My first butcher day. It is a strange milestone to achieve, never having killed anything more than a bug. We had one Barred Rock rooster and three guineas chosen for the day, having rounded them up the night before. The rooster is one that we had raised from a day old chick and had grown into a mean, abusive bird; mean to us and abusive to his chicken lady friends, scratching all their feathers off of their backs. He had to go.
An old guy at the farm store told us that if you separate the rooster for a couple of weeks and feed him as much as he will eat, he will be more tender, as his stress and testosterone levels will be reduced being apart from the flock. So that is what we did. By Butcher Day, the rooster had been by himself in the shop for three weeks, eating and eating and eating. And he was still trying to eat your face off if you went near him. Lord how I hated that stupid rooster.
My loyal friend Sue was the impetus to actually getting this done. I don't think I would have had the nerve to ever do it if it weren't for her desire to learn right along with me. The little girls and I rode out to Sue's house in the old beater farm truck, four birds in two cages riding along in back, oblivious to their fate. We stopped at a gas station along the way, and I wondered if the people around me knew what I was about to do, or were just curious as to why the crazy lady in overalls was carting around a bunch of noisy birds. Perhaps they weren't paying attention at all, and it was just my own guilty conscience yelling at me.
We rolled up to Sue's place, the girls in the back of the truck unsure of how this was going to unfold. They wanted to go and I wanted them there, to learn that if a person eats meat, something has to pay for it with their life. It is an unpleasant truth when you are an omnivore, and I truly feel that when human beings are removed from that fact that there becomes a great disconnect from the world, a mental deficiency created in understanding the process of where meat comes from. It doesn't just magically appear in the grocery stores, wrapped in a tidy plastic package from The Meat Fairy. I believe everyone who eats meat should witness this process at least once, if for no other reason than to gain some long forgotton respect for the animals that die so that we can eat. For most of us city folk, watching something be killed, actually bleeding and dying in front of us, is ugly and uncomfortable, something that we do NOT want to admit has taken place every time we eat meat. It may sound stupid, but it is true. It is a fact that at some point in our American history of convenience, truth and respect for life have been discarded, as easily as we now throw out a McDonald's hamburger wrapper.
We had gone to Sue's because her husband has butchered many animals in his day, and we needed someone to show us what the heck to do. Sue and I had discussed this for months, and I had put it off for months. She wanted to use the stump/ax method, while I wanted to do the killing cones/razor blade method. We decided that we would use a stump, prepared with two nails by Sue. Cully had sharpened the ax and Sue had her whole set up ready to go by the time we got to her place. Sue had grown up Mennonite, with her mother's side being Amish, so she remembered chickens being butchered from when she was a kid. I was just hoping those memories would serve us, and the birds, well.
Sue hopped up into the back of the truck and got the rooster out of his cage, grabbing him and holding his head tucked under her arm to keep him calm. We walked out to the clearing where her garden is, and there was The Stump. I felt like I was approaching the beheading of one of King Henry's wives. Beheading? What was I doing???? It was a bit surreal, I must admit.
Sue moved quickly and got the rooster's head down onto the chopping block, between the nails which were, much to our dismay, too far apart to hold his head in place. She held his neck down with one hand and I secured his feet with blank minded determintation, having no idea how to have this experience. I didn't want to disappoint Sue, let her down, or freak out and let go of that rooster. She struck the first blow with her ax, and it did not cut his head off. IT DIDN'T WORK. She struck again, and at this point we were all frantic that the first strike hadn't done the job. I saw that the rooster's eyes were closed, and I felt a grim disgust at the entire process. The third blow sent his head to the ground, and Sue held him upside down in the iron supports that she had prepared, but were again too far apart to hold his body. She held him there to bleed out, but it seemed that all his blood covered the two of us, and he bled very little into the bucket. My eleven year old was crying, in shock really at what she had seen, and very upset because he wasn't beheaded on the first blow. We assured her that although his head hadn't been removed, that strike was surely hard enough to have severed his spinal column so that he didn't feel any pain. At least that is what we were telling ourselves. Not surprisingly, killing something is supremely brutal. We were all shocked that we had actually done it.
