Time to do some weeding. This blog is seriously overgrown.
After two years of barely having enough time to respond to email let alone cleanse the ridiculous spam from my inbox, I’m back. Refreshed. Renewed. And seriously annoyed that I have let Viagra Online take over my blog.
Even my namesake website address, Msglaze.com, which I failed to renew has been poached. Why would anyone use my name for a Japanese travel site? And a Russian site has been copying my content and won’t remove my plageurized posts. Ha-rumph! And double shaking fists!!!
Regardless. Today is a big day at Echo Valley Farm. And I have not slept.
My nightmares have been disturbing. I wake in the middle of the night paralyzed with fear and force myself to move again. My throat is tight and no scream could escape even if life depended on it. After what feels like an eternity of frozen hell, I crawl out of bed and lock up my sweet little cottage just in case there is anyone on this enchanted farm that feels like making my fears a reality.
6A.M. comes around much sooner than expected. Man, doesn’t it always?
Farmer/Owner Kate of Echo Valley taps on my window, my front door locked, and whispers, “Don’t you want coffee in bed Missy Glaze? And a computer?” I pop the window open and thankfully accept these gifts. I wonder to myself if this laptop-on-loan is a subtle yet direct way of telling me that it’s time to write again? I tell her about my dreams and I can see she is troubled too.
“No wonder, today is chicken killin’ day Missy! But don’t get up yet, enjoy the coffee, I’m going to boil some water outdoors and get things set up.”
I can’t exactly explain why it is so important to me to be part of this processing day, but it is. I have learned much of the art of butchering game in France from skinning hares and wild boar, to plucking grouse and pigeon, to cleaning game birds of guts and shot and breaking down sides of veal. But I want to have a stronger connection with the food I eat and prepare. So here I am.
I sip my strong coffee mildly diluted with fresh goat milk, pull on the clothes I care least about, wash my face, and open my laptop. Cell phones don’t work out here but some how the interenet does. My unanswered inbox is intimidating and I give up. Besides the roosters are rooster-ing right outside my window and it’s distracting! Who can work with such noise? Such clamor?
Otis the Pup, the newest addition to the farm, greets me with happy-go-lucky good looks and wagging tail. His weak little pup yelp for attention forces me to pick him up and kiss his cute little face over and over while he in turn licks my face clean.
I carry treats for him to win his affection much to the chagrin of his mom who can’t figure out why he follows me around the farm nipping at my heels. We head over to the shade of the walnut trees where our makeshift chicken processessing plant is set up. He rests his head by the stock pots ready for the action to begin.
Huge stock pots of water simmer on a propane burner. We wait for the temperature to rise to 160˚F while setting up the “killing cone”; an aluminum cone that helps to steady the chicken during and after the slaughter. It is much better than the ol’ swinging-chicken-overhead-and-snapping-neck technique. At least I think it is – but what do I know about these things?
DeeDee, the farm manager, gathers us and begins with reading a poem of Mary Oliver’s. It is worth remembering and if I had to choose an epitaph this would be it…
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
OK. How to kill a chicken. As if you really wanted to know. (And I will leave out the processing pics but give a description of my experience that is here to inform and educate).
First you must catch the chicken and this for me is almost worse than all the rest because I have a weird fear of being pecked to death. Thank you Alfred HItchcock. And I don’t really like chickens. I like to eat them, and that’s about it.
After the chicken is caught it is carefully put into the killing cone head down. With a sharp knife (that is resharpened after each bird) the jugular is cut on either side of the windpipe. Quickly: one–two–done. The bird dies instantly but the heart pumps the rest of the blood through the arteries while the body shuts downs.
This does not get easier with practice. It does not matter if one thinks chickens are dirty and worth killing, actually doing so is another thing altogether.
My first chicken is sort of a disaster.
I attempt to put it head down and keep it steady in the killing cone but it flutters up in a panic and makes a mad dash out of the cone and around the walnut trees. Otis and I chase it. This breed of chicken puts on meat quickly and I know the bird is too heavy to run for long, but still every time I bend over to catch it, it’s wings spew up in a flutter and I retract with queasy uncertainty. Otis thinks this is fun.
I capture the bird feeling slightly like Scarlett O’Hara learning how not to be such a priss on the plantation. My bird calms down once I have the wings securely pinned against my body – similar to carrying a football through the line of defense. Yes, I feel somewhere in between a displaced Southern Belle and an offensive line backer.The tougher of the two I can’t decide.
