May 31, 2008 § 4 Comments
For the past three years, I have been involved in an annual celebration of homegrown poultry. It started out as a homeschool lesson — “Know where your meat comes from” was the central idea. Truly, I believe it is a good idea to teach children where there food comes from. Whether it grows out of the dirt or it comes from an animal whose life is sacrificed for your sustenance, it’s an important to have full awareness of what we put in our bodies. It’s such a basic fundamental part of our lives, but so many are really separated from their food — buying things in cardboard and plastic and not thinking twice about how or where it was grown or raised.
I grew up on a family farm, working in my mom’s organic market garden, mucking my pony’s stall, catching lambs to dock their tails and vaccinate them, or doing a myriad of other farm activities. My parents butchered our own sheep, and mom regularly butchered a rabbit for dinner. We didn’t butcher chicken too often though, but I recall that when I was really young we butchered some chickens.
Photo to right: Chickens hanging to drain out blood. If blood pools in meat it causes bruising.
The downside of butchering a chicken and putting eating it in the same day is that chickens take quite a bit of effort to process. This is what my friend’s discovered as well, and thus they have turned it into a single-day even in which 30 chickens are butchered, and processed into breasts, wings, thighs and drumsticks and frozen for use throughout the year. In exchange for my “master” plucking skills, they raise two extras for me to take home.
So the first step is raising the chickens. My friends buy Cornish cross, which is the typical meat breed of chicken that has been bred to grow faster and bigger than chickens that are more traditionally used for egg production. They pick up the chicks in March, and make sure the calendar is open six weeks later for butchering, because that’s the total amount of time needed to raise up these fast-growing birds before butchering. [Here’s a good “How to” site for raising chicks].
On butchering day we prepare a garbage pail of boiling temperature water (by adjusting the hot water heater that morning for ease of getting about 40 gallons hot quickly). The chickens are gathered from the pen and walked across the yard (away from the sight of the other chickens) and they are thanked by the family, and then with a swift motion their bodies are dropped and the head twisted for a quick snapping of their necks. Next, their heads are cut off with a knife and they are hung upside down to bleed out. Once we have about 15 of them on the hanger, we begin to pull the first ones off that are drained, and dip them in the garbage pail of HOT water, which relaxes the tissues and loosens the feathers prior to plucking.
Next, we settle down to plucking. The best part of this job is the cold beer that you can enjoy while doing the plucking. Other than that, it’s not really “fun,” but the better job you do, the less complaining you’ll hear from your spouse or children about the feathers in their food. I take pride in the thorough plucking of a chicken, it’s one of those little “accomplishments” in life. Kind of like seeing a garden full of lucious produce, or seeing the sparkle on a clean countertop.
Photo to right: Pulling the feathers against the direction that they are laying in is the fastest method of removal. I tend to drag my thumb across the skin to aid in rubbing the base of the feather out of the skin.
The other option to plucking, is skinning the chickens. My friends don’t do this because skinned chicken is more prone to freezer-burn, and their kids are at an age when they can stand to get some more fat in their diets and the kids love the taste of the crispy cooked chicken skin.
After plucking is complete, the chickens are gutted and then placed in another trash can full of ice water. Once all the chickens are in the ice-bath, it’s time for cutting them up into bags of “Mixed grill,” breasts, thighs, drumsticks, wings, and putting in the large upright freezer in the garage. My friends also track the number of each package that they put in the freezer for quick reference in the kitchen. We took our birds home whole and in a vaccuum sealed bag. They’re ready for beer-butt barbeque chicken or a nice baked chicken dinner.
We actually did all of this on the weekend of May 17th, but I was slow on downloading the photos. And, I think it’s important to mention that this was done out of the official city limits of Eugene, but in a neighborhood. If your neighbors can see into your yard, it’s a good idea to notify them before you butcher 30 chickens.
For a little humor, I’ll share why I mention this.
This year, the new neighbors at my friend’s house weren’t notified because they hadn’t been home much recently. So, on the day we were there they had simultaneously planned a work-party on their garden. They were making use of the local high school softball team’s strength — about seven 15 year-old girls. The girls were preparing the vegetable beds, and we started walking across the yard with chickens under our arms. One girl was running a rototiller in the bed and she just stopped, and stared at the chicken and didn’t look at the rototiller, didn’t move her arms, didn’t stop it from tilling… just kept on tilling with mouth agape.
Then, she yelled over her shoulder: “Dad!!! They’re butchering chickens in their backyard!”