Monday, October 17, 2011

Autumn Planting Festival, or What I Learned From Killing a Chicken (part 3 of 3)

And so, I was the first one up. I reached in and after a little bit of shuffling around managed to get ahold of one of the hens. We decided to do the rooster last, since he would likely be the hardest to kill and we wanted to refine our method. I walked over near the table and began swinging the chicken. Then as I contemplated bringing the chicken’s head down on the table, I realized that I was swinging it underhanded, so I was going the wrong way. Stop and try again, swinging overhand. Around ... around ... around ... bring it closer to the table ... miss ... around ... closer still ... smack!

Wings flapping wildly ... look at it ... eyes still open ... struggling ... around ... smack!! ... still fluttering ... around ... smack!!!

Get it on the table ... still flopping a little ... grab cleaver ... what do I do now? ... get knife under the feathers ... cut? no ... pull cleaver back and bring it down hard ... hit with the heel of the blade, draw blood, but little else ... is it going to spurt? ... put the cleaver on its neck ... push hard ... nothing happens ... pull the cleaver back again ... aim is good, hit the neck with the front of the blade ... goes through most of the neck ... it’s bleeding, but slowly ... there are three or four splatters on the table ... bring the knife back for another blow ... there’s blood on the knife ... Oh My God!, There’s Blood On The Knife ... bring it down again ... no effect ... the head is off except for the skin of the other side ... set the knife in the gap ... there’s a gap between its neck and its head! ... slice and they’re completely separated ... push the head away from the body with the knife ... set the knife down next to the head ... I’m done ... step away from the table.

I remember stepping away and everyone coming down to the table. At some point I picked it back up and there was discussion about how to drain the blood. In the end I just put it feet up in a bucket.

Then I realized that I was breathing heavy and fast. My heart was beating fast. I as giddy, maybe hyper-ventilating. I don’t really know what I was feeling. It wasn’t triumph or exultation. I didn’t feel particularly accomplished. It hadn’t been difficult, either physically or emotionally. I hadn’t felt bad for the chicken or like I was doing something cruel. But I definitely felt _something_. And pretty strongly.

Kelsey was up next. She had a little trouble getting the chicken up and around, but she did it. It took a couple of tries to stun the bird, but she eventually got it. The video shows me helping her cut off its head, but I do not remember that at all.

Layla took the third one and it (or maybe it was Kelsey’s, I don’t remember now) was really active even without its head, managing even to flop its way off of the table.

The rooster was last, and Doug decided that he would take on that beast. He had a little trouble getting out of the dog carrier and the only way he could get it was to grab it by the neck. I guess that gave him an idea because then on the walk over the to table he suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, just wrenched the rooster’s neck around, first one way then the other. It was over very quickly and with a minimal amount of kicking and flopping around. It bled a bit more than the others, but still there was very little blood, even once we started cutting them open.

Once all four had been killed there was a definite party atmosphere. The spectators came down and got a close look at the birds. They took pictures and got close up looks at the bloody tools and table. We talked. We laughed and joked. We reminisced. It was a lot of fun. There was a certain amount of closeness and togetherness among us that I have rarely felt. Maybe this is why people go out on team-building events. But the emotions going through me (whatever emotions they were) really made me feel something special with everyone there. It was especially true with the Portland folks, Doug, Jon and Gwynn, who I didn’t know nearly as well, but by the end of the day I knew we would all be lifelong friends.

Still flush with our victory over chicken-kind it was time to butcher them up and turn them into meat. The first step was the de-feathering. We dunked them into hot water to loosen them up and then began that messy job. The smaller feathers came out very easily, but the larger ones on the tail and the wings were stuck on there good. Many of mine broke before coming out and had to be pulled out with tweezers later. The process was easier, work-wise, than I had expected, but more tedious and time consuming than I had thought.

