The inaugural pluck

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It was back in September that Kevin decided to pound the last nail in the coffin of our urban-sophisticate image by building a chicken plucker out of an old washing machine.

He acquired the machine, for free, from a very nice real estate broker in Orleans. He stripped it down to just console and drum, and mounted it on two picnic table benches. He ordered the rubber fingers online, and drilled out holes to attach them to the drum.

The chicken plucker

Forty-eight three-quarter inch holes later, we had our chicken plucker.

Kevin wanted to put a simple on/off switch to replace the console, but we discovered, too late, that the wiring schematic, which we’d need to see which wires would have to be attached to the switch, was on the inside of the washing machine housing, which we’d taken to the dump.

So, to make the thing work, we have to turn the knob to “Spin.”

Kevin hates this. He wants a switch. But I figure that, as long as it makes the thing spin, there’s no problem. And, once he had it all assembled, that’s exactly what it did. You turn the knob to “Spin,” pull it out, and the drum spins. (And, if we get quail, we can put it on “Delicate.”)

To really put it to the test, though, we needed an actual, genuine bird.

Our first scheduled plucking is Drumstick, our alpha male turkey and designated Thanksgiving entrée. But there’s a lot riding on Thanksgiving dinner, and we wanted to be able to test the plucker before then.

Enter Sam.

Sam is the sixteen-year-old son of my high-school friend Ellen, who happens to live in the next town. How we both ended up in the wilds of Cape Cod, a good 250 miles from our high school but a mere five miles from each other, is a mystery. Perhaps Ellen and her husband, John, foresaw the day when we would need their son to bring his chickens over to test our chicken plucker.

This past Saturday, that day came.

Sam, preparing the first bird

Sam had two hens that were reaching the end of their laying life, and he wanted to send them to the great henhouse in the sky to make room for his new flock. When I first wrote about Kevin’s chicken plucker, he volunteered them for a test run. We took him up on it, and decided we’d make a day of it. We’d process the chickens, and then I’d make dinner for all of us – Kevin and me, Ellen and John, and Sam and his two siblings, Zach and Kaitlyn.

I knew the two hens, which were over two years old, would be pretty tough, so I planned to stew them with white beans and carrots. I had everything prepped and ready to go when Sam and John showed up with the chickens – the rest of the family decided that they could miss the spectacle of what Ellen dubbed The Great Chicken Massacre, and show up later, when the deed was done.

Sam brought out the box with his two chickens, Golden Comets who seemed blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting them. Before we dispatched them, though, we went inside to watch a video.

Neither Kevin nor I had ever killed a chicken before, Kevin had thought long and hard about how to do it. The time-tested, old-fashioned way – cutting its head off – seems like the kind of thing that’s hard to get right the first time around, and the prospect of doing it wrong, and having a still-living chicken suffer the consequences, was prohibitive.

After a broad survey of chicken-killing videos, Kevin decided we’d follow the lead of Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, who hangs his birds upside down and cuts the blood vessels in their necks. Neither the trachea nor the esophagus is cut, and the bird bleeds out.

Salatin, of course, has a machine with cones to facilitate this, so we looked elsewhere for some less professional instruction. Luckily, Kevin found “Survival Skills with Russ,” a series of YouTube videos in which a supremely competent burly Southerner, Russ, teaches everything from beekeeping to making rope from bear grass. Somewhere in between is butchering a chicken.

Bleeding out

Russ demonstrates very clearly how to hang a chicken by its feet and cut its main artery cleanly. His demonstration bird shows few signs of distress. It bleeds out quietly, and only flaps around a bit when its heart gives out.

Kevin had watched it several times, and showed it to Sam so he’d know what the plan was. Then we went outside to carry it through.

“Do you want to go first, or do you want me to?” Kevin asked Sam.

Sam, whose willingness to try anything is one of the many reasons we like him, said he’d go first. He took one of his Golden Comets out of the box and carried her over to where Kevin had strung a rope from a tree branch. He put her feet through the loop, and she hung there without struggling.

Kevin and Sam located the spot to cut, and Sam pulled the knife across it.

Nothing. Seems that there’s the critical step of getting the feathers out of the way.

Sam was about to try again when we learned an important lesson of chicken butchering: make sure the rope is tied securely to the tree.

Our rope came untied, and the poor bird fell to the ground, flapping. Kevin quickly scooped her up, apologized to her, and reattached the rope, more tightly this time.

