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Monday, May 30, 2011

Life and Death Interruption

I'll be back to favorites tomorrow (as though you were worried), but in the meantime, I'd like to have a life-and-death chat.

About my killing an animal.

No, it's not "a matter of life and death," it's about the matter of life and death.  In this case, a rooster's life and death.  Which life I ended and death I managed.  Personally.

I'm not sure where to start, really.  Perhaps just by telling the story.  After all, I'm nothing if not a story-teller.

Now, before you ask, no, I'm not feeling guilty.  If anything, I feel validated.  Like now I'm allowed to eat meat.  Once you take personal responsibility for the flesh you consume, you begin to feel - not proud, not entitled, not deserving - you begin to feel authorized.  Authorized by virtue of your appreciation, and your willingness to get your hands dirty.

And I mean REALLY...DIRTY.

But I digress.  So I visited Dave and Leslie, a wonderful, God-fearing couple living on the outskirts of Lake Elsinore on a 22 acre ranch.  Dave is a former Marine, and Leslie is one of the warmest women I've ever met. They're both as down-to-earth a pair as you'd ever be pleased to encounter.  Also, Leslie is battling a horrible, debilitating disease, and Dave is coping with fibromyalgia.  For anyone reading this and if you do that sort of thing, PLEASE pray for them both.  If you don't do that sort of thing, please send them warm thoughts, kind wishes, good vibes, or all of the above.  They are busy 6 days a week at farmers markets all over Southern California, ON TOP of their full-time job of caring for their farm.  AMAZING PEOPLE. 

I toured their farm, visited their worm compost area (if you are local and need excellent compost to mix into  your garden, please consider them:  a 5 lb bucket is only $30, but it retails for $200 a lb on the market!!!), watered their pigs, fed some piglets with the "recycled" rotten fruit leftovers from other farmer's market families (and they feed their chickens leftover humus from the farmer's market!  Screw corn-fed, these birds are HUMUS-fed!!!), visited the sheep and llama and rabbits, and then "selected" a rooster.  When I say selected, what I mean is, Leslie accompanied me into the rooster "pen" - a giant six foot high enclosure that they still can fly up and out of when they feel like roaming the farm - and showed me how to snag a rooster, hang it upside down by the feet until it was calm, and then gather it up (still holding the feet) and hang on to it, my other hand holding it's wings in place and it's face (and very sharp beak) pointing away from MY face.  She made it look easy. It isn't.  I wasn't up for a rooster chase, so I grabbed any old bird, the one nearest me on a roosting pole.  It was NOT easy to snag, but I managed it, and it just so happened it was a pretty sizable bird.  And beautiful.  And a Rhode Island Red, one of the parent species of my New Hampshire Reds and very much a look-alike.

We took the birds to the killing cone (a recycled gallon milk just with the top and bottom cut off, hanging from a tree - brilliant way to do it!) and rather than take her up on the offer to go first, I asked if I could stand by and watch the first one so I could be more confident in what I was about to do.  No problem.  Another woman went for it, and it was dramatic...and yet far less dramatic than I imagined it would be.


The woman didn't quite know what she was doing (like I did...yeah, right...) and to my great dismay ended up sort of sawing back and forth through the bird's neck.  It bled out, kicked and fluttered wildly a few more times, and then just died.  My bird was facing away from it all, but there with two in a nearby cage that, at the moment the bird actually (obviously) DIED, went berserk.  I mean totally nuts.  They flapped, flailed, squawked, and leapt about so much that they actually knocked the top off their cage and Dave had to replace it and hold it down with a brick.  I now understand the term "a rooster who has seen the axe."

Now, you have about 20 minutes from slit to ice bath before rigor mortis sets in, so I didn't get to watch as everything else was attended to; instead it was my turn, and my rooster went headfirst into the cone.  Leslie showed me how to pull its head through, stretch its neck - yes, the rooster was exceptionally calm - and then tuck its feet into the cone.  She helped me find the pulse in the neck, taught me to slice the left side (because the right is where the sack containing its most recent meal is located), and left me to go for it so she could help the woman with the first bird attend to it.  I confess, I REALLY had to psyche myself up for it.  And here's where it gets embarrassing, but this blog entry is about ALL the details, so I'm going to be honest and open:  I very quietly looked it in the eye and thanked it - two words, "thank you," was all I could manage - and then battled my tears and sliced through the left side of its neck.  After watching the woman back-and-forth across the last one, I was perhaps a little overly-ambitious; I did NOT want to have to saw.  I cut fast and deep, which resulted in some major spurting.  My entire left hand was coating in streams of blood, and rivulets dripped down the length of my forearm.  At this point I was staring more at my hand than my struggling bird, but a good flap drew my attention back and I watched as my rooster bled out like mad.  Leslie appeared and offered me the small knife I'd asked for, but I sort of just stared at her, so she thrust it into the bird's beak and back into its brain.  I was eager to do it that way to be more humane, but I think I was so blown away at that point that...well, I was just glad she did it for me.  The eye of the rooster rolled back and immediately closed, and I knew that every struggle and shudder after that was electrical impulses and systems shutting down instead of a bird aware it was dying.  I am so grateful for Leslie's intervention.

