Sunday, Matt’s only full day off this week, we tackled the monumental task of dispatching the remaining nine Cornish crosses. From set-up to clean up it took almost five hours for us newbies to “process” nine chickens (this includes the long break halfway through during which Matt wandered off to talk to a visiting former neighbor and I skillfully kept the back porch on the ground). There were, of course, all manner of surprises and complications, but overall things went well. No one cried or threw up or cut off a finger or yelled at the other person. Perhaps most impressive off all is that I got through the ordeal without a cigarette. (Sunday was day five of my second serious attempt at quitting smoking. Somehow I managed to survive on just one nicotine lozenge and two iced mochas.)
After a quick review of every book in the house that covers chicken slaughtering and butchering (five homesteading books and two vintage cookbooks) we set up a chopping block, cold water hose, hot water tank (or “scalder” – ours was a friend’s cast-off deep-fat turkey frying set-up with a propane tank), a work table (or, as we referred to it, “the evisceration station”), and a “gut bucket” (a ten-gallon nursery pot lined with a garbage bag). Matt sharpened my best paring knife and his double-bit axe and when the water was up to temperature we could put it off no longer.
Because I have a tendency to shake uncontrollably when I have a live chicken in one hand and an axe in the other, Matt opted to do the “whacking” since he was far less likely to whack off his own hand and unnecessarily inflate our price-per-pound with an emergency room visit. Once we were underway we had a decent system going with a decent rhythm. In the time it took Matt to whack, dunk, and de-feather a chicken I could draw (eviscerate) a plucked chicken, wash it, bag it, and record its weight. I usually returned from the kitchen (where I did the washing and weighing) with a bagged bird for the deep freeze just as Matt was flicking the last handful of the next bird’s feathers into the gut bucket. At the height of our macabre efficiency we were doing one chicken every fifteen minutes or so.
I gave them the very last of their food the morning before, even though my books all recommended not feeding them for 24 hours before the event (But the bag was almost empty! I didn’t want to throw it away!). Consequently, their crops were empty (which, if you ask me made them even harder to remove) but their bowels, much to my displeasure, were not. As I said more than once that day, with my new glasses perilously close to a dead chicken’s south end, “Ah . . . learning by doing.” The first thing we learned was that I was the designated “drawer” since my hands are so much smaller than Matt’s. Drawing a chicken involves getting your whole hand inside and there was no way we were getting one of Matt’s mitts in there. Oh, hooray for me.
Despite the ache in my back, the sunburn on my tattooed shoulders, the mess on my back patio, and the lingering smell in my nostrils (which my mother likened to split-pea soup – a description that Matt wholeheartedly agreed with), I think I would do it again. I would get a different breed of chicken than these little monsters with their broomstick-thick legs and more-than-the-average-chicken stupidity, but I can’t tell you how deeply satisfying it is to have 46 pounds of cage-free, hormone-free, big fat homegrown chicken in your freezer. We are in for some really great meals . . . which, if attended by those who did not attend the butchering, will likely be ruined by our insistence on retelling the butchering during the eating.
P.S. I make menus a week or two in advance when I make up my grocery list. For Sunday’s dinner I had scheduled chicken saltimbocca. We ordered pizza instead.