The second attempt went better. Sam hit the artery without damaging either trachea or esophagus, and the chicken bled out calmly. In less than thirty seconds, it was dead.

We scalded the bird in 160-degree water to loosen the feathers, and then it was time for Sam to put the plucker to the test. Kevin, who is very familiar with our particular model of GE washing machine because it’s the kind his mother had when he was a kid, turned the knob to “Spin,” and started it up.

We held our collective breath as Sam brought the bird in contact with the spinning fingers.

Miracle of miracles, the feathers flew! The thing works like a charm.

John and Kevin, helping Sam with the last few feathers

Sam rotated the bird, and the legs, and then the breast, and then the back came clean. He was having a little trouble getting into the crooks of the wings, and that’s when we discovered our plucker’s one shortcoming. After working for a while, it just stops.

At first, we thought it was because the spin cycle was over, but it turns out it’s because the thing overheats. We’re not sure why, and we’ll have to figure it out before we start plucking turkeys, but we think it’s a problem we can solve. (My theory: something is rubbing on something else because the machine is horizontal – if we turn it vertical, which is how it was engineered to be, I think it’ll work. Kevin says pshaw to that theory.)

In any case, we finished Sam’s bird by hand, and then Kevin singed off the pinfeathers with a BernzOmatic torch. Sam then gutted it, per Russ’s instructions, and put it in an icewater bath to chill.

Then Kevin tackled the second chicken. He learned a lot from Sam’s experience with the first bird, and Number Two went off without a hitch.


Let’s pause here for a moment and give three cheers for Sam, who not only provided chickens for this experiment, but was willing to be the first to try an unproven process that involved blood, death, and a converted washing machine. If Ellen and John ever get tired of him, he can come starve off the land with us anytime!

While chicken-processing took us a little longer than it takes Russ (who runs through the entire process in an eight-minute video), it wasn’t difficult or complicated. You can see how, with practice, you could get pretty good at it. (The cooking of the chicken didn’t go quite as well as the butchering, and I’ll tell you all about it in another post.)

The biggest surprise for me, though, was that I got through it without flinching or looking away.

Although I’ve been eating animals all my life, this was the first time I’d watched one die for my dinner. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be.

I’ve always been squeamish about animals. I close my eyes at the movies if I think a dog is going to get kicked, let alone if some poor creature is going to die. But I decided, when I took on this lifestyle, that I was going to have to suck it up and kill things. So far, I’ve only killed fish, but thinking about it, talking about it, and planning for it has gotten me used to the idea of killing other animals.

This time around, I didn’t actually sever the blood vessels in the chickens’ necks, but I saw how it was done and I’m fully prepared to do it.

Squeamishness, I’ve come to believe, is a luxury carnivores are not entitled to.

For me, getting over it has taken time, and determination, and constant exposure. And maybe even a little bit of pluck.

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Comments

  1. Re. the overheating – Does your electric motor have a fan on the back of it?

  2. It does take something out of you to do that. I have vivid memories of my first time, too. It is something like preocessing deer. There is a lot of blood and guts involved in killing an animal and making it ready to cook and eat. I have decided to that I will do it, but the consumption of said animal(s) will not begin until at least the next day, prefereably several days after the processing. There is nothing like processing chickens to change the taste of dinner that night.

    As far as the overheating, the washing machine motor looks like it is connected directly to the drum in the photos. If it is, have you tried putting a belt drive between the motor and drum? That would permit the motor to be engaged/disengaged from the load (Replacing the overrunning clutch in the transmission of a washing machine.) My bet is that the overheating is the result of the motor perfoirming a braking role, and thus wearing down the brushes very fast. I am not there, so it’s just a guess. Hope it helps.

  3. What a great post Tamar! I love how functional this is. It’s nice to read this through someone who has not been through this before. It helps me get a much better idea about what I’m getting myself into later on. I’ve skinned, plucked and gutted a few critters here and there, but I’ve always wondered how it would feel if it was something I actually raised. I always had the gut feeling I’d be ok (I’ve never been squeamish), but I love my animals. Maybe I can find a Sam…..

  4. Great post. We’ve got a hen hatching out our first chickens to raise for eggs and meat, but have killed and plucked before. What’s not to love about a washing machine turned chicken plucker?!

