Farm Camp: part 2, killing the chicken

[Continued from yesterday.]

First things first. No, I did not kill the actual chicken pictured in the photo in yesterday’s post – at least not that I know of – but one very similar. There’s no way I can be sure. See, there was a field full of white-feathered meat chickens and mine could have been any of the ones you see below.

In the few weeks before I left for Farm Camp, I mentioned my plans to a good many people. Naturally, everyone asked the same questions: “What’s that? What will you do there?”. After answering the basics about meeting farmers and seeing agriculture up close and personal, I mentioned that I would be killing a chicken. Responses ranged from grimaces (some peoples’ faces got really screwed up and contorted) and audible sounds of disgust, to a matter of fact “uh-huh, I used to kill chickens – and rabbits – at my grandmother’s house in Ohio”, to someone wondering on the method of slaughter (cutting the neck vs. breaking the neck), to my father saying this was “an important thing to do”. I think I was sussing people out, trying to get a reading on whether my reaction (nervousness, anxiety, pure fear) was the norm. Yes and no.

After dinner on our first day at camp – a day that had started at 5am for most everyone – when we’d all had a wonderful meal and a bit of wine or beer, it was announced that we were going out to box chickens. It was a clear, dark night with only the thinnest sliver of a crescent moon. As our jovial group of (mostly) city folks ambled down the road to the chicken field, a few of us held up iPhones with their flashlight apps turned on to light the way. It was the moment of camp that felt the most campy. Cold night air, many stars, goofiness, laughter. We proceeded over the electric fence and entered the chicken pasture, the chickens easy to spot in the darkness due to their bright white feathers. We had our instructions: we were each to nab one and put it in the box – simply grab them by their feet, hoist them up into the air in one fell swoop and hold them upside down while carrying them to the box. The box itself was also white, making it easy to see in the darkness as well. Boxing the chickens.

We set out in a school bus before sunrise the next morning for our round of farm visits – a dairy farm and a maple farm were scheduled before we arrived at the poultry farm. We toured the farm, viewing the baby ducks, the tiny chicks, the beautiful white fluffy Italian guard dogs while circling the property and eventually winding up back where we’d started, in front of a low building with two doors at one end. One door led to the tiny room where the slaughtering takes place. The other led to the cleaning room. We were shown the metal cones (above, top), into which the chickens are placed upside down. We also saw the hot water bath in which the freshly killed chickens are swooshed around for (exactly) 35 seconds. This loosens the feathers. Next, the chicken goes into a round, stainless steel drum that is lined with rubber pegs (above, bottom). The drum spins around, and as the chicken bounces around, a garden hose sprays water at it. This process removes the feathers. Then it was time for an actual demonstration of the deed. Ben, the farmer, asked someone to bring a chicken from the white box, which was sitting on the ground just outside the room we were all crowded into. No talking, no breathing, just watching.

I had wanted to go first, or as soon as possible, to get it over with. I think I was probably using every fiber of my body to keep myself together, full of adrenalin and ready to do a deed I was prepared to do. But I couldn’t really imagine it and I felt pretty horrible. Physically. A photo someone took of me right before my turn illustrates the horribleness on my face. I put on a blue rubber apron, opened the little yellow door of the chicken box and grabbed a bird. The smallest one I saw. Smaller = easier, was my thought. I went back in the room and Ben guided me through it. Place the chicken in the cone. The head didn’t appear through the hole at the bottom – “reach your hand in and pull the head through”. He might have helped me, I don’t remember. He was very calm, quiet, sure, which made it doable. He repeated what he’d shown us in the demo – with my left hand, hold the head. Placing my thumb firmly on the throat, just under the beak (though since it was upside down, it appeared just above the beak) pull down keeping the neck taught. Very taught. My right hand held the knife. Slice across the neck. Just here. Like that. Blood appears. Movement. Wait for a couple minutes for stillness to appear. Put the bird through the water bath and then the spinning drum, which spews its feathers in a ring on the floor below. Done. The chicken was dead. I’d killed it.

I felt icy and was breathing hard and someone asked if I felt okay. Not really, but I’d be alright. I leaned against the wall. My chicken was tagged with my name and then passed through a stainless steel window – like those seen in school cafeterias – to the cleaning room.

Ben’s 13-year old son Caleb demonstrated how to clean a chicken with the deftness and assuredness that you see in the hands of an old-time butcher – usually someone who is decades older and a rare sight at that. Caleb moved fluidly and swiftly and casually yet with seriousness and intent. He had the calmness of his dad. When my turn came to stand at the trough and clean “my” chicken he stood nearby and tutored me. “Cut like this“, “use this knife“, “cup your hand like this and (demonstrating a scooping motion) scrape out the lungs “. The entrails piled up as each of us cleaned a bird – a growing pile of wildly coloured innards including livers and hearts and intestines. Most people left theirs behind, but I took a heart and a liver. And I filled a bag with unclaimed feet, as my friend Mike had mentioned that he had done when he’d attended Farm Camp last year. Makes wonderful stock. But also my father really likes them, so I decided to take the bag for him.

Tomorrow: Part 3, cooking + eating the bird.

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13 Responses to Farm Camp: part 2, killing the chicken

  1. john doherty says:

    Very interesting… Thanks for the education I think knowing the stages and steps requires to put food on our plate help us understand why things cost what they do cost.Lots of work to produce great food A great book to read is Epitaph for a Peach !!

    http://www.masumoto.com/literary/books/epitaph_peach.htm

    • sonya says:

      I whole heartedly agree, John. Indeed, it does take a lot of work to produce food. Thanks for the link, looks like a super interesting book!

  2. rossjude says:

    Sitting in hotel room in Sofia, wrapped in a towel after my shower, I was completely mesmerized. Great description of what ought to be an everyday process but is very dramatic for us citified people.

  3. HerrNY says:

    Great story! You should definitely consider killing a bunny, then a lamb and then move to more serious stuff like pigs and calfs. Can’t wait to read about it:))

  4. Don Gropman says:

    You put me into the scene with you, great writing about a highly emotional experience. Can’t wait how it tasted.

  5. Pingback: Farm Camp: part 3, cooking+eating a chicken | eat+art+word

  6. amanda says:

    very fine writing here, sonya….and those pictures….perfect

  7. Great scene. great writing. very interesting and visceral stuff! I’m going to have a juicy piece of fried tofu.

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