The Beginning of The End
Butchering was an early November affair this year. The chicks of this spring didn’t fatten up quite as fast as I would have liked, but by early November they were ready to go. Or, I should more rightly say, I was ready for them to go. That is one advantage to buying a whole bunch of male chickens: By the time butchering season comes around the chicks–now roosters–are generally on the path to becoming goons. Goons are not so lovable, and this softens the parting considerably.
The rooster metamorphosis goes something like this: chicky-poos become louts and louts become goons. It isn’t that all roosters are bad. No, there are the very few nice roosters. But the majority of roosters are stupid goons, or mean goons. In the last weeks of their lives my rooster boys were beginning to realize I might be more than their dear sweet caretaker. I was the source of all goodies, but I was also a potential enemy. Their thinking hadn’t really advanced beyond the dim glimmering of potentiality, but their thoughts were starting to vaguely drift in that direction. The bigger and more testosterone laden the developing rooster was, the farther along he was in this thinking. The sign of things to come was visible in the three times some rooster took offense at my actions and attacked me. Twice I was bitten on the hand, once I was charged. None of this surprised me in the least. This is the common growing up of roosters. I’ve seen it many times before, and I saw it developing this time as well. The aggressive action of these strapping young roosters was not only directed against me. These once-comrades were beginning to move on from playful horsing around with each other to determined oppression.
This is all quite typical of roosters. In their little brains there is room for only one master of the harem, and the rest are outcasts. Dominance is only naturally asserted. And, proportionate to how much the roosters think I am a fellow rooster they feel it necessary to find out whether I am boss, or they are. The Partridge Rocks and Speckled Sussex were only beginning the journey down this path. The boldest were beginning to consider challenging me. Their thoughts, however, had not fully developed along these lines. While they considered taking a chunk out of me to be an acceptable experiment, they were shocked–shocked indeed–whenever I remonstrated them for this behavior. The rooster who charged me blew his brain fuses when I gave him a kick in payment for the assault. He never dreamed that dear Rundy would attack him. And another rooster who was mercilessly picking on a fellow I told to knock it off with a swift kick in his rear end. He went shrieking off to hide somewhere in the chicken yard, appalled that I could deal with him in such anger when he was only innocently beating up his brethren.
Yes, indeed, day by day the chicken yard was becoming a seething stew of male hormones. The hens were beginning to get nervous, and the old rooster was starting to realize he had a lot of competition on hand. In general, childhood was at an end. The chums were fading away.
I Think I’ve Found Something Hard
I’ve been butchering chickens for 10+ years and with every year more stories and more experience has piled up. The first years were miserable learning experiences spent out in the bitter cold. Technique has much improved since then, as well as understanding the when and how of the job. With experience we’ve settled progressively into routine, but every year still has its differences. The difference this year was, for the first time ever, we had outside help in butchering.
Ah, you are probably thinking we hired some expert to help. Or, we decide to go in on the job with some local farmer. No, you are wrong. Either of those ideas would have been normal. Around here, things are very un-normal. So, our help consisted in a friend Arlan brought home from college. Yes, you read that sentence right. It wasn’t even that we needed help and had Arlan desperately scrounge up whatever labor he could find. We didn’t need help–this friend simply wanted to help (or wanted the educational experience).
Of course, my first reaction was to make sure this wasn’t all a big joke. It wasn’t. Many people (perhaps most) would be appalled at the idea of having some college-educated sophisticate over for such a barbaric experience as chicken butchering. I, on the other hand, have a taste for the absurd, so this particular genteel hesitation doesn’t hold such sway over me. I was concerned that Sarah (above mentioned college friend) had no idea what she was getting into. But, after the situation was stated plainly and Sarah affirmed that she indeed wanted to take part, I was game. After all, why pass up a chance for free help?
At this point I feel it necessary to interrupt my story and give a little aside to all family members who are reading. I feel it necessary to defend Arlan from some presumption that might spring from incidental facts in this story. No doubt said family members (you know who you are) have noticed that this college friend is a female and so have concluded that Arlan has a “girlfriend.” Indeed, Sarah is female, but the astute reader will note that I only called her Arlan’s friend, not his “girlfriend.” For the honesty of not misrepresenting, or feeding some misrepresentation, of Arlan I have pointed this out. However, I find the idea of bringing home a “girlfriend” for chicken butchering outrageously funny. I’ll admit to having been a little bit tempted to let the assumption go unrefuted, as it would have added greater shock value to this story, and so, in my book, made the events all the more humorous.
