*Disclaimer: some images in this post may be considered slightly graphic in nature. I have chosen to present those images as thumbnails. Click to reveal a full-sized version. This post is an entry for Project Food Blog Challenge #4 which asks contestants to create an instructional photo tutorial. If you like it, vote using the Project Food Blog contestant widget in my right sidebar (scroll down) from 10/11-10/14.
As bloggers we have, at the minimum, a social responsibility, and, some argue, a journalistic one also. Because of that, I inject a modicum of meaning into every wacky post I conjure. A how-to tutorial is a perfect place to make a difference, and I hope you take these words and pictures in the spirit in which they were intended. While this post is a departure from my molecular madness, I hope it becomes apparent that it’s all interconnected; after all, we need the raw materials before we can manipulate them in clever ways.
A brief history of why (sorry if you’ve heard this before, I’ll be quick): I was a vegetarian for over 20 years as a result of a traumatic experience as a child. My father bought me a calf one summer. I named him Slobber. I bottle-fed that wet-nosed gangle of awkwardness through his youth and we became best friends. Slobber had the run of our fenced acreage, but for me that wasn’t enough. I fashioned a leash for him from the ones we had for the dogs, and proudly walked him through the front yard, down the street, even to the neighbor’s house. I fed him the choicest scraps from my own plate and invented an imaginary world in which we were BMX racers, astronauts, or ice-cream vendors depending on the day.
At the end of the summer I went to stay with my grandparents for two weeks and when I came home, there was a hamburger on my plate. My dad asked me if I knew where it came from. The store? I answered, cautiously. No, we killed your cow so we would have meat for the winter. This was the first I had heard about eating our livestock; to me it was tantamount to cannibalism. Initially it catapulted me into my room in tears, and ultimately I made a stoic resolve never to eat a living creature. Nearly 30 years and a gradual return to omnivorism later, I look back at that as a missed educational opportunity. I should have been raising Slobber lovingly, but with the knowledge of why I was doing so.
Now I know firsthand that an animal raised with utmost care and then slaughtered to be eaten by reverential people is a vital thing. It took many years to get to this place, however, and I don’t want it to be the same for my child, which is why I try to get him involved in the process even at the tender age of two. It is imperative that we know where our food comes from. Yes, this is a trend among us who preach to the choir, so forgive me for beating a dead horse, but farm-to-table should not be a trend, it should be a given. With that in mind, I am going to show you how a chicken raised on organic feed and grass from a top-notch sustainable chicken farm in Washington- Stokesberry- leaves the field and lands on your plate.
Once the chickens are old enough, they are taken to the pasture and are corralled in what are called “chicken tractors.” These are essentially 10x12’ floorless enclosures made from chicken-wire, wood and siding. Every day, the chicken tractors get moved 10 feet to a new plot of grass. This is beneficial for several reasons. First, the chickens have fresh grass (and as much organic grain as they want) both to feed on, and to fertilize with their waste, thus creating a viable pasture for cycles to come. Next, the tractors protect the chickens from coyotes, raccoons and other predators. Thirdly, because the tractors are not cramped, the chickens have plenty of room to roam within, yet not so much that they grow too lean and muscular, which is why chefs and consumers started taking issue with 100% free-range birds.
Compared to a typical concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) where chickens are stacked a hundred deep and sometimes three high and never see the light of day, small-scale chicken tractors are palaces. (However Janelle and Jerry Stokesberry liken their chickens to urban apartment-dwellers. There’s plenty of space but it’s not McMansion-style living since that’s not a practical way to raise chickens- or people for that matter.) It is important to note that Stokesberry Farm is Janelle and Jerry’s livelihood. While they started the farm because they believed in providing healthy food to the community in a way that also fosters positive growth for the earth and people, they are not Pollyanna about what it means to run a business. Their practices have to be streamlined and efficient while at the same time being mindful of good ecology. The concept of the chicken tractor is a great example of that because it is both humane and economically-feasible. Prior to the chickens being tractored in a particular pasture, cows are brought in to “pre-mow” the grass in order to achieve optimal height for the chickens, which drives home just how cyclically-sustainable this concept is. Incidentally, the chicken tractor was pioneered by Joel Salatin. You can read about his working farm and more on chicken tractors here.
