Thursday, June 28, 2007

Week of the Chicken!

Bright and early Monday morning of this week I giddily awoke, made a cup of coffee, put on a dark black t-shirt (the one with NY's jazz club the Village Vanguard on the front), jumped in my car and drove toward the glowing orange sun. I also had on pants!

It was about 6:45 in the A.M. and today was chicken slaughtering day. I feel fairly confident that I was one of only 4 other people in the Greater Athens area that were going to be slaughtering, scalding, plucking, eviscerating, chilling and then packing 100 chickens under God's blue sky.

For the last 8 weeks two small square pens, approximately 10x10 constructed of wood, chicken wire and a tarp had been holding 50 chickens each as they were moved once per day across a pasture beneath a palonia orchard. These chickens and these pens, undneath these trees, on this grass, on this farm, in this day in age offers more hope, knowledge, and wisdom than may be evident upon first glance.

Chickens haven't been treated very well by humans over the last 30-40 years or so. What I mean by that is imagine spending your entire life at a Rolling Stones concert, standing room only, shoulder to shoulder, in a windowless stadium, all the bathrooms are closed, and the band never shows up. That's kind of what life is like for a factory chicken.

Having spent some time in these chicken factories, I've never met a farmer who loves what they are doing. As many people have pointed out, it doesn't really resemble farming. When you walk in, you are smacked in the face by the heavy smell of ammonia. There are no windows so the 50x500 foot house is dimly lit (just about all day to keep the chickens eating 24x7). There are 30,000 chickens, and your job is to pick up the ones that have died, and make sure the automatic waterers, feeders, and temperature monitors are working. Getting a kid to go into one of those things day after day can't be easy.

With pastured poultry, a farmer is outside. The chickens have all the fresh air and sunlight they could want. They are moved each day onto fresh grass which they happily munch on, and pick through the soil looking for bugs. Each day they lay down a fresh layer of manure to help fertilize the pasture, which helps the grass grow for the cattle that will be following behind. They don't have to spend a single day in yesterday's excrement. It's fresh, clean and sanitary.

Now in the end the chicken does still get killed and eaten. Such is the price paid by a domestic fowl in an omnivorous world. But the important question is, did the animal live a good, tranquil, healthy life? Was the animal under intense stress? Was it deprived of its "unalienable rights" of fresh air, grass, bugs, ability and room to move around, freedom from one's own feces, and sunshine. No. By all accounts these birds have been happy!

Our crew of 3 were excited. This was the inaugural day of chicken slaughter on this particular farm. The very first batch. There was never going to be another first time, and I wanted to be a part of the ceremonial celebration of the good lives these chickens had led, and the unique nourishment they would afford to a whole mass of people.

Set up began promptly at 7AM. There were cutting tables to wash down, kill cones to set up, a turkey fryer would serve as our scalding pot. A brand new feather master would pluck the feathers. Then there was a tray for catching the blood beneath the cones, and a garbage can for the eviscera, and another tub for offal (the feathers). We had sharp knives, and matches, and a pulley system for dipping the birds in the scalder. It was all set up in stations. After about an hour of getting things together, we were anxious to try it out.

The birds were taken from their pen out in the pasture and put into a pen on the back of a pickup. Each bird was then stuck into an upside down traffic cone which was affixed to 2x4 across two trees. The top of the cones had been cut off so that the birds head was sticking out of the bottom. In such a position the birds can't move their wings and get very still and quiet. The most difficult part of the operation is the kill itself. It's done by simple grabbing the birds head and cutting their main artery on the side of its neck. This may be the hardest part of the procedure because the bird's don't die instantly. Cutting their artery allows the heart to continue to beat removing the blood from the body which can leave a bad taste to the meat.

Once bled, each bird (now dead) is removed from the cone, and it's fit put into a pulley situated over a vat of hot water at 145 degrees. The bird is then dipped / submerged into the hot water repeatedly for 1 minute. This loosens the birds feathers for plucking. Rather than hand plucking, they are placed into an apparatus that resembles a large salad spinner with little rubber fingers with grooves in each finger that grasp and remove the feathers as the bird is spun around and around. As they spin around a mist of water continues to clean the bird.

Once the feathers have been removed, the birds now are starting to look like food. They are placed on the cutting table and the head is simply pulled off. The feet are removed at the joint, leaving the end to your drumstick handle. The oil gland above their tail is cut off, then a cut is made at the neck to seperate the esophogus and the crop. To eviscerate a small sideways cut is made above the anus (or the "vent" is a nicer way to put it). Enlarge the opening and then scoop out the organs in a scooping motion. The trick is not to break the intestines or especially the gall bladder (a bright blueish green organ that secretes bile to the liver). The lungs kind of cling to the rib cage and have to scraped out, then the anus is cut out, and a hose is used to wash to wash the body cavity clean. That's it. Throw it in a tub of ice water to cool the body down and it's time to go home and eat chicken.

I spent about 5 hours on the farm that morning with my other excited co-horts. I stopped at one point to exclaim, "This is fun!" And it was. My real job was expecting me so before we finished all 100 birds (we were over half way there) I had to head off.

It was about noon and as I drove back into Athens I felt like an adventure. There was a fresh whole chicken in a ziploc bag on the seat next to me. I went in my apartment and threw the bird in the fridge while I took a quick shower to rinse the smell of chicken fat from my skin. I put on clean clothes, grabbed my laptop, jumped on my bike and headed towards campus. As I looked around at people walking down the sidewalk I thought how lucky I'd been to have spent the morning on a farm just out of town contributing to the cycle of life. It was Monday and it had officially become the Week of Chicken.

The first day I had Thai Peanut Sauce stir fry chicken breasts and tenderloin with bok choy, brocolli, onions and garlic. The remainder of that meal I had for lunch today. Day two was baked Jamaican jerk chicken legs cut into slices and put on a sandwich of locally baked sourdough bread, and some organic lettuce from California probably, a little Grey Poupon and Mayonaisse. Third night I used what was left to make my mother's famous chicken casserole. You're going to pass out when you hear the ingredients. One can cream of chicken soup, 8 oz sour cream, 3 breasts of chicken, butter the dish, crush one whole pack of Ritz crackers on top, drizzle butter on the crackers. I can't believe I didn't die of heart disease eating that way growing up. But it's delicious and this week is the first time I've ever made it myself. The family recipe is alive and well.

The only way I can get closer to my food now is to get my own farm. The temptation is growing.

Till next time,

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