Saturday, May 29, 2010

The meat I miss the most

When I first started hunting, I still used to buy all kinds of meat at the store. I needed to - it's not like I was actually hitting many ducks that year.

But at the end of my first duck season, I read The Omnivore's Dilemmaand was so horrified by what it revealed that I resolved to do everything possible to avoid buying industrially-farmed meat.

When we buy meat for home consumption at all (which we rarely need to do because we have so much wild game), we buy pastured animals, usually pork, often just the fatback so Boyfriend will have enough fat to make wild-game sausage.

But that leaves a gaping hole in our inventory: chicken.

I don't care what anyone says: Pheasant - even farmed - is not as good as a nice fat domestic chicken. And no, nothing else out there - not rabbit, not squirrel, not anything - tastes like chicken. Chicken tastes like chicken. And chicken that's been allowed to eat real food - bugs and grass, in addition to "feed" - is the best-tasting chicken of all.

So I was overjoyed when I found that my friend Carina - formerly editor of California Waterfowl magazine - had returned to her family farm to start an organic/free-range farming operation with a friend, and their first product would be chicken.

Carina was on the same airplane to Baja that Boyfriend and I were on two weeks ago, and that gave us the chance to catch up on her operation. The organic feed that supplements bugs and grass was ridiculously expensive, she told us, and the price of her first chickens was going to be steep: $5 a pound.

"I'll buy one," I said without hesitating. Lord, if the only way I could get chicken like that is hunting, I'd pay way more than $5 a pound for the opportunity to hunt one.

I also offered to do photography at her farm from time to time, and it just so happened that this past Wednesday would be my first opportunity: They'd be slaughtering their first batch of chickens. I could shoot photos to my heart's content and come home with a fat, juicy chicken. It was totally worth having to set my alarm for the first time since summer vacation began.

With help from some friends and fellow young farmers in a neighboring town, Carina and her partner CarolAnn had a pretty good little operation: There was a stand with four cones for the killing (more on that in a bit), a pot (turkey deep-fryer, actually) of hot soapy water for dipping, a home-made plucker to speed a tedious process, a table for evisceration and cleaning, and two barrels full of icy water for cooling.

Here's how it went:

Almost all of it was fun to photograph (and no, I did not help - I just spent $1,500 that I didn't have on a new cameraand I'm not going to get fat, soap or guts on it).

Did you notice I said "almost all of it"? The killing was actually really hard to watch.

It's worth noting here that the first animal I ever watched being slaughtered was a backyard chicken my family had when I was a youngun in the tony Southern California town of Thousand Oaks (before we'd gone totally feral and moved to the country). We were raising chickens for eggs, and the rooster - Henry VIII - had become a problem. He attacked me when I went in the chicken pen, and I had big long scrapes down my back to prove it. That and a couple other incidents convinced my folks that it was time for him to go.

Dad took him out of the pen, laid his neck across a chopping block and whacked his head off with an ax. Because the saying about a chicken with its head cut off is true, blood was flying everywhere, and a headless chicken was running around our yard.

I cried. It was pretty upsetting.

But Mom made chicken pot pie that night, and oh my God it tasted amazing! We raised a lot of animals for meat after that - more chickens, rabbits, pigs - and I never cried again. In one brief lesson, I was shown the connection between animals, death and food.

At Carina's farm, they were using a different - and vastly preferable - method of killing. You turn the chicken upside-down in a cone so only its head sticks out. Because it is held close and the blood is rushing to its head, the chicken calms down. Then you find the vein in its neck and cut it (you actually stick the knife through the neck to sever veins on both sides) and all the blood - and life - drains out of it. Generally, the chicken doesn't even squawk because a sharp knife does its job well. And because it's held in a cone, there's no running around spraying blood all over everything in sight.

I'd say the chicken is dead in about a minute, which in my world of hunting is like a quick death from a heart/lung shot. I can only hope to be so lucky as to have my life slip away that quickly when my time comes.

But damn, it is really hard to watch. Unlike in hunting, where the animal is usually some distance away, you get to stand there inches away and watch it die. Because I am a pretty emotional and empathetic person, I always put myself in the shoes of a dying animal, and it was the same with these chickens. And because I feel the obligation to take personal responsibility for the meat I put on my table, I felt it would be wrong to turn away. So I watched.

Ethan - one of the brothers from the nearby farm who helped with the operation - apologized to each chicken before he stuck the knife through its neck, and that comforted me. I and so many hunters I know do the same thing when we must finish off an animal at close range. And when I reviewed my photos from that day, I found that Ethan's expression in most of them was a grimace. It is not a pretty business.

So why do we do it? Because we are omnivores. We are blessed with huge brains that have allowed us to hunt and farm animals. Animal meat nourishes us, just as our human bodies will feed a multitude of plants and animals when we die. It's simply the cycle of life.

(And if you want to read a really great book on this topic, I can recommend The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainabilityeven though I'm only on the second chapter. Hats off to Tovar Cerulli at A Mindful Carnivore for mentioning this book - it's riveting reading that's keeping me up late at night.)

