Hello, friends. A couple of days ago, my friend K sent me a link to these amazing images from The Illustrated Book of Poultry (1870) and they got me thinking. Have I ever told you about the time I killed a chicken?
A few years ago, Nick gave me a copy of Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry, by Glenn Drowns, for Mother’s Day. To my mind, this is a waaaaaay better present than a charm bracelet or some such, and I spent many happy hours picturing our garden with a flock of chickens. (We live in town but are allowed to keep up to six backyard hens in our garden.) However, I kept stalling out at the prospect of having to put a chicken out of incurable, long-term misery – an inevitable part of chicken guardianship. And yet I thought the chickens sounded like fun. Maybe I just needed practice.
I am, by instinct, a squeamish person. I come by it honestly: my mother cannot abide insects, or even worms. My maternal grandmother kept chickens in her garden in Malaysia but when it came time to eat one, she had to take it to the market and swap it for a stranger. I was genuinely unsure whether I could kill a bird. Directly. Myself.
Eventually, I befriended A and J, a pair of organic farmers, and volunteered to help them “process” a batch of meat chickens. I arrived at their farm at 7 a.m. one Saturday morning. It was winter, and it was dark. As the sky lightened, I watched J coax the chickens into crates (about 25 birds, if memory serves), and then he and I drove to a neighbouring farm.
We pulled up in front of a large shed and unloaded our birds. Inside, the shed held a hot-water boiler, a plucker (picture a shallow, round centrifuge) and long stainless steel counters. Outside, there were three orange traffic cones mounted upside down on a window ledge. I remember thinking, What’s up with that? I soon found out.
J placed one chicken in each cone, head-down. They flapped briefly as they were being inverted but then became very still. The fatalism of chickens is astonishing. As quickly as possible, J severed their necks with a sharp knife. They bled out on the ground.
One of the things that I like and admire most about J’s approach is that he still finds it difficult to slaughter chickens. It’s not a small thing. It costs him reflection and emotion and he doesn’t make light of it. He was a great teacher. We dipped the birds briefly in boiling water (to loosen their feathers) and spun them in the plucker. He taught me how to gut them, where the crop was, and at which joint to sever the legs. The birds were beautiful and fluffy and alive when we began, and ugly and shrunken and dead when we finished.
J did all the killing, quietly and respectfully, without putting any pressure on me. But as we began the last batch, he turned to me. And I said I wanted to try. The last chicken’s neck was small and warm in my left hand. The knife was very sharp, but I still needed to cut twice. I cried. I watched it bleed out, then dipped, spun, and gutted it with care. I took it home and roasted it. And before we ate it, we thanked it for its life.
We still haven’t made the leap to backyard chickens. The kids, the dog, the gardens, and the house seem like plenty of responsibility for now. We might do it someday. But even if we don’t? That cold, grim, messy morning in the countryside has forever changed the way I cook and eat.
And even the way I look at magnificent, vainglorious, hilarious images like these.