(written by Tim McAuliffe)
I kill the chickens. Well, that’s not entirely accurate; I kill all the poultry. Chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys. Johanna does not kill them. She has come close at times, coming so far as to lift the old heavy cleaver high above her head and swiftly bring it down toward the extended neck, only to stop mere inches from the intended target and walk away leaving the cleaver laying on the butcher block. I’m proud of this. She values the life that we’re taking to feed our family, something that is hard to connect with when it’s wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam. She feels this so deeply that she’ll wake up in a panic with the notion that they aren’t safe, even if the next day they’re scheduled to be butchered. She will go to extremes to make sure that the life they have beforehand is one that they deserve; no crowded coops, no cages, healthy food, with the liberty to scratch, eat bugs, grass and generally cluck freely around their run.
I don’t like killing them. I don’t look forward to it, nor relish in the act in the least. I hope this is the norm when it comes to this type of homesteading task for most people. The first time is the hardest, but it never gets easy. At least, I hope it doesn’t. It’s just part of the lifestyle we choose to live (but that’s another conversation entirely.)
One of the first questions people ask me is whether our kids are around when I do it. Well no, actually the first thing I get is a weird look and the question “What – you kill your own chickens?!?!?!?” to which I used to feel a little bit like Dexter but now find amusing. I know people have varying opinions, and I wouldn’t dare to cast judgement on other people’s choices in this matter, but no…we don’t have them outside when we kill them. With three little boys under 7, it might be a bit much at that age and we are devoted to making this a positive experience when they’re ready. However, they are very interested in the plucking and butchering steps to which they have witnessed, and keenly aware that they were alive until just recently.
It’s amazing how quickly it starts to look like food as we pluck and butcher, and less like an animal that was just alive. The boys also seem to be completely okay with eating our farm animals (whether it be a chicken, duck, goose, turkey or even a lamb.)
Don’t get me wrong, Johanna is not some prissy, girly-girl. In fact, as the years go by, I tend to see her more often covered with mud, holding a pitchfork, and adorning mail-order overalls made of thick canvas than I do in posh attire. There have been days where I woke up by the sound of her shoveling mulch at 5 am (Although I must admit…only after shaking off my dozing haze did I realize it was the sound of a shovel repeatedly scraping our driveway and not our old dog, Tessa, hacking up a bone) I marvel at her bravado for going out to check on the chickens in sub-zero blizzards, kept warm (barely) by a combination of a bathrobe, muck boots, a woolen pullover, knit hat, and 3-4 scarves.
But…when it’s time, I kill the chickens.
I read a dozen blogs online, watched YouTube videos, etc. – I wanted to learn how, but really felt like I needed someone to walk me through it. I didn’t want to screw up and have a half mutilated bird running around in pain. So I visited a local butcher (Kevin) about 4 years ago with an old hen and a duck, and asked him to teach me how. Luckily I paid attention on the first one, because he handed me the knife for the second bird and (not wanting to look like I couldn’t handle it) just went for it. I didn’t really have time to think about it, which made it easier. I paid Kevin some extra cash for the lesson as thanks, and Kevin has subsequently become our go-to when we’re processing a larger volume of birds. I can put up with a few at a time, but when it comes to 20+ birds, it’s better left to those who have the setup to do it efficiently.
Even if you do end up eliciting the help from a local butcher, it’s good to know how to process them in case a bird gets hurt beyond recovery, is an egg-eater, or is aggressive towards other animals (or children). Our kids have been bitten by geese and attacked by turkeys. We have had several fox and hawk attacks where we had to put a maimed chicken down. At one point we had some rather nasty male turkeys (toms/gobblers) who bullied a new chicken hen nearly to death. While I’d love to believe that these animals are all good natured and loving, they most certainly are not, and anyone who personifies them is eventually going to be disappointed.
I also get asked why – why do I do it? For me, sometimes there is just that cool summer evening where I want a butterflied chicken, smoked over apple wood with garlic, lemon zest, thyme, rosemary and potatoes. Or a blustery winter Sunday, where nothing will suffice to warm me up but a steaming bowl of coq au vin; an old hen braised for hours in Burgundy, flavored with bacon, garlic, onions, mushrooms, brandy and a nice crusty loaf of homemade bread to soak up the sauce. A Thanksgiving Day meal with my family eating our own juicy and delicious turkey raised here at the farm. A Christmas Eve goose with pickled red cabbage, potato dumplings, gravy and chestnuts fried in butter. These are the moments that I’m thankful to have a healthy cage free option right in my backyard – to prepare a meal full of flavor, free of chemicals; back to the way a family meal should be.
If processing chickens, or any birds for that matter, is something you’re looking to learn, check in next week for my step-by-step method.
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