But is that really why we do it, or is that just the 30,000-foot view? Are we all sitting around singing cycle-of-life songs when we slaughter chickens? Hell no. We do it because chickens are good food. I doubt any of us would go to the trouble or grief if chickens didn't taste good.

At the end of my morning on the farm, I asked Carina to pick out a chicken for me and I handed her $24. I was proud to be her first buyer.

"How do you want me to cook it?" Boyfriend asked when he saw what I'd brought home.

"Roasted," I said. Like wild ducks, chickens are so inherently delicious that salt and a hot oven are all that's needed to bring out the best in them.

That bird tasted unspeakably good, way better than the industrially-farmed chickens I'd been buying until my Omnivore's Dilemma conversion.

The funny part was that Boyfriend and I weren't the only ones who thought so.

It used to be that whenever we roasted any kind of bird in our house, Boyfriend's cat Paka would go wild. She loved roasted bird, and she always circled the dinner table like a shark when we'd eat one.

Ever since Paka died in March, that just wasn't happening in our house anymore. My sweet little cat Giblet prefers Fancy Feast, and her tough indoor-outdoor sister Harlequin would rather just go outside and kill her own bird.

But something about this bird made my little Giblet go all crazy and do something she'd never done before:

I loved the intense, mesmerized look on her face so much that I took several photos before reminding her that cats are not allowed on the table.

But I totally understood her reaction. I love chicken too.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

' steep: $5 a pound'


Thanks I needed cheering up


NorCal Cazadora said...

Hey Bushwhacker, glad to be a source of good cheer. What does a chicken like this cost on your side of the pond?

Doug said...

It is pretty easy to raise your own chickens - We have them for their eggs in the middle of the "burbs". I haven't killed one for the family to eat yet (maybe this summer) but I feed them to the hawks often.

Another great post.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks, Doug!

If you get around to killing them for yourself on any sort of large scale, the system at this farm worked really well. The home-made plucker was amazing (and you can read more about them at this Henhouse Pottery post).

I think cones made specifically for chicken killing are available, but as you can see from the photos, traffic cones did the trick just fine.

We don't raise chickens yet, but our neighbors do, and for some reason they don't eat chicken, so sometimes they'll come over to our house with an unwanted rooster or three in their trunk (literally!) and ask us to dispatch them. For just a couple, the plucker's not worth it. But the cone? Definitely.

Josh said...

Great post! We eat them because they are good - they are good because of our biological/cultural/spiritual predisposition to need them as food.

It would appear that Giblet was aptly named.

Also, your pictures couldn't be better.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks, Josh, especially regarding the photos. In addition to the new camera, I've done a lot of reading up on editing, and I'm pretty happy with the direction that's taken me.

As for Giblet, we try to get the Fancy Feast with hearts and livers as much as possible, just in honor of her name :-).

Shewee woman said...

Great story and photos. I think what I noticed the most was how different the chicken looks than the chemical pumped ones I am used to seeing at the grocery store. Make you stop and think. I do remember chickens looking like yours when I was a child. Keep writing..... it's very educating.

Tovar Cerulli said...

Hey Holly -

Great story! And thanks for the mention.

Gotta be brief just now, and if I'm quiet (here and elsewhere) for a few days, it's because our neighborhood lost internet service yesterday. With the holiday weekend, it sounds like we may not get it back until Tues or Wed! So I’m sitting in a local pizza parlor, taking care of business. :-(

Cheers to one and all!

Tovar Cerulli said...

P.S. Joke's on me, I guess. I just walked back in the door and found the Internet on at home. No repair techs were supposed to be on duty for another 2 days. Gremlins in teh system, perhaps?

Anyhow, back to your post, Holly: Thanks for the honest discussion of what it felt (and still feels) like to watch the killing and to kill.

In hunting, the killing always shakes me somewhat. I imagine the physical distance of a 100+ yard shot might mitigate that effect, but in the woods I hunt even a rifle shot is likely to be more like bow range--10, 20, maybe 30 yards. If the animal goes down fast, as all mine have so far, then I'm right there, watching.

gary said...

Chickens, they seem to come and go around our place. It had been awhile since we had any so it wasn't any surprize to come home last year and find Sue had brought home a dozen chicks straight run figuring that half would be hens! Straight runs my eye! Everyone was a rooster. One by one they have been making their way to the table but we have two left. I have never tried the cone idea but sounds very inventive. Sue likes to save the neck feathers (there is a name for them but it escapes me right now), for our oldest son as he is a fly fisherman and they use these feathers in tying flies. So we've had to try other ways of dispatching of them, I think the cones will work.

About 28 years ago we raised meat rabbits, but the process of killing them got me out of that business in a hurry. First time that sort of thing bothered me that much.

Eric Fremd said...

That organic food must be expensive! I really enjoyed this post. I will need to build a plucker- I wonder if it could work good for ducks? With a soapy scalding before hand? We raise pheasants each year 800-1000 birds and like to put a few batches of 20 into my grandfathers old smoke house. We usually hand pluck but it is getting to be very time consuming. I bet our smoked pheasant can outdo your roast chicken...I found the plucker book on amazon and ordered it. Hope I can soup it up so it can handle ducks...

NorCal Cazadora said...

