Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Eating Meat and Harvesting Hens

During my 10 year stint as a vegetarian, I believed that one shouldn't eat meat unless they could kill it themselves. Being a sensitive kind of gal, I thought that by avoiding flesh I had neatly solved the "eating sentient creatures" dilemma. That is until I found out what happens to unwanted male offspring of dairy animals and hens that don't lay eggs anymore. Without even meaning to and even as a non-meat eater, I was participating in the death of our feathered and furry friends.

So why didn't I become a vegan? Well that would mean giving up cheese. Maybe when hell freezes over that would happen as I come from a long line of Swiss dairy farmers and Dutch cheese eaters. We are cheese people, having subsisted off the stuff for centuries. My body is genetically conditioned to thrive on dairy products.

But aside from my heritage, veganism never appealed to me. It seemed too extreme and more than a little unnatural (sorry vegan friends). Humans and our Australopithecus ancestors have been omnivores for at least a couple million years. Our place in the food chain, though it has evolved from prey to predator over millions of years, has secured who we are today in the order of things. Scientists all agree that Homo Sapiens evolved into the cranium gigantors that we are today because of meat eating.

As we have moved away from slaughtering our own food in the last century, we as a culture have removed ourselves from facing the inescapable fate of all living creatures. Everything dies. It's not evil or bad. It just is. Death, by its very nature, is final and can be very violent. We need to own this instead of chasing our tails trying to avoid the inevitable. In the bigger picture, we should all just be glad that we don't live in the world of microorganisms because that is some fucked up, war zone type shit that is going on there.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against veganism. In a society of endless choices, veganism is one of our many options as to how we can eat in this world. Yay for diversity, I say. My problem is with vegangelicals (I just heard this word today and had to use it); those who are intolerant of any other diet other than a vegan one. I'm sorry, but that's just nuts. Who made you, vegangelical, the decider? Why do you have to be like a power-inebriated George W. waving your "I know what's best for the world" guns in the air?

Seriously, what's wrong with conscious meat eating? I'm against factory farming as much as the next vegan. I'm just not against meat per se. Vegans like to claim that meat eating is environmentally unsound and I won't argue with part of that premiss. Americans eat waaaaaay too much factory farmed, plastic wrapped, monoculture-subsidized everything. But my pastured, locally raised beef  where the entire animal is consumed is probably of less environmental consequence than your Creamy Sheese imported from Scotland. Just sayin'.

But I don't really want to enter into an argument about whose lifestyle is "better". I'd rather be an advocate for thoughtful meat consumption because I'm going to continue to choose to eat meat regardless of vegangelical proselytizing. My hope is that by raising our own animal products here at Itty Bitty that we can encourage other meat eaters to think more about where their meat comes from, how it was raised, what it was fed, how it was killed, etc. and come to make better choices based on this knowledge.

On that note, I'd like to share my experience from this past weekend of facing the realities of meat eating (WARNING: graphic photos to follow). The awesome folks over at Dog Island invited me to learn the ins and outs of chicken harvesting. Considering the botched job I did with my first kill, I felt the need to get a grip on how to do this with as little suffering as possible.

Folks have a lot of different ways to take out a chicken. Some take the hens by the head and whip them around like a lasso, breaking the neck. Others just twist and pull. Some sever the head, while others hang the bird upside down in a killing cone and cut the jugular. The French snip the vein under the tongue, which I hear makes the bird pass out immediately. We used two methods: the chopping block and the cone. I think I preferred the chopping block as it seemed more instantaneous. The cutting of the jugular left the animal a little too alert for a little too long for my taste. We used a noose around the neck with one person holding the string and the other person doing the deed. Here's a vague picture of the setup.

After the hen was dispatched, we dunked her into a pot of boiling water for 45 seconds. This helps with the removal of the feathers by loosening them. If you leave the bird in too long though, the skin will tear.

Next came the plucking. The bird was hung upside down over a trash bin to make the job clean and easy.

Even with the scalding, it's still hard to get all the feathers. Also chickens have hairs under their feathers. We took care of those with a blow torch.

Next we severed the feet from the rest of the leg at the joint.

Then it was time to deal with the insides. The tricky part is slicing the skin near the cloaca without cutting into the intestines. I highly recommend having a pro illustrate the proper way to do this as it is something difficult to convey in words and pictures.

After a large enough incision is made, you have to stick your hand up into the body cavity and pull everything out in one go. This can be difficult if you have a big hand. If you are one of the more well endowed in this area, you might want to consider finding a small handed friend. I have slender, but long hands for a lady and even I bruised my knuckles against the rib cage. That big thing in the upper right corner is the gizzard.

With the innards out, you still need to scrape out the lungs and get the heart. The lungs are a trippy fluorescent pink and difficult to pull out.

Once you get the back end cleared, you need to address the crop and trachea, which can only be taken out through the top of the bird. The crop is squishy and easy to puncture. Peeling it out rather than pulling gets the job done with less trouble. The trachea looks like a snorkel tube.

After the evisceration, we put the bodies in ice water where they would rest for a day before being stored in the freezer. This lets the body go through rigor mortis until it eventually relaxes within 24-48 hours.

This process certainly wasn't easy, but it has given me greater appreciation for the food I eat and has furthered me along my path of more conscientious meat consumption.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone


  1. Good for you again Heidi.....I agree, what is wrong with eating consciously all together? Too often we eat and don't even taste let alone appreciate where and how our food came to be on our plates.

