Driving to the Walmart means I have to drive past a pasture or two which invariably elicits a shout of “Cows!” My 5 yr old never misses a chance to point them out. And what are cows good for I ask. “Steaks! Mmmmm…” she always replies. Smart kid. See, there aren’t any homeless cows. We might have homeless cats, dogs, and people, but we don’t have homeless cows. Or Chickens for that matter. Why? Because they taste good damnit. This is no small point really. I’ve been trying to define what’s a pet and what isn’t a lot lately because of those birds. Chickens don’t play catch, won’t fetch a ball or stick, can’t speak on demand, don’t protect the house at night, won’t curl up at your feet, etc, but people still grow attached to them. Maybe a pet is something that actually shows affection back. It probably just boils down to whether or not we spare their lives for companionship’s sake. Man hasn’t always had this luxury. Most of our history has been about gathering food, not coddling it. Consider that guinea pigs are still livestock to the Peruvians, same with frogs and turtles in China. Me, I knew what I was getting into when the original nine fluffballs came home. I was planning on raising them for eggs, then slaughter. You all should know that whoever raises these things will face that same quandry, so beware.
This is not a rite of passage. This is not about manhood. I’m not a bloodthirsty guy that likes killing things for the hell of it. I don’t deer hunt because I think if you kill it someone should eat it and I don’t like venison really. There was a time in my youth when I didn’t feel this way. My mother, not at all happy with my behavior, once remarked that when I died I’d meet every little critter I’d erased with my BB gun, right there at the gates. Sort of a Hitchcock purgatory with Squirrels running the ground assault as the Birds worked me over from the air but , try as I might, I can’t picture our chickens in that mix. No, this isn’t about bloodlust but about the origins of sustenance. While some choose to believe chicken and steaks are grown in Styrofoam trays I feel an obligation to prove I’m worthy of the meal they died for. I’ve grown much of my own vegetables and things for that same reason (well, that and nothing compares to a homegrown tomato). For some reason I just think we need to understand the effort involved to appreciate the meal. It might sound like new-agey BS but for a hardcore foodie like myself there IS a weird spiritual connection to food.
So fifteen months after the whole backyard chicken experiment began I found myself with just two remaining, my prized French hens. My in-laws are preparing to move to California and my wife wants nothing to do with cleaning the coop. She’s too afraid of salmonella to let our little girls do it either and since I’m not home every day… As much as I’d like to keep them I have to accept I have a six month old baby in the house and the wife has her hands full. Coq and Vin must go, pet vs. livestock question be damned. Its put up or shut up time and the wife doesn’t think I have the balls to do it. She knows how I love animals. Up to this point the father in-law has dispatched them all and I still haven’t learned how to do it properly much less see him do it. The hens got one last month of reprieve until I arrived home last week and by then they’d already walked the green mile. Coq and Vin were there in a cage next to the house, the coop was gone and vegetables were already growing in the now fertile soil. I wondered if I should say goodbye to them…
How to kill and clean a Chicken, or, Mom, stop reading HERE
Commercial slaughterhouses like Tyson are a creepy operation when seen from the inside. Obese chickens cascade down a ramp into the skilled hands of masked and gowned workers, orange lights bathe the room in a halloweenish glow while one by one the birds are hung from their feet on an overhead conveyor. Dark keeps birds calm so there isn’t much of a struggle but the time from being upended and hung to the time they reach the electrified water bath must be a few minutes. I can’t imagine it’s a peaceful few minutes either. From there they’re off to a boiling bath that includes a mild solution of Sulfuric Acid to kill bacteria and ease the feather removal. The rest is really more of an Upton Sinclair thing so I’ll drop it. Me, I liked these two so I went to a bit of trouble trying to find the most humane way of killing them. Electricity was out of the question and probably in the pockee-lipse you won’t have any. We’re all familiar with the “hatchet and stump” cartoon style but I couldn’t figure out how to secure their necks without unnecessarily scaring the shit out of them. My father in-law insisted that was not just difficult but messy as hell. What follows is how he taught me to do it. It’s not only the easiest and cleanest way but it seemed the least stressful for the bird. The Chinese have used this method for millennia.
You will need a very sharp knife, a bowl, and a pot of boiling water big enough to submerge the bird.
