There is Beauty in the Dying

Saturday, December 29, 2012

My weekend of butchering chickens came to an unusual end. Sandy and I normally butcher together, but an unexpected family event and another rainy weekend threw a wrench in our plans. So, I had to fall back on Plan B, which was to drive my Cornish Rock crosses to the city to be butchered. This would be the first time in six years that I was not going to process my own birds. But, I didn’t want to wait. The birds were already pushing 7-pounds and I didn’t want to wait any longer. So, with plans changed and appointments made I loaded up 15 birds and 4 ice chests into my truck and started the 35-minute drive south.

I had never been to this place before and it was a strange conglomeration of feeding pens for goats and sheep, and cages for laying hens and meat birds all in an unsuspecting industrial park in the middle of the city. Clearly they were making due with what they had available.

I pleasant older man of Russian decent with a thick accent met me in the driveway. He directed me to the small building on one side of the feedlot pens. I backed my truck as he directed and opened the back end. He asked how many I had and I told him. Two younger men came out and began unloading my truck. We walked into the building; a cinderblock structure set up with killing cones, scolder and plucker in one room and a stainless steel processing table with water faucets in the other. This was a place for high volume butchering, not the slow meandering butchering that Sandy and I did, which contained more chattering than processing. This was a serious place for serious processing.

As one of the young men pulled each bird out of its traveling container another slit its neck and hung it in a cone to bleed out. They worked five birds at a time. Once bled out, all five birds were moved to the scalder where they were moved around the hot water for a few minutes with a flat wooden paddle before being put into the drum plucker. The three men worked in assembly-line style, each with his own job, moving quickly from killing to scalding to plucking. In less than 15-minutes all 15 birds were killed, scalded and plucked and ready to be gutted.

As they moved birds onto the processing table the men cautiously eyed me in my muck boots, rolling in the ice chests to cool down the finished carcasses. I don’t think they knew what to make of me. I kept commenting on how fast they were and how I wasn’t nearly so fast. They looked and smiled, but I don’t think they understood me. It must have been strange for them to see a woman so at ease, just standing around watching the whole scene. At one point an older gentleman came in to check on their progress. I think he was surprised too when he saw me standing in the corner, out of the way. He asked, with a puzzled look, if I had raised the chickens myself. I told him yes and explained that my friend and I usually process birds together, but she couldn’t this weekend. He smiled and looked at me again. I commented on how fast the men were and how slow my friend and I were. He just laughed and spoke to the three men in their native language, then they all laughed together. I asked him what he thought of them, he said they looked nice and commented on how big they were.

We continued talking and as each man finished with a bird I swept it off the table and into the ice chest, barely breaking my sentences. He told me they raise animals for family and friends from his community and I told him about my little farm. With each new topic the three men would gaze over his shoulder at me then talk to each other, which made me believe they did understand some English. It must have been fascinating to them to hear a woman talk so casually about farming and raising and butchering animals.

In less than half an hour the whole process was over and I was back on the road heading home. Once there, I unloaded each ice chest, filled it with water and let it drain before refilling it again and adding ice and salt. They would sit in their bath overnight to cool down. The salt would help pull blood away from the carcass giving me a nice clean bird to pack and freeze.

Sunday was a better day. No rain in sight. After a breakfast of fresh eggs and toast with homemade jam, I proceeded to set up my own assembly line for packaging. I laid out cutting board, bowls, scissors, markers, vacuum packer and bags. One-by-one I pulled each bird from its icy bath, rinsed it thoroughly, cleaning it inside and out, cutting it into halves or quarters. The heart, gizzards and livers were packaged separately for freezing. Hearts and gizzards are good dusted with flour and fried. The livers will eventually be made into pate, which will be fabulous with homemade cheese and crusty bread.

I’m still learning how to grow and raise and cook for a one person household so I made a combination of quartered, halved and whole chicken packages for freezing. I worked in small batches, moving rhythmically from washing to cutting to vacuum packing to labeling and freezing.

I think this is harder work than the actual butchering. It took most of the day with just a few short breaks for a drink and to sit down for a rest. I have this rule when I process animals, especially chickens, and that is we don’t stop working until the job is done. That way there is no chance of the meat becoming too warm and potentially allowing bacteria to grow.

Every time I process an animal I can’t help but think how I have raised and cared for you and now its time for you to care for me and mine. It takes a long time to feed an animal, to get it to the right weight before it can feed you. It is a trade off. It is life. It is humbling.

As I rinsed each chicken I could see out the window, birds chirping and splashing in the fountain filled from yesterday’s rain. The sound was sweet and uplifting. I had to smile. Winter had barely begun, yet that twitter and splashing made me think of spring and planting and growing; new chicks and lambs and piglets. Next year there will be a lamb to raise (the freezer is getting low) and a hog too. I have found a breeder of heritage Berkshire hogs not too far away.

I have regrets though, no guilt for taking the life of an animal I raise. I am proud to be able to grow healthy meat for my table and of those I love.

Four hours later everything was vacuum packed, labeled and put in the freezer. Tools were washed and put away; counters bleached and wiped down. The only thing that remained was an empty pen in the barn; the last vestiges of the 8-week long project.

Raising animals for your own consumption changes you. You move from coveting material things to savoring handmade and homegrown comforts because you value the work of your own hands. No more do you long for every little shiny bauble you see, or dream of vacations to far off lands. You think and plan for new pens, new crops, new ways to care for yourself and your family. You think about filling a freezer. When you think about someone else working hard making your food, shopping feels frivolous, vacationing like an empty illusion. It loses its appeal. You may think of yourself as independent and strong, but if you can’t fill your own freezer you are like a helpless child waiting to be fed. I think a weekend like this is a far trade, don’t you?

I fed the hens this morning, glancing over at the still erected meat bird pen. The girls had spent the day scratching in the straw, churning up the soft ground below and erasing all evidence of the lives lived there. This is farm life.

It exhales softly.

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