    And I agree again...I was vegan for a few years a long while back....cheese rocks...and I will never give it up again!

  2. Wow. Thank you so much for showing your experience, and explaining your thoughts on meat and processing. One day I will attempt this myself. ..still have some thinking to do on it.

  3. People get so squeamish. I can remember sitting on the laundry trough watching my mum gut chickens. I learned lots about anatomy because she would tell me what was what. I keep thinking I could do it myself but haven't risen to the occasion yet. Thanks for the tip about the string to hold the head still. Last time I had to kill a sick chook I had trouble with my aim.

  4. I just absolutely LOVE this blog... you're doing a really incredible job here. I enjoy reading the thoughtfulness (and humor) behind your ideas and actions. Bravo! Well done!

  5. Oh, just one little correction, you want the scalding water between 140 and 180 deg. Boiling will cook your hen!

    Tom's famous! YAY!

  6. Fantastic post - thank you for sharing! I too was a vegetarian in a past life, but have rethought that. We will be getting meat chickens in the spring and I am excited to experience the whole process.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and knowledge & for a great blog post too...

  8. UGH! I can still smell the chicken feathers as I read this. We did have chickens and Grandma did butcher...but oh, I hated the process! I prefer to remain uninformed;-) mommy

  9. Thank you for posting this! I needed to read this today. I have been on, actually on the page about you trying to have a convo with a "vegangelical" (love that!). It's fruitless.

    Thank you also for this post as we have not yet made the step to butchering our own food yet. This post/pictures really helped me understand the process a bit more.

  10. You make some very good points and I agree. I think the real tragedy is the way animals are kept. Battery hens that sort of thing. They deserve a good life even if they do end up in the pot. For a really good read check out The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

  11. We, well Hubby, does our roosters and he and the son do pig and cow. He skins the chooks instead of plucking as he finds it easier. I don't think I could ever be the one doing the killing but I know our animals are well looked after before they feed us so that makes me feel a bit better about it all.


  12. Dispatching chickens doesn't get much easier over time, but I kind of prefer that because it reinforces that meat is a food of privilege rather than something abundant to take for granted. We've done eight chickens so far. Repurposed traffic cone, and we pith in order to debrain, before bleeding out, which makes dry-plucking possible, and for less involuntary twitching I might add.

    And thanks for bringing up our hominid ancestors, Heidi. I heard an interview w/ Meave Leakey about australopithecines being carnivores of opportunity, on NPR some years back (shoot, ten years?), and while it upset a lot of the callers who were convinced gathering is the way to go... meat is this source of concentrated calories that cannot be ignored. Even our closest relatives the chimps will hunt opportunistically. I was a vegetarian for about 5-7 yrs, and was not eating meat too often when I heard that interview. It just made things snap into place. There's a reason meat is this food of celebration, of occasion. There's room for everyone, IMHO.

    All I can say is I wish I'd seen a post like this when we dispatched the first one last fall. I was working with information from books, and until you've cut around a vent, and made that thin slit up to the breastbone to reach in and pull out everything in one go, it is daunting as hell. I have small hands and have knocked my knuckles on ribs, too, yowch.

    We've learned to dispatch as early in the day as possible, so the crop is empty, and the intestines are more empty because the bird's been pooping from the perch all night. Man it is smelly, otherwise.

  13. I like your post!! Once upon a time, I was vegan, and I was so sad as a vegan how closed off many vegans were towards meat eaters. Where was the LOVE?
    Eventually I became a carnivore, and then a year ago, I decided if I was going to eat meat, I must be able to kill it too. Since participating in this twice, I have decided, I CAN let someone else do it. I got what I really needed, the intense connection to my food and deeper understanding, appreciation, and gratitude for others who are doing it.

  14. Great post, that very much mirrors my feelings about eating meat. Death is part of life, and in nature very few animals die a peaceful death in old age. Almost everything is killed by a predator sooner or later, and much more painfully and violently than the way you and I do it.

    If you're going to be breaking your chickens down into cuts (breasts, thighs, drumsticks, wings), try cutting them up before gutting them. It makes it a whole lot easier!

    Once I've broken them down, I open the carcass up and clean out the guts etc. It's a lot easier when it's just the frame left. I also break the frame down into 2 or 3 pieces, which makes it really easy to cut off the neck, clean out the lungs, etc.

    The neck and frame goes in the stock-pot bowl (along with the cleaned gizzard and heart, and sometimes the feet), and I freeze the rest in pieces after a day of refrigeration. Pieces take up less space in the freezer than whole birds.

    Of course, if you want a whole bird for roasting or whatever, you have to do it the other way.

    Keep up the great writing!

  15. We are going to be getting some meat birds this fall, once it cools down a little, and I am really not looking forward to the killing part. I think I can do it, but I just won't know until I face it.
    Great thoughtful post.

  16. I couldnt agree with you more! It was exciting to find a like-minded individual. I have a huge bleeding heart for animals and am even a certified wildlife rehabilitator yet I am also a hunter. No one seems to understand how I can kill some animals when I spend so much time trying to save others. I always tell them that I dont want to be a vegitarian, but nor do I want to support the meat industry that raises animals in tiny cages and genetically engineers them to be exactly what we want them to be. I feel better knowing that the meat I eat came from an animal that was able to live a natural life. Thank you for the information about harvesting chickens, my husband and I are looking into getting a few for eggs and meat but we are new-comers to the animal husbandry buisness so we need all the help we can get!