From chickens to chicken: slaughter day

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.

11 people are having a conversation about “From chickens to chicken: slaughter day

  1. Very well written and thought out. It has been years since we killed anything for food, although have had to put a few precious companions down. Never easy, but sometimes necessary, and one must always be aware that they are TAKING AWAY THE LIFE of one of God’s creatures. That means, one does it with care, compassion and respect. The more one practices the skill, the more skilled one gets, therefore reducing pain and fear in the future food, and like you said, one has, after awhile, to make a conscious decision to not lose their compassion. BTW, we would have to be VERY hungry to ever again butcher a chicken! after the local chicken processor shut down and we had to do 75 ourselves!!!!! Horrible experience!!!!! Never again do I want to see (or smell) chicken guts!!!

    • 75! I do not envy you that day. We were definitely ready to fold up shop after 13.

      The thing is, I don’t think we get to make a choice about compassion, or any other emotion. You either feel it or you don’t. What’s important to me is that I have to be careful *regardless* of how I feel. That’s what I meant about skill. You can’t summon compassion by force of will, but you can have a really good checklist.

  2. Awesome chicken plucker! Now all Kevin needs to do is put a cowl on the front of it to keep the feathers from flying at him, which he can probably fashion from a five gallon bucket.

    I know that slaughtering chickens has changed the way I feel about the whole thing. Like you, we try to give our animals the best possible life that we can and the best possible death as well, by which I mean as quickly and painlessly as I can. But I also know that my attitude toward me killing animals has changed a lot- now I’m pretty confident that I could kill rabbits for food, and other, larger animals too, such as elk, which I love. For me the whole thing boils down to access and logistics, and since I have neither, the elk will be safe for awhile. And until I get the dining nook finished so that Steve will let me move on to other projects such as getting rabbits, they’re safe from me for awhile as well.

    But even while knowing that I can personally kill animals for food, I don’t think I’ll ever be callous about it, no matter how often I would do it. I think the feeling better about it is borne of acquiring greater skill- the more confident you are that you’re not going to cause undue suffering makes it a whole lot easier to accomplish.

    • Yes on the cowl — it’s the only thing that looks like it really needs fixing. Kevin expected the feathers to be tossed downward, not backward. Next time we’ll know.

      You’re right about skill, I think. I have less anguish about the whole thing, both because I don’t feel as wrenched about the taking of a life, and I don’t worry quite so much about making a mistake. It is both those things.

      I look forward to your finishing the dining nook so you can get started with those rabbits …

  3. G’day,

    What’s the reasoning for the ice-bath?
    Is it just an ice bath, or do you add salt or suchlike?

    We rinse our birds in salted water, than place on trays in the fridge to dry (for 48 hours to rest too).

    The Whizzbang plucker is expensive, but you only get feathers to the face if you’re careless with the drop.
    A large part of the cost is the fingers too … I wonder if you could make a 20-litire (~5 gallon) bucket-sized one, and power it of that drill.
    Or even just put a bucket on the drill (large diameter PCV pipe?) and put the fingers on the inside… that would keep the feathers out of your face.
    I guess that limits the size of the processed bird though.

    Our plucker spends a lot of its time on working holidays at other people’s houses.
    The best bit is that it comes back a lot cleaner than when it left 😉

    • Kingsley! Always nice to hear from you.

      The ice bath is just because we don’t have room in the fridge. We don’t salt the water, but we’ve read that lots of people do.

      The whole post-processing routine is a bit maddening. Read ten different chicken people, and get ten different opinions. Some chill and freeze right away. Others do it your way. Others with the ice bath. One day, two days, four days to freezing — all with various, and conflicting, assertions about rigor. I haven’t found anything (pardon the pun) rigorous.

      The drill might very well power a disc at the bottom of a bucket. And we might very well try that. We would, of course, borrow your plucker if not for that pesky problem of your being halfway around the world.

  4. I admire your care and thoughtfulness. As a city-dweller, I’m really grateful to bloggers like you who are so open about the process of animal-to-meat. I may not do it myself, but I can witness, study, and think on it, to ensure that I’m a more thoughtful and compassionate consumer.

  5. Thanks for the post, Tamar. When I was a child many people still kept chooks in their back yards. This was before the days of cheap factory protein when chicken was a luxury reserved for Christmas Day and even when chooks were kept they weren’t killed until too old to lay, and they were consequently tough old birds. I vividly remember the task we kids were allotted, which was to pluck after the carcasses had been plunged into boiling water, and how the wet feathers stank. I guess killing and eating of same were just part of the pattern of our lives; I don’t remember any distress or sorry being involved. We loved our pet cats and dogs and wept bitterly when they died, but I remember Little Tich, a tiny rooster whom we hand fed and who used to ride round on our shoulders and follow us everywhere , and whom we ate without fuss. Chooks were food. Our lack of reaction surprises me now though; I hadn’t given it a thought previous to reading your post. Hmmmm… monster child!

  6. Virginia — I think that’s why I write about it. I don’t think it’s necessary that people who eat meat should kill something, but I do think it’s important that carnivores not look away. Meat was an animal, and I think remembering that is important. Thanks for paying attention.

    Fran — If you’re a monster child, so was pretty much everyone else up to just the last century! From what I’ve read and been told, knowing the animal that’s now on your plate was standard operating procedure. What’s remarkable isn’t that you took it in stride. It’s that we no longer do.

  7. The words, “Chicken Day” still brings a sense of dread in me, though I’m also middle-aged and haven’t killed a chicken in decades. As a kid, the first time I had to help with the chicken slaughter, I remember thinking that there could be no worse chicken smell than a bunch of them huddled in close proximity as we waited to begin. Then we dipped them in the boiling water, which quickly disabused me of that notion, but I thought it couldn’t get any worse; until we cut them open.

    Love the Frankenplucker! Would have been quite guilty of envy, had I know of such devices as a child; we did it all by hand.

    Thank you for once again sharing your insights.

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