It’s that time of the year again, folks: I got the early morning phone call from the Post Office announcing that the chicks that we had ordered had arrived and were ready for pick-up.
This year there were a few remarkable aspects. First, when I called to place my order, there was a striking lack of chickens left to order — apparently there is a surging demand for chicks, egg birds and meat birds. I I was interested in getting a few egg layers, but there were only a few varieties left. I ended up getting a rare type that lays chocolate brown eggs (“Cuckoo Maran”), which will complement our regular brown, white, and blue/green egg layers. We also got the last batch of the “Barbecue Special” meat birds in June.
Second, we order our birds from Murray McMurray, and they’re located in Webster City, Iowa and they ship their chicks out through the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. But, if you believe the network Evening News, the entire mid-west is underwater at the moment, especially all things Iowain. So the fact that our chicks arrived makes me feel quite lucky.
This year that early morning phone call came at FOUR fifteen in the Ay Em. Dude, I know I’m “Country” but even out here in the sticks there’s a limit, and that’s anytime before 5:00am. I mean, even 5:30am is considered early. But 4:15am is way outside the line.
Last, when I went to pick up the chick food in Belfast, I left with 100 lbs of organic chick crumble feed for $74…! Perhaps some of you don’t recognize what that means, but a few years ago we bought the same feed for $32 — and many of our chicken-raising neighbors thought we were crazy to pay that when the same amount of conventional feed would cost $16. How crazy are we now?
If you’d like to see how the “pros” do this for real, check out Marc’s recent Eats post.
On August 17th (basically two months, or eight weeks) we got together with our neighbors Liz and James (who raised half of the meat chicks for themselves) to process the lot of the meat blobs. We were afraid it might be too hot in mid-August, but we picked a very pleasant Sunday, and the red maple tree in front of our house provided plenty of shade.
Step 1: There Will Be Blood.
James “built” the first Killing Cones we used a few years ago after our first year processing chickens together and seeing almost every bird dislocate their wings in hysterical flapping after their throats were cut and then hung by their legs to bleed. We later learned that in a professional poultry slaughterhouse the birds are stuffed head first into a stainless steel cone that kept their wings tucked against their bodies. The heads dropped through the cones giving easy access to the necks, and the cones were positioned on a wall above blood collection basins to keep the mess to a minimum. The cost for wall-mounted stainless steel versions couldn’t be justified by our annual slaughter of 25 birds, so James fashioned a few out of cardboard. They worked well, but quickly needed some duct tape repairs as the bird’s feet scratched at the edges. These cardboard and duct tape versions actually lasted a few years. This year James tried putting a wooden version together and we tried it out. It worked well, but it seemed like the flexibility of the cardboard actually “hugged” the birds a bit better, preventing them from shifting around and getting a wing out before all the blood drained.
We all fell into self-assigned jobs, mostly based on preference. I grabbed the chickens out of their nearby “tractor” and carefully put them into a cone, then I cut their throats (carefully, to get both big veins) and let them bleed for about five minutes, until they “relaxed.” Then James pulled the chicken out of the cone and dunked it into 150°F water (too hot and the skin cooks; too cool and the feathers don’t come loose) for about two minutes, or until the wing feathers (hardest to pluck) can be pulled. Then he drains the water off the chicken and takes it over to Alison and Liz to pluck.
Step 2: Chill Out
After each chicken is plucked it is dunked into ice water to cook as quickly as possible. After all chickens are plucked, we clean up the slaughter stuff then break for lunch
You might think the evisceration step is the worst, but it goes by pretty quickly, and when you do it well it creates a beautiful looking ready-to-roast chicken. James and I default to yanking guts, while Alison and Liz further break down and package the resulting chicken meat. The tricks to evisceration are:
- Fully separate the crop from the neck — the crop is an intermediate storage sack for food from which it is steadily fed to the gizzard (for breakdown, or chewing since chicken don’t have teeth). It’s a loose membranous sac that’s stuck to the inside of their neck skin right above their collarbone. If you don’t separate this first, the esophogus will break when you pull it from behind with the rest of the guts, and you risk spilling gut juice (with all the gut bacteria) into your chicken.
- Cut clean around the “vent” (pooper) without nicking the rectum behind it — if you nick the rectum, you put poop in your nice clean chicken. It’s not the end of the world for us since the birds are put in the freezer less than 15 minutes later, and they will be cooked to a high temperature before being served, but it’s nice to know that *most* of your chickens are poop free, and if you’re careful, it’s not hard to do this.
- Pull all the guts together in one strong gesture — the liver most often breaks into pieces if you struggle with your grip on the guts, and as it breaks apart you risk opening the gall bladder and spilling bile on the fresh livers and/or chicken interior. Bile is not easy to wash off, and it begins dissolving meat and fats on contact, imparting a bitter flavor.
- Remember to remove the oil gland on top of the tail — this is what I always forget, but Alison always reminds me to do because she is a fan of the “Pope’s Nose” or that fatty knob the the tail feathers were attached to. The oil gland is where the bird gets the oil it uses to preen and care for its feathers, and if it’s not removed it adds a funky flavor to this otherwise succulent and prized bit of meat.
This year the cost of organic poultry feed skyrocketed from about $18 per 50 lb. bag to $30 a bag. Yeow! We paid $30 to mail order the chicks, then used 5 bags ($150) to grow what turned into 60 pounds of chicken meat in the freezer (which should easily last us a year), thus $3/lb. for pasture raised organic chicken. That is cheaper than the $5 to $6/lb. prices we see around Maine for the equivalent, but of course our cost doesn’t account for our labor which seems minimal (feed and water twice a day; nail together a brood space for the young chicks first four weeks; pull out the chicken tractor for the second four weeks; spend one day processing them). Plus, we know exactly what they ate and how they were processed. And they taste better than ANY chicken we’ve every been able to buy.