I can hear it breathe — the yellow beak is wide open. I coo, smooth the glossy white wings, and hold the plump breast to my chest until it calms, which happens surprisingly fast. I ignore the ever-present dried poop that clings to each fluffy tush. “Good chicken,” I say — no names, no separate identities — and place it, long yellow toes first, gently into the trailer.
It takes both of us to catch all 26 grown Cornish Rock chickens, the Bearded One herding them with a broom and me snatching them, even though it’s late afternoon and they’ve been fasting all day. Momma Goose called and said let’s do it this evening. It’s cool, her husband wants to help and he has to work tomorrow. We were ready for this possibility, since they were getting the rental equipment today.
One of the last chickens poops on me as I carry it to the trailer. Poor thing, it’s so scared.
“You’ll feel better if you change,” says the Bearded One as he closes the wire top of the trailer and climbs into the tractor seat.
I agree, although these are my cutest pants, dang. I walk down the hill scolding myself for my shallow vanity in the face of impending death. I focus once again on the life and death power I have over these animals.
“Goats,” I stop and say to Sage, Pearl, and LaLa. “You laying chickens over there,” I call out toward the aviary. “You animals are not leaving. This is good-bye to the meat birds only.” They all are quiet and listening.
And then I drive the truck with the rest of the supplies — plastic wrap, Pam cooking spray, firewood, leather gloves, rubber gloves, ziplock baggies, the big white knife and two paring knives — down the road to Momma Goose’s farm.
I see their green open pasture, the busy house with feral kittens and small dogs and many objects d’art up on the left, the row of poultry houses and pens on the right, and two enormous old-growth stumps in a fire pit at the very back of the property.
Beyond the last pen but still thirty feet from the fire I see the Bearded One, our chicken trailer, and Momma Goose’s husband, Brooklyn Man. He’s from Brooklyn, New York and told Momma Goose when they met that he didn’t “do” dogs, as in live with them. Now they have four in the house. He’s a big man with a big laugh and a big heart.
Momma Goose herself waves to me from her bright red Adirondack chair perched on the hill below the house. “Hey!” she calls out and points with her cigarette. “Just drive right on down!”
Jonah, their Twenty-Something son, unloads the rental equipment and listens to the radio of his small pick-up truck. Led Zeppelin. The only other music I remember from the day was Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and that was halfway through the job when I was jogging from the butchering table with a finished bird, rinsed and ready for the cold water chest. I sang along.
I park the truck, and as I approach I hear Brooklyn Man marveling at the size and health of our chickens. We used expensive feed. They plan to shift to it. “The feathers are thick and shiny,” he says. “They’re HUGE,” says Momma Goose, who’s got an apron on like I do. “They’ll be four to six pounds dressed.”
Each bird cost us about $10 to raise, counting the initial cost and eleven 50-pound sacks of feed.
Momma Goose says that it was either the food we bought or our large pen or both, but we done good. I feel proud, but the chickens are thirsty, I can tell. Their mouths are all open. Time to get to work.
The Bearded One and I watched two YouTube videos the night before of a very cute, very gentle and respectful Amish country farmer demonstrating his company Featherman’s three machines — killing cones, scalder, and plucker. The set costs around $6,500 retail, so small farmers just rent it from counties for $20 per day.
Jonah attaches a propane tank to the square metal scalder and the Bearded One and Brooklyn Man fill it with water through a garden hose attached to their home’s hot water heater. Much faster. I unload firewood from the truck and haul it to the pit in order to burn the intestines, heads, feet, and feathers. Then I spray Pam over every inch of the killing cones — metal megaphones on a turnstile — to make cleanup of the blood easier.
The Bearded One attaches another hose to the plucker, which is a big whirling tub with rubber fingers. Momma Goose fills two coolers with icy water and sets up the tables for butchering and wrapping. At the end, everything has to be super clean.
Five stations ready. Set.
I fetch the first bird, and it honks and flaps wildly. I hold it close until it calms, whisper my gratitude for its sacrifice, then carry it to the cone. Head first, down it goes, its head sticking out the bottom, its yellow feet sticking up. It is surprisingly quiet. Not all of them will be. There are 8 cones and Momma Goose and I fill them all.
Jonah pulls the first head down as far as it can go, cuts the throat and artery and dark red blood begins to drain. The bird’s mouth stays open as it dies, which takes a few minutes, although its eyes cloud in seconds. The Bearded One watches carefully because he is to dispatch all the rest of the birds. One of the great advantages of doing this with a group of friends is that you don’t have to do every job yourself.
When there is no more movement or blood draining, I take that first bird out by its legs and dunk it in the 150 degree water of the scalder. Swish, swish, back and forth, feathers begin to loosen, but unbelievably the poop on the derriere remains. The bird is heavy to handle after this point.
Too long in the scalder and the skin can tear or even cook some of the flesh. Too short a time and the feathers stay in. The test is whether the feathers under the wing pull out easily or not. Two 10-second dunks usually does it.
Then to the plucker, where the dead chicken starts to look like a gag rubber chicken. The poopy feathers finally come out and flow out the bottom of the plucker into a bucket for the fire.
I carry the first plucked bird to the butchering table. With a big sharp knife, I find the leg/foot joint and cut off the feet. Then I cut off the head, keeping the neck. Now it looks like a store-bought bird except for gutting, which I do with a smaller knife. I cut a semi-circle at the rear end, then cut below the anus as Jonah gently shows me. I reach into the warm carcass and pull out the innards, saving aside the smooth dark liver and nut of a heart for stock. Jonah approves my work, I rinse the cavity and skin of blood with the nearby hose, and then carry the bird to the ice water where it must completely cool before I wrap it with plastic.
The five of us process 24 birds in just under an hour and a half. It is constant movement. We leave two back to see how big they get in the next two weeks, when we’ll harvest them with Momma Goose’s birds on August 25.
We help clean up (a large chore…) and are home with a cooler full of chickens by 8:30pm when it’s getting dark. I carry buckets of birds into the freezer while the Bearded One parks the tractor and puts the lone two live meat birds back in their coop.
“We did it,” I say, as we both strip and head for a hot shower, hoping to wash off at least one layer of exhaustion.
“I’ve never raised and processed meat birds with anyone else,” the Bearded One says and smiles.
“I’m still processing.”