Stokesberry farm grows mostly Cornish Cross birds, and they are typically ready for butcher within eight to twelve weeks. The farm sells to local restaurants, butchers, and also at farmer’s markets. Restaurant chefs order birds with precise weights, so on the day of slaughter, Jon, the farm’s right-hand man, gathers birds from the tractors and weighs them. Assuming they lose roughly 30% of their weight when they are dressed out, Jon is mindful to select birds accordingly.
After the birds are weighed, Jon cages them and brings them to Jerry, who operates the kill station. The kill station consists of three main areas: chicken slaughter funnels, a scalder, and a plucker. The slaughter funnels are conical with head-sized holes in the bottom. The chicken is placed upside-down in the funnel so that just the head peeks out-thus providing easy access to the jugular. There are several sizes of funnels, depending on the girth of the bird being slaughtered.
It is worth mentioning that the vast majority of chickens produced in the US are killed by a machine. By removing the individual from the “dirty-work” aspect of the process, machine-killing also creates a disconnect from the accountability associated with taking a life. Because of this, we often forget that our meat was a living creature at one point, which can lead to over-consumption. Medium-scale farms like Stokesberry that still shoulder the burden of responsibility for their animals inspire their patrons to appreciate the valuable service they provide. If you can’t kill it you have no business eating it, which is why I jumped in and helped Jerry at the kill station, and later helped Janelle process the freshly-plucked birds. (I personally killed 12 birds of the near-100 we processed that day.)
Once the birds were upside-down in the funnel, we used a sharp knife to make a clean, deliberate slice across the jugular vein. It is quick and painless, I am told.
The birds bled out for several minutes, and then we moved them to the scalder. The purpose of scalding is to loosen the skin so the feathers will come out in the plucker. The ideal temperature to scald a chicken depends on the size and the skin thickness, but Jerry tends to make sure the water is between 145-150°F.
We hung several chickens by their feet from the dipping wand, then plunged them into the water all-the-while agitating them for 20-25 seconds (Jerry counts his seconds in “hippopotamuses” which I find endearing).
Plucking is perhaps the single easiest aspect of the slaughter process if you have a fancy plucking barrel, but the hardest if you have to do it by hand (like I did with these turkeys last year). We simply tossed the chickens (a few at a time) into the plucker, turned it on, counted 15 or 20 hippopotamuses, and all the feathers were gone, save for a few tail-feathers, which we took care of with pliers. Right after plucking, the head must be removed, which I found a little tricky, but got the hang of after I had done a dozen birds. You grab the legs with one hand and the head with the other, then stretch them apart while twisting the head upward, which causes it to snap free of the body.
At this point the birds get passed inside to a room which adheres to a strict code of sterility. When I helped Janelle with the gutting I had to wear a hairnet and a special suit.
Different gutters do things different ways, but Janelle’s way made a lot of sense to me, especially compared to how I had done it in the past (which took 10 times as long). First she removes the feet at the ankle joint with a boning knife.
Next she cuts off the neck with a cleaver and uses pliers to pull out any remaining feathers. Then, she opens the cavity by cutting an incision around the anus of the bird and removing the scent gland. Next, she pulls out the entrails and gizzard, and finally the organs. The lungs are tricky- they stick to the ribcage and you have to sort of dig to get them loose. None of this goes to waste. They sell feet, necks, and heads to anyone who wants them, including private individuals who make stock or pet food. If something doesn’t get sold, it gets composted in their state-of-the-art compost pile. I know it’s odd to think of compost as state-of-the-art, but the Stokesberrys have it down to a science and it works like a well-oiled machine.
After the birds are processed, they go into a cold water bath, where they stay overnight. This is because by law, within 4 hours the chickens must be cooled to below 40°F.
I fear I have waxed too-verbose to explain the next steps of what to do with a chicken, but most of you reading this have probably roasted, barbecued, boned, sous vided, or grilled a chicken before, no? Three things are worth mentioning regarding post-gutting should you ever wish to bring a chicken from field to feast. The first is that rigor mortis sets in within a few hours after a bird is killed and you do not want to eat a chicken in rigor mortis. It makes it tough and gamey. The solution? Wait 24-48 hours, or until the legs move freely. This ties in nicely with my next tip- brine your bird. You’ve heard it before, but it really is imperative for succulent meat. You can do it during rigor mortis. I use a 5% salt/water ratio and I like to add sage, thyme, garlic and lemon to my brine. If you are going to roast the chicken, be sure to remove it from the brine, pat it as dry as you can, then let it dry further on a rack in the refrigerator. That way you will have perfectly crisp skin to go with your perfectly tender, personally-butchered chicken.