1: The hold
Bird in hand, pull the wings over the bird’s back and hold them near the base between your middle and ring finger (think Vulcan salute). Take one of the legs and, stretching it back toward the tail, hook it between your pinkie and ring fingers. The chicken will not only be immobilized but at this point seems to relax. Finally, grasp the neck behind the head and pull the head to where you can hold the neck still with your index finger and thumb. Done correctly this entire sequence takes less than 10 seconds and the bird will not be struggling.
2: The kill
Quickly pluck a pinch of feathers from the neck about 2 inches below the head, right where the neck will be bent. With the skin exposed make a quick deep cut to the bone and using both hands to hold the bird, aim the neck over the bowl. The bird will bleed out in about 30 seconds but “fall asleep” in the process much sooner than that. There will be no struggle, no kicking, no squawking. Continue to drain for about a minute then go get the boiling water. Done properly, the grab, hold and kill won’t take more than 2 minutes. If done in a dim light setting the bird will be far less stressed than the ones I saw in the factory and will be done in half the time. As humane death goes, this is about the best you can ask for unless you have a contraption for beheading the birds and can do it in less than a minute.
3: The Dunk
Boiling water serves two purposes: sanitation and feather removal. Dip the bird head first into the water and immerse the entire body, including feet, for about a minute. Once removed, let cool enough to touch and begin defeathering. You won’t believe how easily they come out, they’ll almost rub off in areas. Pin feathers are best removed by pulling along a lateral plane (straight out). Remove all the feathers and put on a work table.
With the carcass on its back, make a cut one inch below the bottom of the ribs just deep enough to open the belly and remove the organs being careful not to cut or rupture the intestines. Yes, you’ll find eggs (they’ll all be yolks). Once cleaned out, continue the original cut to the spine and remove the ass end of the bird. Remove the feet. Remove the head at the place where you cut the throat. For the craw, make a cut just deep enough to get through the skin and fascia at the bottom of the neck and slice up the length of the neck a couple inches. Reach in and you’ll find it looking like a grey bag. Carefully remove both the craw and as much of the windpipe as you can grab. Immediately wash the bird and bag for the freezer. If you had ANY hint there might have been salmonella in your flock, use a capful of bleach per gallon of water when washing and rinse well.
Start to finish, from grabbing the bird to cleaned carcass, took me less than 15 minutes. With practice I bet I could do it in less than 10, easy. I even got to say goodbye. My middle kid caught me doing the final cleaning in the sink btw. Leaning over the counter she got a real serious face and asked me where they’d come from. She asks ”are they from the store or did we grow them?” I answer we grew them. her response? “neat. but they’re funny looking” and off she went laughing.
Coq and Vin
Rest in Peas
Speaking of peas, have you ever tried Chicken Vesuvio? Although I love Coq au Vin and one of the birds will surely make its final appearance as such, I’ll give you a recipe for a true Chicago original.
- 1 chicken, about 3 pounds, quartered
- 2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 2 cups canola or olive oil, for frying
- 10 medium Red potatoes, cut in half
- 1 HEAD plus 2 cloves of garlic separated, peeled and minced/mashed
- 1/4 cup fresh GREEK oregano
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 4 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
- 1 cup frozen peas
The night before you intend to make this, marinade the chicken. Combine 1 whole head of garlic and ½ cup of olive oil.. Toss bird in mixture, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
Remove chicken from marinade and wipe the garlic from the bird, then season with salt and pepper. Heat 1/3-cup olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, carefully place chicken in pan using tongs. Breasts and thighs first, then the rest. Brown well on all sides, remove chicken from pan. Pour off all but a few tablespoons of oil. Return chicken to skillet and place uncovered in preheated oven for 25 minutes, turning chicken once or twice.
Heat 2 cups of canola oil to 350 degrees F.
While chicken is cooking have potatoes peeled, wedged, rinsed and dry. Carefully add wedges into hot oil, but avoid crowding. Fry potatoes until golden and remove and let drain on paper towel and reserve for later.
For the last 5 minutes of cooking for the chicken, add the cooked potatoes, peas, garlic, oregano and wine to skillet, return to oven. Remove skillet from oven to stove top after the 5 minutes, add parsley and gently turn with a spoon. Remove chicken to a large platter, arrange potatoes atop the chicken and pour the pan juices over all.