Monday, March 30, 2009

Butchering Time (May 15th, 2007) Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Fine – I admit it. I live in Hypocrisy, just up the road from Denial and Materialism. I enjoy eating chicken. I just don’t like to kill them. But I am consistent. I wear leather from animals I did not hunt, I eat food from fields I did not tend, and I live in a house I did not build. I’ve tried to do all of those things and found I just don’t like them.

Very few people keep chickens for pets. I have found that chickens just don’t respond that well to affection. People generally raise chickens for three reasons: The eggs, the show (4-H) or the meat. On our little farm we’ve done all three.

I like the eggs – ask anyone who’s had farm fresh eggs and they’ll tell you there is nothing better. I have even enjoyed the poultry barn at the Scott County Fair - although only for a few minutes. But to be involved in the butchering process of chickens is an experience best left to anyone else but me. Oh I’ve done it – I just can’t recommend it.

When you process your own chickens its best to wear disposable clothing (including shoes, gloves, goggles and hats) because it will be the last time you will want to touch them. You also have to be careful that you don’t burn the barn down when you build a fire to heat the water. The water is used to loosen the feathers so that they come off with minimal effort. You have to be careful you don’t heat the water too much or dip the chickens too long or scalding will occur (the skin falls off). Its not exactly water-boarding, but the chickens are dead before they hit the water anyway.

Not all the chickens in the coop are taken the same day. In matters such as these I leave the selection of the condemned to my wife. To demonstrate some compassion I threw the chickens some extra grain for their last meal. As I chased the birds around the barn yard with a large net I sang that old blues tune “There ain’t nobody here but us chickens.” This was meant to calm them, but instead it only annoyed them.

I had learned to do this unspeakable task as a child. One year my father decided it would be a good idea to butcher some chickens. The fact that we lived in town did not slow him down. It was the job of my brother and me to sit on the metal tub while the head-less chicken flopped around. We, being curious young boys, would always have to take at least one peek before the noise subsided. It was there on Church St. in 1966 when we learned first hand what it meant to “run around like a chicken with its head cut off.” “Catch it,” my father yelled to us. But watching the chicken run without its head froze us with fear. The job of catching the running dead fell to my Dad, who chased the chicken while holding an axe in his hand. The memory still terrifies me.

The fire had been heating the black cauldron for about twenty minutes and the water was just beginning to boil. I let it cool a bit. As I readied myself for the ending of a chicken’s life I thought how little has changed in hundreds of years. We still heat the water like they did in Macbeth, we still cut the chickens heads off with a sharp knife and we still let gravity assist in the process. The only modern convenience used is a plucking machine that, if you’re not careful, will rip the bird right from your hands and fling it into the neighbor’s yard.

I brought the lifeless birds to my wife for the final cutting process. I then slipped off my stained clothing and threw them in the fire. I was done.

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