June 22, 2011
the right to be a carnivore
on tuesday, I drove down to help friends keith and rachel, who own provenance farm, butcher some of their broiler chickens, to be sold in stores and restaurants around the corvallis/portland area. once a month during the season, keith and rachel invite friends to help them process the birds. I've wanted to go out there since I met them last summer, but since they butcher on tuesdays and I am usually working, I haven't been able to make it until now.
it was a picture-perfect first day of summer, abundantly sunny and warm. the processing facility is at afton field farm. it's a nearly open-air building based on the designs of joel salatin at polyface farm in virginia, whom you may have read about in michael pollan's the omnivore's dilemma or seen in food, inc.
the chickens are brought over to the farm in crates, in the back of a pickup. the kill area consists of a stand of six metal cones, into which the chickens are inserted, head-first, so that they're hanging upside down. the corotid artery is severed -- by hand, with a knife -- on both sides of the neck, and then the chicken bleeds out for a minute or two before being transferred to the scalder. the scalder is a tub of water, lightly soaped and heated to 140 degrees. inside it is a rotating drum that rolls the slaughtered chickens through the water, which helps to loosen the feathers. then the chickens are tossed into the plucker, which is a metal tub with rubber knobbies that spins the chickens and pulls their feathers off.
the heads and feet are cut off the body, and then the bodies are transferred, through a window, into the processing facility, where most of us spent the day. the facility is equipped with tons of hoses, and rows of stainless steel tables. everything is washed down thoroughly before the processing begins, and water runs constantly as the chickens are cleaned and prepped for sale. the whole place is designed to be hosed off! pretty cool. it's almost entirely windows, so although you're inside, it feels very close to the rest of the farm.
I spent most of the day at the evisceration table. evisceration consisted of the following:
1. make a cut at the base of the tail to remove the oil gland;
2. cut halfway down the neck; remove the trachea and loosen the crop, which is a soft tissue sac where food gets softened and awaits digestion;
3. open up the back end and stick your hand inside the chicken, which, by the way, is quite warm. reach under all the innards and pull them out. if you're good you can do this in one handful but I didn't quite master that.
4. separate the liver, heart, and gizzard from the rest of the innards. discard innards. separate gall bladder from liver (and be careful because if you explode the gall bladder on any meat, that meat will taste like bitter garbage and will be BRIGHT GREEN). throw liver in the liver bin and heart in the heart bin. and gizzard in the gizzard bin. GIZZARD BIN: great band name
5. cut off the vent, which is essentially the chicken asshole.
6. rinse out the bird and pass it to the lunging station.
the lungs are removed with a special scrapey-looking tool, since they are attached quite firmly to the ribs. you know, I always think of lungs as balloon-looking things that are hollow on the inside, but of course they are not! they are spongy membranous tissue that happen to hold oxygen.
after lunging, the chickens are passed to quality control, where they are thoroughly rinsed. they're then checked and double-checked for bits that should have been removed already, like feathers, and also vents and crops, which we occasionally forgot to eviscerate. the birds are also checked for broken wings and legs, for bruises, and for other anomalies. if deemed acceptable (all but 3 or 4 were), a slit is cut in the rear of the bird, the drumsticks inserted neatly into the slit, and the whole bird put into an ice bin.
that process, done to 276 birds, took us from 8 AM to about 1 PM. then we ate lunch.
you are probably wondering why on earth anyone would volunteer for this job. I suspect we all had different reasons. one family is beginning to raise their own chickens and wants to learn the butchering process so they can do it themselves. several folks work on farms, so this was already something they were already familiar with. some folks might have been working in trade for food -- we each got to take home several chickens and a dozen eggs at the end of the day. my personal reason: I felt very strongly that if you can't bring yourself to kill the animal you're eating, then you haven't earned the right to eat it. barring fish -- which feels very hands-off to me in this respect -- I've never before had the opportunity to kill an animal. nor have I sought one out. but when the chance presented itself, I realized how much I wanted to know if I could bring myself to kill a chicken, and I knew that if I couldn't do it, I'd have to change my diet.
most of the volunteers did not seem to have any desire to try their hand at chicken butchering, although they understood why I wanted to. I waited until we had about 80 live birds left before going outside. I had watched the very first kills of the morning and experienced a lot more sadness than I expected. I sincerely respect the feelings of my vegetarian friends, but personally feel that there's nothing inherently wrong with eating meat provided that the meat is humanely raised and killed. the idea of killing chickens didn't bother me. but standing there, with the crates of chickens next to me clucking madly, was a different story. watching steve, who worked the cones most of the day, carefully carry a chicken over to a cone, stuff it in (for obvious reasons they resist going in, and will try and get their feet in to prevent their heads from dangling out the bottom), and then hold its small helpless head between his thumb and forefinger to make the cut -- it was really sad. the chicken's process of going from crate to death was fast and without ceremony. the chickens relax once they get into the cone, and the death is instant, but five to ten seconds after the cut, the body begins to twitch violently as it bleeds out. it's not easy to watch.
but. I did it. steve very patiently walked me through the whole process, and then I went through every step. I apologized to the chickens as I picked them up. my first kill wasn't as clean as I would have wanted, because I wasn't sure how hard I had to push the knife and didn't want to cut the whole head off. but steve gave me some pointers and the next several chickens were very clean kills. I took their bodies to the scalder, and then to the plucker, and then I had experienced the whole process.
not for the squeamish:
after lunch, we came back inside to bag 1-lb bags of hearts and livers, to open up gizzards, and finally to bag, tie, weigh, and store the chickens. the whole process was finished just after 3 PM.
it was a long day, full of hard work, but it was incredibly satisfying. I am feeling homesick lately: I haven't been home to maryland during the summer in two years. I love portland but, as you all know, the weather at this time of year is so hard on me. I grew up in a place where in june it is humid and sticky and warm, and there are great fields of grass and muddy rivers to tube down, and iced tea in the fridge. afton field has a farmhouse and a second building which houses their interns. the intern house is where the bathroom was, so I walked there a few times. the covered cement walk from house to house opens onto a small backyard area which overlooks the property. it's shaded and lightly landscaped. as I passed it the first time, I paused to take in the view and thought sincerely that I could have stood there for the rest of the day, or maybe all summer. something about the gentle clutter of the farmhouse and the sense of small-town community between the volunteers (some of whom were k & r's church friends), coupled with that beautiful day -- I'm not sure I can explain how it felt. it reminded me strongly of my favorite place to be as a child, which was my aunt and uncle's five-acre property, where every summer I would roam the woods and pond and long gravel driveway with my three cousins. I kept thinking, I kind of wish this was home.
for more details on how to butcher a chicken: http://butcherachicken.blogspot.com/2007/09/introduction.html
for a partial shot of that beautiful backyard: http://highheelsinthebarnyard.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/peaceful-morning/