There’s no way around the fact that if you eat meat, you have blood on your hands. When I worked on a farm, the long afternoons spent slaughtering chickens helped shape my belief that all meat eaters should, at least once, kill and butcher an animal. It’s the only way to really comprehend what you’re eating.
But when I began raising chickens in my yard, I made a promise to never kill them. Living in close proximity made them family to me, with names and distinct personalities. I felt that killing them would cut too close to home.
Even after they stopped laying, I put the hens out to the happiest pasture I could. All they had to do was survive the coyotes, raccoons, skunks, owls, falcons, ravens, bobcats, neighbor dogs, and chick-gobbling rattlesnakes long enough to hit menopause, and this cushy retirement package would be theirs.
When I made that promise, I hadn’t taken roosters into consideration. But eventually, a cock named Rusty triggered a downward spiral that brought me to break the promise I made to my flock.
I prefer my roosters foolish and aggressive enough to run at intruders like succulent kamikazes, because it’s easier to replace a rooster than a hen. But Rusty had a survival instinct and failed to intervene as various predators pared the flock down to just himself, an old hen named Annabelle 2.0, and another rooster named Marco Pollo.
Two roosters and a post-menopausal hen is not a flock with growth potential, though you have to give Rusty credit for trying. His days revolved around humping Annabelle 2.0 as often as possible, to the point that she began spending her days hiding in the coop. This compelled Rusty to pursue prison-style intimacy with Marco Pollo, who didn’t seem to mind. Marco Pollo was a total gentleman to Annabelle 2.0, which made me resent Rusty all the more.
A new supply of chicks was clearly necessary in order to jumpstart the flock’s population, and I ordered some. And then, unwilling to let Rusty rape Annabelle 2.0 to death, I broke my promise and chopped off his head.
While my dispatching of Rusty was intended to give Annabelle 2.0 a much-deserved reprieve, Marco Pollo had plans of his own. He filled Rusty’s void and proved to the world, and especially to Annabelle 2.0, that he isn’t gay. With Annabelle 2.0 no better off than she was before, the only good that came from killing Rusty was the spectacular coq au vin I made.
Annabelle 2.0 finally died, in her sleep, just hours before the new shipment of baby chicks arrived. She was my first chicken to die of old age, marking the moment with both triumph and sadness.
As I watched Marco Pollo raise the new brood alone, the memory of that coq au vin, and the lusty red wine sauce that tamed Rusty’s sinewy flesh, kept me up at night. Breaking my no-kill promise had opened a door in me. A few weeks later I purchased 12 baby Cornish Cross meat-bird chicks.
The augmented flock, chosen and doomed alike, integrated happily, oblivious to the fact that in just six weeks the meat-birds would be ready for slaughter. After a week, the meat-birds were bigger than the four week-old layer chicks. When I poured feed into the yard, the meat-birds would park themselves right in the middle of the feed and clear a circular patch around themselves with a radius equal to their neck length.
Not only did the meat-birds grow fast physically, but other aspects of their development were expedited as well. At two weeks they were sheltering the older but smaller layer chicks under their wings like mama hens. At three weeks old, Marco Pollo was already giving them his chicken love, and they would shake exuberantly when he finished. It’s good that there were 12 of them among which to spread his passion.
Fear has been bred out of the Cornish Cross breed. Typically, even the chickens that know you won’t let you get too close. But the Cornish Crosses ran toward you, probably hoping for a snack.
Despite their gluttonous habits the meat-birds were sweethearts, and killing them was going to be a lot harder than killing Rusty was. But there wasn’t any choice. Cornish Cross birds aren’t genetically programmed to handle old age. Their fragile bones break, their joints dislocate, and their hearts stop as they get bigger. At least their lack of fear makes it easier when the time comes, to catch them. And at least they all look alike — bright white with big feet. Needless to say, they were not given names.
Since my farm days, I’ve referred to Gary Snyder’s poem “The Hudsonian Curlew” (from his collection Turtle Island), for butchering guidance:
“…a transverse cut just below the sternum/the forefinger and middle finger/forced in and up, following the/curve of the rib cage./then fingers arched, drawn slowly down and back,/forcing all the insides up and out,/toward the palm and heel of the hand./firm organs, well-placed, hot. save the liver; finally scouring back, toward the vent, the last of the large intestine. …”
If you already know a little about what you’re doing, these stanzas could be helpful. But despite my affection for the poem, there are irreconcilable differences between wild Hudsonian Curlews and Cornish Cross chickens. These days I use Herrick Kimball’s less elegant but more detailed advice at butcherachicken.blogspot.com. The site contains 10 illustrated chapters on slaughtering and cleaning chickens, including one on removing the uropygial oil gland at the base of the tail.
The image Kimball provides of his young son singing Bible camp songs while slitting chicken throats is a bit creepy. But in fairness, it’s rare to get through the process of “dressing out” a chicken without getting creeped out one way or another. And I think that’s OK. This business of eating dead animals is a messy affair. It should make you uncomfortable, because it’s a big deal. Which is why I believe all meat eaters should participate, at least once, in the real work of bringing it to the table.