Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Chicken Death

Well we've just come in from killing the chickens. I swear I can smell the blood still!

It was very educational and eye-opening. Is that a pat way to put it?
We got up early, Matt went to the store to buy ice, and I left Rosie sleeping in the bed. We moved a table outside, and set up a big garbage bag to catch all the feathers and guts and a big bucket to pour the boiling water into and swish the chickens around. We stood around for a while thinking about how to go about the task. Finally we decided that cutting the throat would be the best. So Matt went and fetched the first Rooster-- one of our big white feathered boys with a brilliant red comb. He flipped him upsidedown and handed him to me-- the bird was completely calm and I held onto his feet with one hand and his blinking face with the other hand- it was discombobulating to feel his eyes and throat moving under my palm. Matt took a sharp new razor blade and --slice, slice-- cut the bird's throat. The blood poured out into the black garbage bag-- in red streams. The bird flapped a bit and then was still. It was very sad and strange to feel it die under my hands-- the blinking stop. I kept saying, Thank you chicken, thank you for your life. Matt came back with the bucket of hot hot water, and we swished the chicken around in there for 30 seconds, pushing his wet feathers under the water. Then we started plucking at the feathers-- more like pawing, with our rubber gloves, and the feathers just melted off. Except for a few of the quillish wing feathers that seemed more attached-- more anatomical than hair-- more like pulling out fingernails than plucking eyebrows. Under the white adult feathers there were still traces of the dyed baby-chick colors: green, purple, orange, pink, from when we got them as baby chicks, dyed in the egg, a giddy easter present for Rosie Jo from Auntie Erin.

Rosie woke up and came to the screen door screaming—imagine how scary to wake up in a house all alone! So I ran in and nursed her to comfort and then when it was clear she wasn’t going back to sleep I put her in the backpack and went back to the task at hand. In the meantime, Matt had plucked the creature completely—it was looking like… a rubber chicken. Funny how the representation of the thing is more familiar than the thing itself.

He was ready to butcher. I got out our “country skills and crafts” book, opened it to the “butchering poultry” page, and we began, Rosie peeking around my arms and saying, “bok bok?” I don’t know if she’s old enough to be frightened or disturbed by something dying or bleeding. I kept thinking, I don’t want her to think we’ll do this to her—raise her up and take care of her, so we can eat her up.

Matt disassembled the chicken—we had a wooden cutting board set up outside and an array of tools: two brand new knives—one lean boning knife, one a Japanese cleaver—and both inadequately dull it turned out; two red paring knives; and one razor blade. The cautions in the instructions were funny: “Cut around the oil gland, beginning at the oil gland nipple. Make certain to get the whole thing.” Like we can tell where the oil gland nipple is, and where it begins or ends! It was horribly suspenseful to watch him hacking at the joints and then finally twisting the feet and wing tips off, and watching the cleaver make two dull THUDS against the neck before the head came off. Good thing we didn’t try to chop their heads off! Another moment of suspense was the retrieval of the guts. “Pull the innards out with a gentle tug, but don’t break the intestines!” It turns out that guts are very well lodged in the body cavity, and that the only stuff that wants to come out is the breakable and foul (fowl? Ha) intestines. It was alarming to watch the intestines unloop and slide out, with the heart, lungs, liver all in tow. I’m wishing now we had saved the organs, but at the time it was just another layer of complication we didn’t want to cope with. Next time. Now they’ll be good fertilizer for carrots and potatoes (“and other foods that I actually WANT to eat” said Matt).

Then a rinse in the hose over the garden (no mint tea until the salmonella washes away) and then an ice water bath, and the transformation from living creature to food was complete.

We did one more together in the same way: I held the bird as Matt cut its throat and it flapped and bled to death, Matt plucked it and butchered it as I chased Rosie around (who wouldn’t tolerate the backpack for very long). As Matt cleaned out the body cavity, he forced air out of its throat and—alarmingly—it croaked and sighed. This was horribly macabre and funny. The third chicken we reversed roles. I took the razor in hand and – slit, slit, cut its throat. Matt held it and I ran for the hot water. Then I swished it and plucked it—alarmed by the oozing pores after the feathers pull out. I took forever on the plucking. If I was a scullery maid I’m sure I’d be fired. When I could stand to pluck no longer, I took the limp, surprisingly heavy, and still-warm bird over to the butcher table to dissect. Head, wing tips, feet—goodbye. Gland (with or without oil nipple, who knows). Cut around anus, fish around to disconnect guts. Pull, hank, gently slice, ooze, squeeze… By the end of the session, I couldn’t stand the smell anymore, and gagged as I rinsed it out. At that point I realized I was nearing the end of my tolerance for this experience. I remember gardening as a kid, and at first being fearless and gung ho. Then you discover a large spider on your arm, and you jump but brush it off, and proceed slightly more carefully. At the second spider, you’re getting skittish, and then when a weed gently brushes your neck, you scream and run panicked from the garden. I sensed my tolerance for the violence and gore was similarly dwindling.

Matt brought up another rooster, and I offered to cut the throat again, since it was so simple, and I didn’t have to hold the feet and head taught and feel it die quite so directly. But something had happened and the razor was dull. Slice—no pouring blood, just a gash. Another slice, on the other side, and same thing. We traded off (the bird was still calm), I held the head and feet while Matt went to work—slice, slice, slice, slice, slice—till finally it was bleeding into the garbage can. And that was it, standing in a ring of feathers around the rubbish, my tolerance expired with that chicken. Luckily right then my friend Sara drove up, shouting “we’re here to kill us some chickens!” All of her kids—10, 6 and 1 jumped out of the car. Phew, I passed on the dead chicken to her, and went and played in the grass with the kids. We ate watermelon, sniffed at the basils, chamomiles, dills and oreganos, and had a lovely time, while Matt and Sarah finished off the last two birds.

And now here we are. Rosie is sleeping, it’s started raining, the carcasses were cooled and dried and now are freezing. And I keep catching whiffs of metallic chicken blood.

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