It did continue to struggle and shudder - mostly not, but at least two times very grandly - and managed to kick one foot out.  Then the blood only barely dripped, and it was done.  I pulled it out of the cone - not an easy feat, with such a huge comb and waddle - and then placed it in a huge bucket of 150 degree water, where Dave stirred it around with a pole to keep it well-covered.  It took a whole 16 seconds, and then Dave shifted it so I could grab the feet protruding from the water and take it to a warm plucking bath.  I started at the head, as directed, and plucked the entire bird (trying to go with the grain) from top to bottom.  The wings were particularly difficult, as was the tail.  I moved it into another bath and Leslie helped me finish the plucking, and then we put it onto a metal sheet-topped table to get to work.

Leslie moved the head around at the point I'd slit it, and then had me cut in to open up the neck further.  She reached in and grabbed the "croup", or place where the food was contained, and lifted it out through the neck cavity so I could cut it off at both ends.  It was pretty full, and much bigger than I'd expected; I equate it to a full stomach.  She then pulled the esophagus away and had me cut through it, leaving only the neck to attach the head to the body.  At this point it looked a bit like a rubber chicken:  plucked bird with head and feet.  I made two small slits around the anus to prevent slicing into the chute, and then up and back to each side to spread the bottom end wide.  I immediately saw something I've never seen in an eating chicken before, and it through me for a loop:  coiled intestines.  Leslie showed me how to reach in and separate the membrane that holds the innards from the inside of the bird, and I did my best...but that membrane is MUCH tougher to get through than I imagined, and it took longer than I wanted it to.  I thought I'd gotten most everything loose, but while I was struggling my palm pushed on the intestines and some poop came flowing on out.  Charming.  Facts of life, right?  Anyway, I finally got all the guts out, except for the esophagus and lungs, and Leslie had to help me loosen the esophagus and pull it out, then told me where to dig for the lungs, which where also tough to pull out.  She cut away the anus for me, rinsed everything in vinegar-water (for its antiseptic properties; industrial farms use BLEACH), and showed me how to remove the glad from its tail.  Then we cut off the head and feet (at the knee) with pruning shears (dedicated solely to chicken processing), and it went into an ice water bath also treated with a little vinegar.  Meanwhile Dave pulled out, stripped, and cleaned off the heart and liver, and Leslie showed me how to open up the gizzard, rinse out the gravel and crud in it, peel off the yellow membrane lining it, and had me add it, the heart and liver, and the feet (which Dave taught me to peel) to my ice bath.  Bird then went into my ice-filled cooler, and I shook (still mildly bloody) hands with Dave and Leslie respectively.

I don't mean to be anti-climactic here, but that was it.

I told my kids about it (though not in any great detail) and they were fascinated and impressed.  I told my husband about it and bawled like a baby.  On the way to fetch my children from the Jensens, our friends who so kindly watched them for me, I had a long talk with God about what I'd done, how horribly ungrateful I'd been every time I'd eaten an animal before now, and how incredibly grateful I was feeling for this particular creature, and I'm hoping He understands me.

My chicken - after a bit of extra work, including singeing off hairs, removing tiny quills, etc - went into the crockpot a couple hours ago.  Its neck, feet - YES, feet, after I cut off the toenails with kitchen shears - heart, gizzard, and wings went into a stockpot with some veggies and herbs to make stock.  (I plan to cut any and all leftovers off the bird and add them, some veggies, and some barley to the stock to make soup.)  I then fried up the liver and will dice it and add it to the stuffing I serve alongside the bird.  The only things that went to "waste" were the inedibles and the head, all of which were tossed to Dave and Leslie's VERY happy dogs...oh, and, of course, the toenails, now resting in peace in my trash.  If anyone knows anything I can do with them, next time I'll keep them.

My rooster looks different than a roaster you'd pick up at the grocery store, though; it is not giant, fat, and juicy-looking.  It is lean with a small breast and big legs and thighs, having been FED-fed instead of corn-fed. 

(Pardon me, I had to go add some more water to the stockpot.)

I'm sure, had I not decided to go the crockpot, stewing, or braising route, ie. LOW and SLOW, this bird would be tough as nails.  As it is, I'm excited to see how tender I can get it.  At the same time, I'm halting in my excitement to put it on the table, and I will struggle to some degree to enjoy it tonight, knowing EXACTLY, and I do mean EXACTLY, what went into it.  8 months of rooster life, death, disembowelment, plucking, hacking, cleaning, and just general effort to procure flesh to feed my family.

I think I'll struggle a bit the next time I visit the butcher counter and see a tray full of hundreds of chicken breasts knowing exactly what that means...and the fact that the chickens to which those breasts belonged had such miserable chicken lives.  At least this rooster enjoyed its life.

And maybe a little too much.  I confessed to Leslie that I was feeling a little apprehensive about the whole thing, and she offered me an anecdote to quell my concern:  it seems their flock of roosters recently raped some of their death.  ...  ...  ...  WOW.  I just had no idea that birds could be SO vicious.  I can't say that it necessarily helped me slaughter the animal that was sitting on my arm and breathing against my chest, but it sure does put life, death, and the animal kingdom into perspective.

Anyway, in a not-so-tiny nutshell, I am now a chicken slaughterer.  Case closed. 

So.  Happy Memorial Day to all, God bless our soldiers and their families who sacrifice so very much on our behalf, and my prayer tonight at dinner will be one of a sort of thanks and appreciation I cannot possibly explain.  Love to all, Jessica

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