Sandy points to a black rubber apron and a piece of twine on the table, “You can wear that one and just tie it around you.” I swallow a little, the understanding dawning on me that processing dead chickens may be a bit messy. I put on the apron and stand by the chicken cage. I feel a bit like Dexter, with his black apron and gloves, looking unperturbed into his victim’s pleading eyes before the unlucky person (or chicken, in my case) is swiftly executed.
Larry takes what looks like an unwound coat hanger and rakes in the first chicken. Its a capon (a castrated male chicken) with beautiful long black and white feathers. Larry plucks off a couple handfuls of these and stuffs them in a jar. Fisherman use them for lures. The bird cries out every time Larry rips out its feathers, and Larry apologizes sympathetically, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
With the bird still dangling upside down, strangely calm, Larry stuffs him into a cone, the head and throat extended through the bottom. Larry repeats the process and after two birds are in place, he takes a newly sharpened knife and swiftly slides it through the neck. The birds are calm at first, then struggle, convulse, and die. They die within a minute, but it seems to take forever. For some reason I had this idea that they die instantly.
Blood drains into a cardboard box filled with sawdust. I’m surprised to see the little amount of blood that drains out- maybe a cup. I guess I am expecting more of a homicide scene- blood gushing, puddles of black thick stuff everywhere- so I’m thankful for the reality check.
Larry cuts off the heads (this, unfortunately, is a slight struggle), and dunks the birds in hot water with a touch of detergent. This prepares the bird to get de-feathered in a contraption Larry and Sandy built from a pottery wheel and a big black bucket studded on the interior with rubber cylinders. The feet get cut off, the chicken goes in, the feathers come out a slot on the bottom of the bucket, and a naked chicken carcass more like the one I buy at Safeway comes out.
Sandy and I take these naked birds and take off any stubborn feathers. Then, Sandy shows me how to process them. Glands, guts, lungs.. we reach our hands in and pull it all out. Livers and hearts in one bowl, egg yolks from the hens in another. Lungs, intestines, and stones into another pile of sawdust. Soon the chickens are hollow and look perfectly tasty. We rinse them and put them in a tub of ice cool water, spiked with just a touch of bleach.
I meditate a little. I’ve been wanting to have this experience for a long time. To be personally familiar with this type of skill seems fundamentally important to me. I feel like the grocery store has desensitized me to the understanding of how and by what I am nourished. I am not opposed to eating meat, but I am sensitive to the industry and its repercussions to the body and to the environment. I do feel that eating locally and humanely is important to our health- physically, economically, and ecologically. So, the whole farm to table process in action is kind of exciting to see. In fact, it feels like one of those things that “I just have to do, you know?”
I feed these chickens (and steal their eggs) daily and see their amazing living arrangement. They have space for days. If there is something called a “free-range chicken,” these are it. They have several barns with fresh hay and ample food. Nothing even smells bad.
The chickens are raised well and die swiftly- nothing wasted. But- I do feel that something is missing and I can’t quite put my finger on it.
I weed and cover the potato patch for a few hours and the lunch bell rings. I go down and theres a beautiful spread, yet again. This time, there are my homemade wheat buns, summer sausage, cheese, salsa, pork with potatoes- and fresh sauteed chicken livers and hearts. Before we dig in, Larry raises a toast: “Here’s to the chickens who let us enjoy this wonderful meal.”
Ah, the missing piece– gratitude.