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Faith in Vermont: In Which I Butcher Some Chickens

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Posted on August 11, 2015 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



“So, what does one wear to butcher chickens?” I asked my friend Courtney over the phone. We were confirming our plans for the following night; I was focusing on the priorities. (The answer, in case you were wondering, is: anything that you don’t mind coming into contact with blood, guts, feathers, and – above all – that chicken smell.)

Courtney had emailed the week before: “Do you want to butcher three chickens with me? Your family could have the three chickens for your freezer. I have a vegetarian friend with three meat birds....”

Who would pass up an invitation like that? Not me.

This would be my first experience butchering anything bigger than a stinkbug, but I was up for the challenge. Regular readers know that in recent months I’ve been thinking increasingly about the source of my food, and about the value of growing more of what we eat and supporting local agriculture. Courtney knew this, and I suspect that’s why she extended her invitation.

Our family is not vegetarian; if I was really serious about raising our own food, then I needed to consider raising meat. And in that scenario, knowing how to butcher – or, to use a more pleasant euphemism, “harvest” – meat would be a requirement.

At the very least, I figured it would make a good column.

And so, last week, I put on my old painting overalls and drove over to Courtney’s house. I left my husband at home with our daughters, reassuring him that Courtney had promised that the butchering would take “an hour or a little more.”

I returned home three and a half hours later, staggering under the weight of nearly 30 pounds of chicken.

What happened was this: The chickens were a little late to arrive, and when they did – in a cardboard box in the back of the vegetarian chicken-keeper’s husband’s truck – there were six of them, instead of the expected three.

Not only were there six, but these were the biggest chickens I’d ever seen. Commercially, they would’ve been – should’ve been – slaughtered at least two weeks prior. Each of the four roosters and two hens probably tipped the scales at between eight to ten pounds. They resembled small turkeys more than chickens.

The number and size of the chickens made our job a little more challenging, but Courtney and I got to work; or rather, Courtney got to work and I followed her lead.

We each took a chicken from the cardboard box and hung them upside down by their feet from ropes that Courtney had looped around tree branches in her yard. In this upside-down position, the chickens were still and calm. We used hunting knives to slit their throats, trying to slice through the jugular vein so that they’d bleed out and die instantly. After a few seconds of stillness, the chickens’ nerve impulses would fire and their wings would flap wildly – a little disconcerting.

When the flapping stopped, we severed the heads and dunked the bodies in a tub of very hot water to loosen the feathers for plucking.

Plucking was the hardest and dirtiest work: These huge birds had a lot of feathers, and they all had to be pulled out. Not only that, but by this point the flies had discovered the blood and buzzed around us as we tried to shoo them away with feather-covered hands.

Once all the feathers were removed, we cut off the chickens’ feet and put them in a cooler full of cold water while we went to work on the next two birds.

After all six chickens had been dispatched and plucked, we took them inside to gut, which involved a lot of squishy tugging. The two big rules of gutting a chicken are: don’t break the gizzard (or the grain stored there will spill everywhere), and don’t break the “poop sac” (self-explanatory).

Three and a half hours later, I was exhausted, with aching chicken-butchering muscles that I hadn’t known existed. But I also felt a great sense of satisfaction.

Did it bother me to be the cause of death for three chickens? Honestly: No. These were meat birds; their entire arc of existence bent towards this moment. In fact, to allow them to continue to live in such an enormous state would have bordered on inhumane. I hadn’t known how I’d feel at the moment of killing, but when that moment came I didn’t feel the need to light incense or whisper an affirming prayer to the chicken’s spirit; I felt that the kindest thing was to be professional and quick about it.

And I recalled a quote from the writer Barbara Kingsolver, in a 2010 NPR interview on “The Ethics of Eating,” who, speaking about her own turkey butchering, said:

“Turkeys don't want to live to be 100 years old. They don't want to know their grandchildren. Believe me. They couldn't pick their grandchildren out of a lineup.”

As I drove home with my three chickens in a plastic bag in the backseat, I reflected upon the enormous amount of effort that it takes to bring a single chicken to the dinner table, from hatching to raising to butchering. After this experience, I can never look at meat the same way; can never take for granted those sterile, plastic-wrapped cuts in the grocery store.

“Can you imagine if you had to do this every time you wanted to eat meat?” Courtney asked, as we wrestled side-by-side with chicken intestines at her kitchen counter.

If we had to do this every time we ate meat, we’d probably eat meat a lot less and appreciate it a lot more. And that might be a very good thing.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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