Ha! Eric, when I saw your name, I knew you'd have something to say about that line! I have had some pretty delicious pheasants. Hunted a bunch of fat hens at the end of club season in Suisun and they were pretty delicious.

You should definitely look into the plucker. You can buy them - I hear the Amish make a fantastic plucker - but if you're handy, homemade works fine, and it's definitely worth it if you're doing 20 at a time.

As for the ducks, I don't know. Carina and CarolAnn have some ducks too and they were trying to figure out how to handle them. Hank and I usually rough-pluck the big feathers, then dip 'em in a pot full of scalding water and paraffin, then dunk 'em in cold water, then peel of the wax (ladies, just like waxing your legs).

But I suppose it might be worth giving one duck the chicken treatment. But who knows. Every duck I've plucked has had skin that tears pretty easily.

Gary, what a bummer about that run of roosters! And re the rabbits, yep, it's not easy killing something that you've raised to trust you, no two ways about it. My dad always held them by their hind legs and bonked the back of their heads with lead pipes to knock them out, then slit their throats to bleed them out and finish the job. I think the bonking on the head - if you can use proper force - makes it a little easier to watch. Watching chickens with their eyes open, bleeding, was not fun.

Ariana said...

I love your blog. It's great to find someone that feels the same way I do and can actually write about it. Thanks for putting this out.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks, Ariana! There are more and more of us out there who value meat enough to hunt it, raise it, or pay for it sustainably/locally/organically raised. I have to think every little bit helps.

SimplyOutdoors said...


I just love the open, honest, and unapologetic feelings to your posts. They're honest.......and true!

And I totally can't blame Giblet for wanting a wee taste. The chicken looks amazing.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks, Simply! I think honesty is vital - when we sugarcoat, we lose credibility.

WildFisherWoman said...

Great post! I too have read the Omnivores Dilemma and it changed my thoughts on what I eat. Hence the reason why I hunt and fish and garden and grow my own meat and eggs. It's satisfying to know where your food comes from. Being in VT though many folks up here are really into their sustainable localvore mentalities..!

Deus Ex Machina said...

This is a great post. We have been raising our own rabbits and broiler chickens for a couple of years. It started as "schooling" for the kids to help them appreciate food and where is comes from. It has since also taken on the health and humanity reasoning.

We do not use organic feed, but do not use any chemical or hormones. We figured out that the per pound price for our chickens ends up being about $1.86 per pound, including the butcher fees. I would imagine that the difference is the cost of the feed and any profit. We will further reduce this at some point by harvesting the chickens ourselves. We hope to start this this year. The photos help clarify the process a bit.

We have harvested the rabbit ourselves from the beginning. There is simply no comparison between the quality of our meat and that at the stores.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Deus -

When Carina and I were talking about her operation, I told her I'd be fine with the chickens being free-ranged even without organic feed. But I don't know how the rest of the people who want her chickens feel.

Re your own setup, she said there are TONS of websites with detailed instructions on slaughtering chickens. When I read Henhouse Pottery's post that mentioned chicken slaughtering (came out same day, maybe a day earlier, than this one), I saw pictures of homemade stuff that looked almost exactly like the stuff at Carina's operation (which was borrowed from the neighobr-farmers). So you should have no problem finding the details you need.

I think doing your own slaughtering/butchering whenever possible is ideal, if for no other reason than knowing it's being done right - to your standards of ethical killing, and to your standards of the food you want to eat.

Thanks for your kind comments!

Jules said...

What an interesting post! My first exposure to slaughter was about the same way yours was. I refused to eat that rooster, but as a hunter and meat-eater, I've grown out of that now. We've started growing our own chickens this year too, for eggs and meat. They're too young to produce either yet, but I'm mindful that they will.

Oh, and you can buy cones on eBay. I may go that route, since I use the traffic cones for work and don't want them bloody. ;)

NorCal Cazadora said...

LOL - yeah, that would be poor form!

Man, I feel like the chicken revolution is leaving me behind. Then again, I'm glad to support my friend's new business. And it's nice not having to get up early to let chickens out for the day.

Eric Fremd said...

Hi Caz- I was hoping you would take the bet- that chicken looked great! Thought we could have a taste test...Yeah we used to use wax for the ducks- but still had to rough pluck the ducks. The hen pheasants we harvest have very fragile skin so that is why we have been doing it by hand.

I remember the first turkeys I raised- my dad and brother had to harvest them with the axe across the neck...I kid you not- 40lbs dressed out and barely fit in the oven...I did not have trouble eating my friends come Thanksgiving...

oldfatslow said...

In my earlier years, I
was an auditor. One of
our clients was Goldkist
and I sudited several of
their chicken processing

Chickens are dispatched
similarly to the way
your friends did. The
birds come in in crates
and are hung upside down
on a conveyer line. They
go docile immediately. Then
they go through an enormous
machine that slits their
throats, but they don't
go into gyrations on the
other side. When the
machine would break down,
it was backed up by an
enormous woman with a
sharp knife. She had
to hustle when the line
was at speed.

One of the things I learned
there was that the only
difference between a rock
cornish game hen (tm) and
a chicken is two weeks.