Recently, I agreed to help my friend Carrie Long out with her new batch of chickens. By “helping,” I mean killing, de-feathering, and butchering them for food.
Let me just say here that I despise chickens.
Not their taste. I will tear up a basket of wings like a barbarian, and can put a serious hurtin’ on a roasted chicken. I’m not grossed out by working with raw chicken in my kitchen, and I’m usually the one eating all the dark meat and picking the bones that get left behind in the roasting pan.
It’s the birds themselves. Usually, I love birds. I have 4 tattooed on me so far. Future bird tattoos will not include a chicken. I just can’t stand them. I think it’s the only bird I feel that way about. (Okay, I hate the Casawary and Emu because they are terrifying and capable of killing me.)
The worst thing about chickens is their nasty smell. They poop all over themselves and each other. It’s gross. But I also hate the clucking and crowing. And I had a particularly bad run-in with a pair of fancy roosters when I collected eggs at the farm I stayed at one summer when I was 19.
I’ve said for years that I didn’t want chickens. I’ll just pay for all those free range organic eggs I eat, thank you very much. But my partner wants chickens, in a chicken tractor, on our little wild acre in the city. Just a handful of hens who will become chicken & dumplings when they stop laying.
Now, I know I’m capable of killing and butchering much larger game, and I cherished those connections I made with my meat, knowing the shape of the animal far more intimately than the sausage or cubes in my stew.
So, I thought, why not give it a try? I can help out a friend, learn some new skills, even eat some fresh meat. Win/win/win, right?
My plan was to watch the first one through the process and then try the next one with guidance. I was mentally ready, and had taken some time that morning to sharpen a few knives to make the process faster and less frightening for the chicken.
Carrie carried the chicken upside-down from its tractor, to keep it calm. The tree she had set up for the slaughter wasn’t the stump-and-hatchet setup I had envisioned, but a pair of nylon straps nailed to a tree, with little loops at the end to put the chicken’s feet into. In this setup, she could hang the chicken upside-down by its legs, then cut off the head and let it bleed into a bucket before going on to the de-feathering process.
But chickens do not go easily into that good night. Oh, no. They fight for life even after it’s far too late. They scream and struggle and flap, which sends sprays of blood everywhere. I’m not squeamish about blood at all, but their blood has a metallic odor to it that caught in my throat. Worse than raccoon blood, and that’s pretty bad on my scale.
I winced a little at the bird’s long death, after a while turning my attention to the half dozen dogs of the farm licking their snouts, waiting to see who got the first chicken head of the day.
Carrie had a setup for helping remove the feathers more easily, a pot of water on a burner, warmed to 160° F (71° C), and then a pot of ice water beside it. She dipped the chicken by its feet into the hot water for half a minute, then submerged it into the ice bath.
From there, she hung the bird back up by its feet and put on some latex gloves. Then, she started pulling off the feathers. I was surprised at how easily it looked. The extra friction the gloves gave made them come off easily. But there were A LOT of feathers. Way more than I expected.
After the long de-feathering process, the bird more closely resembled what I picture when I think of chicken. Mostly, anyway. If you look really close, you can see that the skin is much more bumpy than what you see at the grocery. Carrie told me there are often quill tips left, but you can scrape them them out when you wash the chicken.
The last step of the day was to remove the organs and get the chicken into the cooler. I’m never a fan of the way intestines smell, and chicken was as bad as I expected. It was pretty cool to see all the organs, though, since the only ones you usually see are the gizzards, liver, and heart. (I’ve always known people who like these things, but I consider them catfish bait or dog food.)
Carrie said the tricky part is the crop, and it took her a few minutes of wriggling her hand around in its cavity to get it detached. The crop is where they store their food.
After all that was done, we had an edible chicken, a bowl with edible organs, and a bowl with feet–which we can make into stock later.
And then it was on to the next. By this point, my plan to help kill one was dissolving.
The second chicken was more vocal and agitated. I don’t know if it really sounded like it was screaming, “Help!” or if my overactive imagination invented that. I still watched the whole process, cementing the details. By the time that one was featherless, I knew I was not going to kill a chicken. BUT you never know when you’ll end up in a survival situation and need to turn a fine feathery friend into a feast. Knowledge is power.
Despite being more resolved than ever to not be a chicken farmer, my appetite foe the bird was not affected in the least. No drumstick is safe if I’m around.
I’m so grateful for Carrie for sharing her farm with me, teaching me new things, and inviting me to have this experience. And especially for being so gracious when, in the end, I didn’t help with the slaughter. (But I will help with stock and bone broth when it’s time!)
I will be forever content to buy or trade for the farm-fresh eggs and meat. Local farms like Carrie’s need our support. And we need theirs, too.
If you’d like to buy some fresh local chicken from Carrie, check out The Long Homestead on Facebook. Carrie also has bees that make the most AMAZING honey!