A few months ago, I wrote a blog about how I had never cut up a whole chicken. When I was in college and I wanted to cook chicken, I bought boneless, skinless chicken breast. I couldn’t de-bone something to save my life. My husband took our whole chickens we had butchered — and that he had plucked and skinned and made into a pretty little package for me — to learn how to cut up a chicken himself.
So yesterday I went to "whole chicken cutting-up grad school;" I helped my hubby butcher. We had three roosters all just coming into their breeding, crowing, beating-up-hens-and-each-other phase, and some of the girls were starting to look a little ragged. Actually, a lot ragged. One of them even has a gash the size of a nickel on her back that is deep enough to see muscle and fat. So we decided it was time for two of the guys to go to freezer camp. Because we want it to be as humane as possible, my husband shoots them in the head with a shotgun. There’s no question that they are dead. Two of the roosters were the same age and about the same build. The third was a few weeks younger and was caught up in heft. All three are chicks we hatched from our hens.
I have been present when my husband butchered in the past, and I helped my parents years and years ago with plucking. But my homesteading confession is that I haven’t ever done all of the butchery on my own. So I told my husband yesterday that I wanted to learn how. It seems important to be as connected to the whole process as possible. And after my very first whole butchering experience, I have some tips and pointers for anyone trying to learn how.
Rule #1 of Butchering: Keep your mouth closed. This isn’t some rule about how the person showing you how is your teacher and you just silently do as they say. No, this is a rule aimed at your well-being. See, I didn’t know this rule when I started, so as I was plucking some abdominal feathers to get started and yammering away at my husband about something pretty inconsequential, the wind kicked up and I ended up with feathers in my mouth. That about derailed the whole thing for me. I’m not squeamish; my job makes being grossed-out impossible. So it wasn’t that I was about to vomit, I just couldn’t do anything about it. My hands had feathers and blood on them, so I was stuck with feathers in my mouth — at least for a couple of minutes while I rinsed my hands, trying the whole time to spit them out. So yeah, maybe save a story about work for another time and keep your mouth shut.
What else did I learn yesterday? Keep anything you are planning on saving out of reach of the other chickens. As disturbing as it may sound to someone who has never met the little dinosaurs in our backyard, there is nothing they like more than the leftovers from a former coopmate. I have personally witnessed the hen that is usually the most beat-up by the rooster lining up first to run away with his testicles to eat. We weren’t planning on keeping the testicles, but we did want the heart, liver, and kidneys. I was so focused on the butchery itself and not messing it up that it wasn’t until I saw one of our hens hauling-butt away with a kidney that I realized my organs were walking off. Thief!
In addition to your chickens volunteering to assist, your housecats will probably also be helpful. I had the carcass in a large pot of cold water to chill and loosen up, and was rinsing the organs the chickens had not managed to steal, when one of the housecats decided that waiting was for the birds. He jumped on the counter and grabbed a heart. That I managed to save, as he got lazy in his escape and decided to sit down instead of the obvious getaway. So I wrestled that away from him, washed it off, and proceeded with cleaning up the bird. I’m pretty sure if the animals had their way, the humans would live off of gruel and moldy bread crusts so they could have the finest vittles.
Today, the chicken stock is cooking down on the stove and the meat is being divided into meal size portions, vacuum sealed, and frozen. And while I sit here and write, I am reflective. I’m not the only one who is amazed at my growth on this little farm. My husband said that if two years ago I had told him I was going to do the butchery work, he wouldn’t have believed it. The first time we butchered a chicken for meat here, I cried. And I still get a little teary-eyed each time we do this. But I’m not ashamed of that; we raise these birds from hatching and they spend a significant amount of time in my lap. So I can feel sad. I’m also grateful that we can do this — that we can put food on our table knowing that the animal sustaining us lived a happy life. As they say: They have one bad day.