The real time consuming part was the butchering. Doug, Gwynn and I (and maybe someone else, my memory is a bit hazy already) did this part. Kelsey was there helping, because she had at least seen it done before, while Chris stood on the porch with her laptop giving us unstructions (that was a typo, but after seeing it and remembering how not helpful they were, I decided to keep it) off of the internet.

The first step was to get the neck and crop out. The crop, I guess, is some sort of second stomach in the chicken’s neck or high up in its chest. The goal was to get it out without piercing it so all of that half-digested glump didn’t get all over the bird. These birds had recently fed, so the crop was full of grass and grain. There was a lot of slow going and being extra careful with the knife, trying our best not to puncture it. I wound up cutting into mine, but it was near the top and containable.

The next step was cleaning out the intestinal cavity and that wound up being a lot of work. It started with cutting ope a large hole in the bird’s abdomen, all the while being very careful not to cut too deep and puncture the intestines. So once again, not really knowing what we could and could not cut deeply into, we cut very slowly. Our knives too, were not the sharpest. These chickens had a ton of fat on them, especially in their bellies that we were cutting through.

Once the hole was made, we had to insert our hands into the cavity and separate the internal organs from the walls of the cavity. The worst thing about it? They were still warm inside. It was a very disconcerting reminder that this bird had been alive two hours ago. Once the guts were out, a few quick knife cuts removed the whole kit and caboodle from the chicken. And there you could see everything, much clearer and more obvious than in 10th Grade Biology class frog. Liver, heart, intestines, kidneys.

Meanwhile, it was starting to get cold. The sun had gone down behind the house and the wind had picked up. Most folks had gone inside, both in search of warmth and there were things to do in there. Christine cleaned and did some of the detail de-feathering that we hadn’t. Kelsey and Layla finished up the bread and got it into the oven. Kelsey get her Rosemary Chicken all prepped and ready to go. I’m sure other stuff happened in there too, but Doug and I were outside and didn’t see most of it.

I got a second chicken that had been cut open, but nothing removed, and knowing what I could and couldn’t do a lot better, made quick work of getting those guts out. Doug, meanwhile, had gone to work on the rooster. Now he turned out to be quite a bit different on the inside than the hens had been. His breastbone was a lot longer meaning that the opening to his internal cavity was smaller, which we were initially worried about, but wound up only being difficult because Doug has big hands. Why? Because he had practically no fat on him. The hens had been covered in fat, both under their skin and surrounding their intestines. Bright yellow, shiny masses of it. But the rooster must have been a lot more active because he had none of that and once Doug was able to get his hand in there to loosen everything up, his guts came right out.

And there we had it. Four chickens looking much like they would have in the store. Not exactly, as I realized as I began chopping them up into pieces to go in the various dishes. The breasts were very small. The skin was tougher and more yellow in color. The dark meat was much darker in color. And they were a lot fattier, at least the three hens.

One went in the soup pot. One went into a baking pan whole, flavored with rosemary. One went separated into a baking pan covered in white wine and apricot preserves. And the rooster went into a ziplock bag and into the freezer. After all, we’d only expected three chickens for dinner.

There was some time for hanging out and talking while the chickens cooked. The mulled mead, my regular mean, watered down and with cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, whole allspice berries and nutmeg mixed in and heated, was a big hit, so we made another batch of that. There was some playing of Rock Band.

I was just glad to have my hands washed and be warm. By the end there, it had gotten bitchly cold outside and I had disembowelled two chickens and chopped into bits three more. I’ll be happy not to have to do that again for a couple of weeks. I was a little disappointed that we hadn’t been able to get to the planting of the grains, but that was pretty minor. We’d been busy!

The chickens cooked for an hour and we had two more people arrive -- Ali and Erik, friends of mine. The chickens were all done at that point, but I realized that I’d forgotten to make noodles to go along with the one dish, so we whipped those up quickly. We also hadn’t made any plans for what we were going to eat off of, but at last I found some old paper plates, two more than we needed.