  5. “Squeamishness, I’ve come to believe, is a luxury carnivores are not entitled to.” – I have to agree with you there. LOVE the washer-plucker. When you first wrote about it, I thought you were going to do a whiz-bang style thing, with the fingers and the birds on the inside, bumping around in there. This looks very clever indeed.

    I’ve no reason to doubt your veracity, Tamar, but I would never have guessed your fisherman-inventor-woolly man husband was a stockbroker in a former life.

  6. Glad to know about the better way to kill a chicken. I thought you just sliced through the neck while they were upside-down; I didn’t realize there’s a little more finesse to it than that, so I’m glad for the link, which I’ll give a look.

    Congratulations on the plucker working! So what if it overheats- it works!!

  7. Soooooo…how did the chicken taste?

  8. Kingsley — No fan. Is that good or bad?

    Greg — Thanks for the belt suggestion. Kevin’s put it on his list of possibilities.

    As for leaving time between slaughter and dinner, I think that’s an excellent strategy. It certainly isn’t appetizing to process a chicken. What I found, though, was that the finished product looked like chickens I’d been cooking all my life, and it wasn’t hard to dissociate it with the living breathing chicken.

    Brooke — I highly recommend finding a Sam, but I suspect they’re few and far between, so you’ll probably have to tough it out without one. From your comments, though, you sound pretty intrepid, and I’d be surprised if you had any problems. Good luck!

    Melanie — We’re definitely on the same page on the washing machine/chicken plucker.

    Kate — I love your description of my husband. Especially the “woolly man” part. I think, though, if you had been in a position to know a few commodity traders (he wasn’t actually a stockbroker), you might be less surprised. Back in the day (which ended a few years ago, when electronic trading replaced the floor), they were the bad boys of Wall Street. Being tough and resourceful was necessary, so the transition makes more sense than you’d think.

    Paula — When it comes to be your turn to process a chicken (and I hope you’re building that coop in your head already), definitely watch the video.

    The overheating is a problem, though. If you’ve got a big bird like a turkey, you don’t want to have to wait for the machine to cool down a few times before you can get the job done. Luckily, we’ve got 5 weeks or so to fix the problem.

    Dianne — Oh, don’t worry — I’ll be telling you all about that chicken.

  9. LOL, when you said “Enter Sam,” I thought you were going to pluck him!

    Terrific job, and isn’t it beautiful how quickly the job is done with that plucker? And you described the killing perfectly. They’re calm, maybe a bit bewildered, until it’s done and all that’s left is the twitching. There are far worse ways to go.

  10. Thank God for Safeway!

  11. Great post! I have been dreaming of a good plucker since we started butchering chickens and turkeys a couple of years ago. I am curious why you didn’t put the fingers inside the drum, and leave the entire thing intact?

    We have been doing the traditional “off with their head” bit, but may try bleeding out this year. My dad and I had quite a job keeping the headless Tom (all 55# of him) from running off into the bushes two years ago. Your You-Tube link was great!

  12. NorCal — That’s funny. Ah, the things we miss in our own prose …

    Margaret — I certainly recognize that cutting a chicken’s throat and letting it bleed out on your lawn isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time!

    Adam — If you put the fingers on the inside, you need a disc in the bottom of the drum that spins the other way, otherwise, the centrifugal force will simply plaster the chicken to the wall of the drum, and it won’t bounce around to bring the feathers in contact with the fingers. The inside-the-drum method is very popular — that kind of plucker is called a “whiz-bang” — but putting the fingers on the outside is a much simpler engineering proposition.

    I can envision you, running into the woods after a headless turkey the size of a Labrador. It isn’t pretty.

  13. A LOT of pluck I’d say! I’m really impressed. What an informative post too. I’m going to have a look at those YouTube videos you mention. There’s always room to improve our own techniques here. Have you had any thoughts about stunning – electrical or otherwise – or does Russ’s technique cut out the need? We bruise some of the meat when we stun our bird “manually” (ie axe handle) and I’d like to correct that deficiency before we run thought our next batch of meat chickens.

  14. We can’t eat our chickens because we’re sissies, but if we did, Chris would get a washing machine so fast it would make your head spin (on “delicate”).

  15. A nifty addition to this process is a traffic cone with the end cut off. You hang the cone from a branch instead of hanging the chicken by it’s feet. Then slide the chicken in so its head and neck stick out the end. The confinement seems to be calming.