Lest it be thought I’ve no sense of family dignity, I will say there was one thing I was uncomfortable, nay, even embarrassed about. You see, our chickens have fleas. This problem first came about a few years ago, as a result, I think, of certain chickens’ unsanitary habits, and we haven’t been able to permanently eradicate the fleas since. (Recently Teman learned from someone that wood ash is the perfect way to get rid of chicken fleas, but my attempt at this cure was thwarted when my ashes were rained on.) When the chickens are killed their carcasses begin to cool, and the fleas then look for the next warmest target–the person plucking or gutting. Thus the “flea ridden carcass.” Though I don’t have the refined sense of delicacy that other people retain, even I felt that giving visitors fleas was both impolite and a little . . . well, coarse. It just doesn’t sound right to say “Come on over and get fleas.” It doesn’t matter that in reality all we’ve done the last two years is take a shower after butchering and that was enough to get rid of them. It is plain embarrassing to tell someone, “Don’t mind the bugs. Just smash the fleas if they start crawling up your arms. You can get most of them, but some always escape.”
Nevertheless, in spite of being told that chicken butchering was going to be a cootie sharing party, Sarah still wanted to help. The question for the audience is this: is she brave, foolish, or just too stubborn to back down? No matter, she was coming, and that meant we got to show off the subtle arts we had refined after so many years. Like, the art of exactly how to hang up the chicken after the head is cut off, the best way to pluck (alas, we don’t have an automatic plucker) and the speediest methods for gutting.
I said before that I’ve a taste for the absurd, and that butchering day was full of such moments. Perhaps absurd is not quite the right word. But it is the closest I can get to describe the strange juxtaposition of explaining the earthy realities of butchering to educated company. It seemed to stand what one normally does with visitors completely on its head. To cultured and polite people I suppose this would be appalling. I found it slightly amusing, and . . . well, a little absurd. That is the best way I can describe sitting around outside, plucking chickens and discussing the finer points of how it is done.
I am the fastest chicken plucker, but I also gut the fastest. We don’t have an automatic plucker, so plucking is always the slowest part of the job. The routine is for me to pluck chickens as fast as I can until we have about half of the birds plucked. Then I start taking the plucked birds inside to gut. I’m no expert (an expert would be someone who did it for a living) but I can have a roaster gutted and ready for freezing in ten minutes. Doing the gutting year after year it becomes such a routine that I forget how macabre the labor is. Sarah helped, and as a learning experience I had her gut one chicken all by herself. Explaining the steps to her, rather than simply automatically doing them, brought back to mind the disgusting nature of what, exactly, I was showing her how to do.
The dialogue (or monologue, I should say) went something like this:
“Okay, here’s the knife. It’s very sharp. First thing you need to do is cut off the feet. It works better if you slice in quick short motions rather than going back and forth. Put pressure on the joint so it splits open.”
She is nervous about accidentally cutting Titi, who is holding the chicken. I have the butchering knife sharpened so that the edge will cut open chicken skin by merely brushing across it. After a little bit of work Sarah gets the hang of it and cuts the feet off.
“Now cut off the tips of the wings. It works better to use the kitchen shears for that.”
I cut through the last joint of the wing in one quick motion, but she doesn’t have as much hand strength. After a bit of work, she manages to finish both wing tips.
“Okay, now you need to cut down through the stomach and around the anus. Be careful not to cut too deep or you’ll split open the guts and that will make a big mess.”
Sarah begins to cut. She is clumsy but does better than I did when I was first starting.
“Good,” I say once she’s finished cutting. “Now reach up in there with your hand until you feel the gizzard, or the heart. Scoop around with your hand, and pull everything out. Just do the best you can, and hope nothing bursts. Otherwise you have a stinking mess.”
The worse part about chicken butchering is the killing. Killing an animal, in my book, is far worse than pulling the guts out of their cold dead carcass. But I’ll admit that the step of reaching inside the chicken and pulling the guts out is probably the grossest step. After years of gutting I’ve become somewhat numb to the revolting nature of gutting. I’ve learned to instinctively breath through my mouth, not my nose, and I cut open the chicken, reach up inside, and pull everything out in one quick motion. I don’t even stop to consider what I’m doing, or what it feels like. However, giving someone else step-by-step instructions on what needs to be done, brings back memories of my first few times. Everything is slimy and sticky with body fluids, and there are all sorts strange and disgusting lumps. You can’t see what is going on in there, so you have to keep shoving your hand further back, going by feel.
At last Sarah said, “I think I feel something hard.”
“That is either the heart or the gizzard. Start scooping back and pull everything toward you.”
She went slowly, and managed to pull all the guts out, along with the heart, without rupturing any intestines.
All that was left was to cut off the neck, pull out the wind pipe and crop, and then get out the lungs.
“To get out the lungs,” I said, “you need to scoop down along the rib cage and peel the lungs out in one piece. Otherwise they make a big mess.” It took me a little while to perfect this when I was first learning how to butcher chickens, but Sarah managed it the first time.
“Good. Now wipe the blood off your hands and rinse the chicken off.”
She had successfully gutted a chicken.
The butchering job, as a whole, went well. There were plenty of bugs, as I feared, but Sarah handled them with good grace. And no, none of the bugs survived through the shower, so friends and relatives need not fear to come visit. Cootie sharing is only at butchering time. You’re safe. If you want some you’ll have to go out and live in the chicken house.