We all stuck in and ate. The chicken was ... disappointing. It was very tough. This had been a concern of mine. Several websites had said that the chicken needed to be aged for 48 hours after killing to let the rigor mortis and other death processes run their course. Other websites and forum posts had said that it wouldn’t be a problem. Well, it was, or at least something was. Even the chicken in the soup was tough, so we decided to forgo the soup and just keep cooking it, and see if it would soften up. It eventually did, but not until the next morning.

Also, the chicken did really taste different to me. Some people said it was “gamey” but I didn’t taste it. It’s one of those things: people go on and on about how much better fresh food is and how it’s worth the extra price, but you know, to me, it just tastes the same.

But the bread was a big hit and there was enough food for everyone to get their fill. We sat around a talked for another hour or two, split up into two groups. Eventually the Seattle people had to leave, so we said our goodbyes. But the Portland crew was staying the night on our couches and they were up for some TV, so we watched quite a few episodes of Black Books and had Cake Martinis. And that was the Fertility Festival.

I did actually forget a couple of things. At some point before dinner, Doug and I were cleaning up. It was after dark and there was still a big tub of water in the yard with the guts of one of the chickens (my second one) which had accidentally fallen in the tub while I was cutting it free from the chicken. We looked at each other, wondering what to do with it, and then Doug suggested we bury it in the field. Christine, earlier, had emptied one of our bowls of knife cleaning water into the field, with a brief invocation to Demeter. Both of these remembrances of the field meant a lot to me.

My daughter, Becca, had left the party after the killings were over, because she had a big school event going on, but before she left she said that she wanted one of the heads so that we could render down the flesh and get a chicken skull out of it. Now, we all knew that by ‘we’ she actually meant someone who was not her, more than likely me. But we took the rooster head, since it hadn’t been smashed against anything and put it in a pot on the barbeque’s stove. We wound up throwing the other three heads in as well, because ... why not? They simmered there all through dinner with no change in fleshiness and wound up stinking pretty bad (maybe because they still had some feathers on them?) We quizzed Becca the next day about whether she would help out to get her skull, and she vehemently declined. So, I decided to take them and bury one in each corner of the field, my little sacrifice to the grain spirits.

So what did I learn? I don’t really know. I picked up some skills. I could probably butcher a chicken in half the time it took that first time. Medievally, I guess I learned that there isn’t really that much meat on a regular, somewhat natural bird, but there can be a lot of fat, which in the medieval/iron age mind is a big thing. I gained some new respect for butchering a bird like that. I mean, our knives weren’t very good modern ones, how hard would it be with an iron one? But I can certainly see that a couple eggs a week would be a lot more valuable than the meat off of the chicken.

What did I learn about myself? Share more. Invite people into my world. Everyone had a great time. Not because I kept to myself and expressed the interests of the herd. But because I shared what I was truly interested in and it turned out that other people were too. Several of us commented afterwards that we’d remember that day for the rest of our lives. Does that happen by being boring? By doing what everyone else does? By keeping those ideas hidden away inside? Nope, only by sharing them and making them happen.

The other thing that I ‘learned’ or may yet learn from is that emotion I felt after the killing. I’ve been thinking about it all day as I write this and I still don’t have a good explanation or description for it. I guess it feels like exhilaration, except that I had no expectation of feeling that way, no ramp up ‘this is going to be so exciting’ feeling before hand. And so it doesn’t quite feel right to call it a thrill. (It’s also mildly disturbing to call it exhilarating when it was murdering a living thing.) I would expect that such a feeling would dissipate as I did it more and it would become mundane, which was how I was expecting it to feel.

And everyone had a great time. It was a memorable experience that brought us all together. I think the lot of us that killed and gutted those chickens in some way bonded over that experience, and that feeling, that effect doesn’t need anything else. Even if we hadn’t learned anything, or felt anything, that bonding was enough to make it a wonderful day. Thank you, everyone, for being there and sharing it with the rest of us.

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