When I first heard of the idea of setting 101 goals for myself, I immediately wrote, "kill, clean and eat a chicken" at the top of the page. This was a goal that combined my interest in food and my preoccupation with self-sufficiency and survival skills. The thing about a goal list, I have discovered, is that it validates otherwise bizarre behavior with the simple explanation, "It's on my goal list."
It was harder to arrange that I had anticipated. I had a few false leads - people who said that they would teach me or help make a connection but never did. A few months ago, a backyard farmer said that he had a couple of roosters whose time were up and he invited me to help. I didn't hear anything for awhile after, until last week's email that contained directions to his farm and a few video links to watch the method he would use. "We have a handful of old hens, and some young cocks that need to go," he said. "If the videos at the bottom are more than you can handle, you might want to re-consider."
I watched the videos a few times, peering in close to my computer screen to make out exactly where the farmer was making his cuts. Never did I want to change my mind. I only wanted to get it right.
The appointed day arrived. I packed a change of clothes, rubber boots, a Harrods of London apron (it is the only oilcloth apron I own), and a small cooler for the chicken I hoped to bring home. The drive through farmland and forest was peaceful and I turned off the car radio to really take it all in.
When I arrived, the farmer was setting up the "processing" station: killing cones, a large pot of water kept hot on a propane burner, a Featherman mechanical plucker, and a table lined with plastic sheeting. I watched carefully as he processed the two roosters first. Then, it was my turn.
|the set up|
The hen was pulled from the pen where she had been pecking around with her sisters. She rode calmly under the farmer's arm to the shady area of the yard where I was waiting. She went into the cone head first, her head sticking out of the narrow bottom end. She looked around a bit but didn't fight or squawk.
Incredibly patient with me, she didn't complain as I tried to decide how I wanted to hold her head in my hand. Finally, I felt comfortable with my thumb under her "chin" and my fingers over the top of her head. I found her "ears" and positioned the blade just above, slicing firmly down on one side and then the other. Thick blood flowed immediately and I held her head gently but firmly for the first few seconds as she tried to pull away. When I felt her relax, I let go and waited while her body drained of blood.
My hand held the memory of her warm feathery head in against my fingers for awhile afterwards. This is the thought that went through my mind as I watched the chicken die, "I eat meat. This is what that means." I felt gratitude to the bird and to the farmer. I understood the seriousness and finality of the taking of a life, but not remorse at doing so. I had told myself ahead of time that if I could not kill and process a chicken on my own that it would be time to reconsider being a meat eater.
|All gloves are off: cleaning my hens|
From the cones, the hen takes a one minute dip in hot water and then into the mechanical plucker, which whirls her around the drum of flexible rubber "fingers." In just a few seconds, all but a splattering of feathers have disappeared and the hen is ready for cleaning. There are videos on the internet (search YouTube for Joel Salatan) if you want details about how exactly to clean out a chicken. It was easier than I anticipated and much more interesting, since I wasn't expecting to find eggs inside.
|from inside the hen - eggs at different stages|
My gratitude to the two hens that became my dinner (one is novelty, I told myself, two is practice). My thanks to Adalyn Farm for teaching me this new skill and for allowing me to make new use of your old hens.
Recipe for an Old Laying Hen
This soup does not strip chicken from its bone or hide it between colorful chunks of vegetable. This soup celebrates the hen and appreciates the flavor she took years to develop in her old muscles. This soup is not for wimps.
1 old hen
1/2 of an onions, sliced into thick pieces
2 garlic cloves, smashed with the side of a knife
1 teaspoon of dried thyme
2 teaspoons of curry powder
a dash of cayenne pepper (or more!)
Cut the chicken, first into the typical eight pieces (legs, thighs, wings, breasts) and then cut each piece in half again, right through the bone. Cut the back into three pieces. Heat a large heavy soup pot over medium high heat. Add half of the chicken pieces, allowing them to brown skin side down for about 10 minutes. Push those pieces to the side and add the remaining chicken, allowing them the same 10 minutes to brown.
Add the remaining ingredients to the pot. Add 3 cups of water, scraping up any bits that browned to the bottom of the pot. Bring to a simmer. Cover and reduce the heat. Continue at a low simmer for another hour. Test a piece of chicken after an hour to see if it is ready to eat. If it still very chewy, continue cooking, adding water if necessary.
At the end of the cooking, add salt to taste. Adding it too early is a mistake because if you need to continue simmering for another 30 or 40 minutes, the broth will become too concentrated and salty.
When your soup is complete, split the chicken into five bowls, about four piece for each person. Ladle the broth into each bowl with the chicken pieces, about half a cup per person. Serve with a piece of crusty bread and sweet butter.