside down orange traffic cone in which the bird spends its final moments, suspended upside down), gently set the surprisingly calm bird face down into the cone, and then, following JR's instructions - given just an hour earlier when I watched him slaughter the first chicken of The Slaughterfest - reached up through the narrow end of the cone, clamped my right hand around his beak - he didn't nibble, as JR had warned me might happen - and pulled his frostbitten-combed head toward the ground to prepare for the Big Pull.
In the late summer, our very first attempt at humane chicken slaughter had gone horribly wrong. I suppose it was to be expected. As you are aware, I had never slaughtered a chicken, and JR hadn't slaughtered a chicken since his youth when he worked on a nearby farm. His experience had been solely with the axe-and-stump method, which both of us agreed was too much stress, not just on us, but also on the birds. We researched humane slaughter practices, including chicken hypnosis, however, the practice round of hypnosis failed miserably, and we came to believe that piercing the chicken's brain would be the least traumatic for all involved.
Not so. On that fateful day, JR placed the chicken into the cone, where it promptly attempted to somersault its way out of The Guillotine, clawing furiously at the sloping plastic walls, pushing its head up as though it might get to see the sun again. JR took a pair of sharp scissors - this is a judgment call we lived to regret; despite having an ice pick given to us for this very purpose, we went with the alternative sharp scissor implement. As it turns out, the chicken brain is a very small target, and one that is easily missed. I went from enthusiastic documentary photographer to gagging wife in the span of approximately a half a second. With camera now useless, and my retching instinct fully intact, JR grabbed his sharpened hedge trimmers. Oh, if only they were truly sharp, those sharpened hedge trimmers. The trimmers did not succeed in lopping off the head of the poor, tortured chicken. Instead, they folded its neck over itself in a zig-zag crease, which did, at least, succeed in breaking its neck, and therefore killing it. I ran to the house to get my kitchen shears, which have proven to be quite the handy tool for cutting a whole (purchased) chicken into pieces. With those shears, JR cut off the head, and allowed the chicken to bleed out into the black, paint-streaked bucket below. I returned to the kitchen to do something soothing, like bake, until it was time to pluck and gut the chicken.
Plan B for chicken slaughter quickly became the neck-yank neck-breaking move. Place your chicken in the cone, face down, pull its head out, grab firmly ahold, and pull with all of your might. Add in a neck twist for good measure if you feel you must. So, on New Year's Day afternoon, I placed my palm over the rooster's facing-me eye, wrapped my fingers around its beak, looked away, and pulled as forcefully and as quickly as I could. I added The Twist for good measure, and then grabbed the kitchen shears from the crossbar of the gallows.
As we are homesteaders, and certainly homesteaders on a budget, we make do with what we have here at our house in terms of tools. Luckily, our wedding registry yielded a bounty of fancy cookware and small appliances, but, not having planned for raising our own meat birds lo those seven years ago when we were preparing for our wedding - and not entirely certain where we might have registered for chicken slaughter accoutrement even if we had planned for it - we do not have lopping shears, which would have made quicker, and far less intimate, work of the head removal. Instead, the shears and I labored away for more than a minute, sawing almost, to sever the head.
The now-headless chicken body bled out into that same black paint-streaked bucket while I held the rooster's head - quite serene-looking, it was - in my left hand, to assess whether the cockscomb's frostbite would render it unusable. Having made my decision, I let the head drop into the bucket of blood, and prepared for the plucking and gutting.
While watching JR remove the entrails from "his" chicken, I thought of early adult me, the woman who would enter into what was traditionally an all-men's tavern while the men bounced the c-word off of the walls to intimidate me, and I'd just sit and have my beer to show them I could (it was the law, after all - no discrimination based on gender). Or the woman who frequently had to pull over before leaving Boston for the hour-long drive home, get under her jalopy's hood and pour oil and antifreeze into her engine just to be sure she didn't blow the head gasket. Or the woman who just called it like she saw it (though, looking back, I do suppose there is something to be said for tact, particularly in one's professional life). The woman who was put off by nothing. If I felt it had to be done, it just had to be done. Suddenly, I realized how long-ago and far away that woman was. I had no desire to gut my own chicken - no desire to go under the hood, as it were. But there was no turning back now. If we were going to forge our own New Year's symbolic food ritual - even if only for one year - I had to do it. Had to. And I was nervous.
"Oh, yeah, I'm always nervous before I slaughter them," JR reassured me.
"God, yeah. I mean, it's stressful. You're killing something. Something that lives with us."
I felt better. Maybe that bad-ass was still lurking inside of me, and, even if she was very, very tiny, she was going to have to show up. I had a chicken to kill.
JR was quite impressed with this, my first slaughter. The transfer to the cone had gone well. The rooster hadn't nibbled my hand as I reached in to pull his head down. The break only took one tug, and apart from gagging while kitchen shearing/sawing the head off, the killing wasn't as bad as I had anticipated. There was a bit of blood splatter when I severed the jugular, but I knew to expect that having seen it happen while JR processed his bird, and so, knowing that it was inevitable, it was less horrible than what I could conjure up in my crazy little head.
By the time the downy feathers were stuck to my fingers, I was still not looking forward to gutting the bird, but was a lot less apprehensive about it. First, I cut the neck off as far down into the chest cavity as I could. Then I made an incision between the bottom of the breast bone and the anus. The breast bone comes down quite close to the chicken's ass, might I add, and before I got the cut completed, the anus had grossed me out enough that I gagged again. Always thinking on his feet, JR thought that some liquid gutting courage might help, and so he poured a sip of beer into my mouth. Perfect. With the restorative tonic taken, I continued cutting toward and around the anus, removed the anus, and then reached my hand into the chicken's still-warm body. I cut its organs free from its chest and back, and then proceeded to pull the innards out through the bottom of the bird. I salvaged the liver, inadvertently crushed one kidney, and had to work harder than I would have liked to remove the heart. Finally, JR and I discarded the intestines, gall bladder, and such before bringing the bird to the house to wash and bag up for storage.
One should let a freshly slaughtered animal rest for a couple of days in order to let the rigor pass, lest one end up with rubbery meat, so, in homage to the chicken's brief, but decent life, and our completing that which we set out to do, we had a New Year's dinner of chicken liver, kidney, and mushroom ragu with fresh pasta - made with eggs from the laying hens. The meal was partially purchased, partially homegrown, and with flavors that maybe aren't for everybody, but, hey, they work for us. An auspicious start to the New Year, if not a typical or traditional one.