DeeDee helps me put it back into the cone. I hold the beak and head firmly between my thumb and forefinger at the base of the cone while she holds the legs and I make a slash at the right jugular.
The cut is not easy to make. I thought it would be easier. But it takes a back and forth sawing motion to get through the feathers to the skin even though I’ve pulled the neck taught. And I have to push and pull back harder on the knife than normal. I do it quickly, but it feels like it’s not quick enough. Blood spurts. I shudder. (Did I really just do this?) Under DeeDee’s very steady guidance I do the left jugular and blood gushes all over the hand that’s been holding the bird’s beak shut. I continue to hold the head steady as the body of the chicken thrashes around in the cone.
After just a few seconds the bird stops moving. It’s eyes close and the last bit of air escapes through the windpipe with a final sigh when I release my grip. I focus my thoughts on the job at hand and plunge the bird in hot water for 10 second incremants until the feathers can be easily removed. If the water is too hot the skin cooks and breaks while plucking. If not hot enough the feathers stay glued on.
Plucking takes a while. I know this from France, but little birds seem to go faster than these big meat birds. And there is this smell – not a bad smell – just a smell that I can’t get away from: wet down.
I pluck my bird, lop off the feet, and snap off the head. Using a little sharp knife I make an incision at the base of the neck through the fat layer and loosen the crop and windpipe. Had my chicken eaten it’s last supper the crop would still be filled with grain, worms and other such things. As it is right now, it looks like a small empty balloon right above the breasts.
I turn the bird around and make a longer incision across it’s belly at the base of the breasts. Inserting my whole hand, I loosen up the innards from the chest cavity and then pull all out in one big scoop. It’s not as messy as one would think. After reserving the liver, and careful not to puncture the gall bladder, I put my hand back inside and search for the lungs. I pop these out with my forefinger, and remove.
Washing the bird thouroughly, I place it in an ice chest and move on to the next. Otis has developed a taste for chicken blood and this worries all of us because there are laying hens and heritage varieties on the farm too. But he is still just a pup and I guess warm, salty, mineral rich blood might taste good to a seven week old dog.
Farmer/Owner Jeff arrives with lunch. Mexican food. My stomach was grumbling hours ago and now has grown scared. Fresh raw vegetables sound tasty and non-confrontational. Good thing I didn’t order the chicken burrito or chicken tacos! Why I thought beef would be a better alternative is beyond. DeeDee has smartly splurged on veggie tacos. Kate bravely eats a chicken tostada.
I’ve washed up. In fact I’ve rinsed my hands and arms quite a few times. But that smell just won’t go away. Every time I bring my hand to my mouth I get a whiff of wet down. Hunger beats out my weak stomach and I eat quickly barely chewing and mostly just swallowing.
Lying back in my comfy porch chair, hands behind head, I relax for a few minutes in the bright sunlight. I watch the dragonflies and hummingbirds zooming and buzzing around the farm. I marvel at how straight the corn rows are, how colorful the pink and red stalks of swiss chard appear, how at peace this place is even on a day like today.
But, we have only done 9 chickens. It has taken over 4 hours including set up time. There are 20 left to process.
6PM comes just as unexpectedly as 6AM. The sun has grown cold and the shade of the walnut trees heavy with walnuts is not quite the idilic setting it once was. I was married here and it was a beautiful day with fresh cut flowers and ribbons flowing on poles and food for days and pies of every shape and kind on display. But now it has become a sort of swamp mostly because of my incessant need to wash my hands and my butchered birds over and over with the garden hose.
DeeDee and Kate who work swiftly and tirelessly are slowing down. Hands are getting cold. Noses are running. We pause to share a glass of good hearty cheap red wine which nicely numbs my thoughts, warms my heart, and allows for enough liquid courage to do just one more chicken in before calling it a night.
And there are still 9 chickens left to go. They will have two days more to enjoy this world: “telling them all, over and over, how it is / that we live forever.”
Otis the Pup is plum pupped out. Too much excitement for such a little guy. He snoozes while we bury the feathers and innards, no doubt dreaming of chasing chickens.
And I’m going to dream about how to hack, process, and eviscerate the Viagra Online site and perhaps the Coach Outlet Store and the Nike Air Jordans Pas Cher site that has infiltrated my blog and private life. And maybe I”ll write the new Ms. Glaze a letter too – if I can figure out what language it’s in to begin with.
Or maybe I’ll just have another glass of wine and be thankful for being here on this beautiful farm, for having good friends (that means you silly!), for having great mentors and teachers, and – after a day like today– for being alive.