Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Slaughtering Chickens

This weekend will stand out as one of the most fun and relaxing I’ve had in a long time. It's the same one Renée describes below.  We were there together, shared thoughts, concerns, curiousities on the drive up and down.  And just like when my son and I lick off the same ice cream cone we still come up with different descriptiosn of its flavor, we experienced the chicken slaughter in unique ways. 

Renée's dad Dirk and and her stepmom Judith live in a picturesque Vermont town and between the smattering of red and orange leaves, the crisp cool air, and the kids running karate chopping through the community dance late into the night, it was a perfect New England Fall scene. But my favorite part of the weekend was the chicken slaughter.

In part, it was a relief to put some experience behind all of my talk about being the kind of carnivore who has full appreciation for the life and death of her meat.

In part, it was fascinating to learn a whole new side of the food preparation process. And in response to my friends’ somewhat wary, “so, how was it?” I’ve given the physical details. Monty, a professional slaughterer arrived at Dirk and Judith’s with a whole set-up: cones, hangers, vats of hot and cold water, a plucker, and table, and knives. He caught the chickens, turned them upside down and let us help carry them in relative calm across the yard to where we put put them head-down into the cones in batches of six. Monty cut each neck with a single, swift, slice. The heads fell into a bucket, followed by a little blood. The bodies twitched, one or two hard enough to come out of the cones and flop around on the ground, but not for long. Monty dumped them one at a time into the hot water to loosen the feathers, then we took turns holding them by the legs over the spinning plucker, and once the feathers were gone they just looked like a whole bird you’d get at the store. There was still cutting off the feet and gutting them. Reaching into the cavity of the bird and trying to imitate Monty’s single smooth pull and plop of intestines and organs was hard, but it felt like any kitchen skill. Yes, there were the lungs alongside the liver, and a heart that had only just stopped beating, but what mostly passed through my mind were questions about how you might turn those too into good foods, and when someone said their mom used to make cookies with the chicken fat I looked at it and thought yum.

In part, it was amazing to witness the deft hand of a man who’s been slaughtering for more than 40 years, to see the respect, and tenderness, in the way he stepped into the coop, brushed down the white feathers as he lifted the birds, and caught their blood spray across one cheek. Monty is generous with his time and his knowledge, explaining as he went why it’s better to dip the birds in cold water before you try to pull out any last feathers, and slowing his work to remind us how to pinch off the gall bladder or to point out that those little things are the testicles. It was a treat to catch a few hours’ worth of old Vermont stories, and to share thoughts on the future of small farming and local food with folks whose livelilhood depends on its production.

And of course the whole is something that none of those parts quite capture. After it was done, as Monty was cleaning up, I watched a clump of partially coagulated blood slosh out of a bucket with the water and catch on some grass. “That looks like blood” said my son, who had just been allowed to come over to see what we’d been up to. “It is,” I replied, and I wanted to reach down and touch the red remains, to finger the sacred thread that connects life to life through death, a little spilt blood, quickly mixing with dirt and dog shit, divinely mundane.