It’s been six years and change since Kevin and I moved to Cape Cod and, in that time, we’ve killed a lot of things. Hundreds of fish, dozens of birds, three pigs, assorted varmints. (No deer yet, but this is my year. I can feel it.) Yesterday, we added 13 meat chickens to the tally.
We take killing seriously around here, and we do it with care. We give our animals the best life we can, and we try and make sure death comes to them with as little pain and distress as possible. Slaughter day is never fun.
Yesterday’s slaughter, though, wasn’t so bad. For starters, we’ve processed enough birds to have begun to get good at them. But what really made the day go down easier was the utter charmlessness of Cornish Cross chickens. I was very glad to see the back of them.
These are chickens that are bred to grow fast, and they sacrifice every other trait to efficiency. They are large and round, lumbering and ungainly. They don’t have a chance to develop a personality because their only drive is to eat. They sometimes grow so fast that they lose the ability to walk; their legs just won’t support them. We raised ours to grow a bit slower. They were almost 11 weeks old when we slaughtered them, instead of the usual six. But even slower-growing, Cornish Cross birds are off-putting. They’re smelly. They spend a lot of their day resting on the ground, so their undersides are indecently unfeathered. They care about food, and only food. They are utterly charmless. Which is why Kevin and I weren’t dreading slaughter day as much as we usually do.
We started setting up the night before, but the real planning had been going on for weeks, as Kevin designed and built his newest engineering marvel, the Frankenplucker.
He didn’t think of it as a Frankenplucker, of course – only as a plucker. It was our friend Jen, from Milkweed & Teasel, who named it that, after she saw a picture of a rather diabolical looking Kevin holding it. It began as a low-cost alternative to a Whizbang, the full-bore chicken plucker that serious chicken people have, or build.
A Whizbang is a great thing. It’s a big bucket with black rubber chicken-plucking fingers inside. You drop your chicken in, and a disc at the bottom rotates, tossing the chicken against the fingers. The bird comes out virtually feather-free. But the materials can run a couple hundred bucks, and we weren’t sure we’d ever be plucking again, after this batch was done.
So, on to Plan B.
We had the black rubber chicken-plucking fingers leftover from Kevin’s last plucker. And we also have a couple of reasonably strong electric motors – one on a bench grinder, and one on a heavy-duty Milwaukee right-angle drill. After some investigation, Kevin decided on the drill, since the bench grinder rotates too quickly.
From there, it was simple, really. A length of three-inch PVC, capped on both ends. A 3/8-inch threaded steel rod to serve as an axle. Drill holes in the PVC, insert the fingers. Insert the axle through holes in the caps’ centers. Attach the whole thing to the drill, and secure it to a sawhorse with screws and zip ties. Voila!
Kevin wasn’t sure how well it would work, and he tested it using an onion bag full of wood blocks – everyone’s go-to chicken simulator. He had me hold the bag up next to the plucker, and he turned it one. Nothing bad happened, so all systems were go.
The rest of the set-up was an outdoor propane burner with a big pot of water for scalding, a table with a cleanable surface for gutting, a garbage can for the heads and guts, a pot for the organs and necks, and two very large containers of ice water. And, of course, the Cone of Silence.
We slaughter our birds by putting them upside-down in the cone, so their heads stick out the bottom. One quick cut to the neck (making sure to miss the trachea and esophagus), and they bleed out in less than a minute.
By ten o’clock day-of, we were ready to go. Our friend Maggie came over to help. Now, on slaughter day, you really find out who your friends are – or at least how intrepid your friends are. Maggie is intrepid. She also keeps chickens, and wanted to participate so she could get some practice against the day that she’d have to do her own.
The first bird went to the Cone at about 10:30, and it went smoothly from there. Because Kevin doesn’t mind doing the killing, but doesn’t care for putting his hand in a warm bird to pull its guts out, and I don’t mind putting my hand in a warm bird to pull its guts out, but don’t care for doing the killing, our division of labor is straightforward. Kevin cuts, scalds, and plucks, and then hands the bird over to me for processing. I cut off the head and feet, eviscerate, and detach the organs we save (heart, gizzard, and liver).
The cleaned carcass goes into ice-water bath #1 (so-called, for obvious reasons, “pink water”) and from there, a bit later, to ice-water bath #2, where it will chill for a couple days before we freeze it.
Maggie did a little of everything, but primarily processed with me. We stood at the table, side by side, pulling guts out of chickens, and marveling that we were, in middle age, learning skills that every woman except those born in the last hundred years had undoubtedly mastered by age ten. We also both found that, on a chilly day, putting your hands in a warm chicken wasn’t such a bad thing. This is how friendships are forged.
But I know what you’re thinking: How did the Frankenplucker work??!
Like a charm. In under 60 seconds, each chicken went from feathered to bald. There were usually a few feathers left, here and there, but it only took a minute or two to finish the job by hand.
We finished all thirteen birds in under four hours, and that included taking a break when the propane tank ran out and Kevin ran out for a refill. It also included clean-up of a scene straight out of Dexter, which meant scouring every surface, hauling the feathers to the compost pile, and dumping the very dirty clothes into the washing machine.
It’s good to have the pen empty of those ungainly, food-centric birds, and the cooler full of them. But it’s also good to find that I can take slaughter day in stride. After having done it five or six times now, Kevin and I are both better at it. Kevin got each cut right. We kept the scalding water between 150 and 160 degrees, right where it’s supposed to be. I’m much faster at gutting, and I didn’t perforate a single bowel. All of this gets easier.
What’s disconcerting is that killing, too, gets easier. Not just the mechanics of it, but the idea of it. The first time we killed an animal we were planning to eat – it was a turkey – I felt it viscerally. Not only had I never killed anything, I’d spent an entire life insulated from the living, breathing animals that became my dinner. To know that animal, and to take that life, that breath, required more fortitude than most things I have been called on to do.
It hasn’t become second nature – I still prefer the gutting to the cutting – but slaughter day isn’t as difficult as it once was. We become accustomed to it, as we become accustomed to everything we do regularly. But I worry that it’s what’s startling, and visceral, and fresh about killing an animal that keeps our humanity engaged in the act. It makes us take it seriously, and do it carefully. By tamping down those feelings, habituation hardens us.
It has hardened me, I know. I have cut enough throats, and have been party to Kevin’s cutting even more, that it is no longer gut-wrenching. But as those feelings ebb, they don’t leave a vacuum. They leave, instead, a sense of competence. We are careful, less because we’re trepidatious about making a mistake and more because skill requires care, and we are skilled.
I can see, though, how hardening can open the door to cruelty, and I think I understand what’s behind those undercover videos of people behaving unspeakably to livestock. Those people are habituated, in a very bad way, to killing. But buying meat on little Styrofoam trays, without ever seeing the animal, is habituation, too. Being habituated to not killing can likewise lead to bad choices, in the way of willful blindness to the lives of our dinners. “I think we’re trying to occupy the middle ground, and not make either mistake,” Kevin said to me this morning.
Killing has certainly changed the way I think about meat. It is always, now, both an animal and a meal, whether I raised it myself or not. And now that I see it that way, I don’t think I can ever un-see it. But it has also changed the way I think about killing. If people eat animals (something I don’t have a moral objection to), someone has to kill them. I can think about it, and even do it, without flinching.