Many years ago, some of my city relatives came to visit our farm family. Someone asked one of the little cousins, “Where do eggs come from?” and the child replied, “The store.” The farm folk thought that answer was so cute, and I grew up hearing this story many times over. Yes, my cousin’s eggs came from the store. It wasn’t a wrong answer; it was what they knew from their experience.
When I was young, our eggs came from the hen house, and my brother would pay me a nickel to wash the eggs for him. As I washed the chicken poo off, I definitely knew that eggs came from a chicken’s bottom.
That reminds me of a joke my parents tell about the man who goes to the butcher and orders a cow tongue. The lady next to him is grossed out and says, “I would never eat something that’s been in a cow’s mouth,” as she picks up a dozen eggs.
It is all about a person’s perspective.
I love to eat chicken, especially the white meat. Chicken breast prepared a number of ways and buffalo hot wings are some of my favorites. On my journey of trying to eat less processed, more natural foods, I decided I wanted to experience chicken butchering. So I would know where the chickens were raised and how they are processed.
My friend, Brad, butchers his own chickens. He moved to the Wadena area a few years ago and bought what we call the Amish paradise out in the country. The previous owners were Amish, and the house did not have plumbing or electricity, so he has been busy remodeling much by himself. Brad is very talented, extremely artistic and interested in sustainable living.
He has been raising chickens for several years – both broilers and layers. During the summer, Brad has a get-together with friends and family to butcher the broilers. This summer, my husband and I planned on being part of the butcher, but unfortunately, we had to be out of town that weekend.
But this fall, Brad emailed me that he was planning to butcher a few of his old layer birds, and he said we were welcome to come be part of the experience. My husband and I were available the day he was planning to thin out his flock. After I said I would, I began wondering if I could handle the blood and guts. And I heard it smelled, you know, like wet chicken feathers.
On the planned Sunday, we drove over to the Amish paradise, and Brad came to greet us with a pretty, black hen tucked under his arm. He looked like a 4-H kid holding his prize pet. I really didn’t think I could do it.
Brad brought us and the hen to the back of the barn where he had everything set up. He casually hung the old hen upside down in one of the metal chicken leg shackles that hung on a rope from the barn to the shed. He went into the barn and added two more birds to the shackles, then showed us the hot water barrel heating over a wood fire and explained that 150 degrees is the best temperature to scald the birds.
Next, Brad told us about the cold water tanks that had an apparatus that he made to keep cold water trickling into the tanks to cool down the raw chicken. He had also created a free-standing spigot to rinse the birds.
Finally, in the set-up was the cutting table where Brad picked up a really sharp knife. So the butchering process began.
We each got a headless bird to dunk into the hot water. He told us to leave it long enough that the wing feathers could easily come out, but not too long because the skin peels. Once scalded, the birds went back into the shackles, where we rubbed off the feathers rather than pulling them out.
Brad and Dan used a torch to burn off any chicken hairs. Then, Brad patiently taught me how to cut off the lower legs and wing tips. Next came the task of carefully cutting the underbelly open far enough to reach in and pull out the innards. Dan caught on right away. Brad cautioned us not to cut the intestines, for obvious reasons, or cut the green gall bladder because the bile would contaminate the meat. Carefully we cut around the behind and removed the pile of insides we just pulled out. We carefully scraped out the lungs and other organs still in the cavity, then cut off the neck and carefully pulled out the crop, which is a sack of undigested feed.
I was actually fascinated by the organs, identifying the heart, lungs, gizzard, gall bladder and liver. I felt like I was back in biology class, and was thrilled to find underdeveloped eggs of all sizes in one of my hens, until I broke one and the yoke was on me.
Finally, we thoroughly rinsed and placed our birds in the cold water tank to cool.
It really wasn’t as gross as I expected. It wasn’t even smelly. But we did have a nice windy day working in our favor, and it was cool enough that there were no flies buzzing about.
Brad was kind enough to give us some of the freshly butchered birds to take home. We rinsed, cleaned any pinfeathers we had missed, and Dan vacuum-packed and froze the meat. We kept one bird out and put it in the stock pot for soup.
I had a really hard time eating the meat in my soup.
The following weekend, Dan and I went out for dinner and I ordered chicken wild rice soup. As I ate the delicious soup, I remembered the birds we butchered and the soup I made. Even though I do not know how the commercial chicken was raised, fed or butchered, the distance from that process made the experience more palatable. Hopefully, some time with the chicken in the freezer will help me so I can enjoy farm-fresh chicken we helped butcher.