We took the rooster to the kitchen where Sue had set up a giant pot of boiling water and she scalded the bird. We went to the deck and plucked him, which was really very easy. I had read all these stories about how plucking the chicken was the worst part, it took forever and was really difficult. It isn't. Yet another lesson learned. After plucking we went back to the kitchen, where Sue's huband did the cleaning while we watched. Once the head and feathers are off it pretty much looks like any whole chicken you get from the store, so cleaning it really didn't bother me. I've cut up many whole birds in my lifetime, so this was a breeze. And a great anatomy lesson for the girls, as well.
After we got the rooster in the fridge we decided that the stump method was horrifying, and we spotted some old vinegar jugs hanging in one of the outbuildings. I cut the bottom and the necks off the jugs to use them as killing cones. After hammering three vinegar jugs to as many trees, Sue got the first guinea. She is a darned fine bird catcher, by the way. I put him down into the cone and cut his throat with a box cutter. The warm blood sprayed all over me, and the girls were afraid I had cut myself. It wasn't my blood, though; it was the blood of the first animal I have ever killed in my life, all over my hands and clothes. I still can't really say how I feel about that. Wrong, and yet right. Sad, and yet satisfied at knowing that I could actually do it. Guilty, and yet calm about dispatching the bird quickly. Having grown up as a kid who loved animals, as an adult who picks up every stray I come across, a woman who loves animals more than humans, it is a very strange thing to kill for food. And yet, I felt this is something I NEEDED to do, something I wanted to learn. I feel a responsibity because my family does eat meat, I feel that if we are going to eat animals well then we need to be a part of claiming that life. People have become detatched from the cycle of hunting and gathering, and I truly feel that that fact is ruining our souls.
We butchered the last two guineas, plucking them and cleaning them faster each time. By the end of four birds, we were are mentally exhausted. I don't think we could have done more than four that day. I left a guinea for Sue and took the two other guineas and the rooster home for us to eat. I left them in the fridge for two days, to let rigor mortis come and go before putting the guineas in the freezer and cooking the rooster.
I had read and read about stewing laying hens, and that usually around three years old they slow down on egg production and that is when many people butcher them. The rooster was only one year old, so he was young, right???!!!
I got the bird seasoned and put it in the roasting pan. Cooked it; it looked beautiful. After cooling a bit, I began to carve the bird for dinner. The skin was as tough as leather. Well, I think, I have never eaten a home raised bird before, maybe they are tougher than store bought birds. I get the thing carved up and we sit down to eat. NO ONE COULD BITE THROUGH IT. It was as tough as solid rubber, and I am not kidding. The breast meat was super juicy and less tough, but still was like eating something weird and foreign; the texture was just wrong. I told my family that we were going to eat it anyway, that this bird was not going to have died for nothing. But we literally could not chew it. I was furious. I had killed this thing, and we couldn't even eat it.
I buried the remains of the bird out by my garden where he at least could eventually improve the soil for future food production there. I have learned that one year old is still WAY too old, and that six months is the longest you want to wait if you plan on having anything other than stew pot chicken. I still haven't cooked the guineas, I'm too scared to do it. Sue cooked hers, and said it was "okay". I didn't kill these birds to produce "okay" meat. I am full of regret to have killed those four brids, knowing what I know now. They were too old. Valuable lesson to have learned.
It took me a long time to get around to writing this story, mostly because I really didn't want to recount that day. I don't know if I will ever do it again. If I lived alone, I would be a vegetarian. Meat just isn't important to me. It is to my family, though, and they are why I do what I do. So, I suppose a batch of meat birds is in my future, and I will be having more butcher days. I will get better at it, and it will be less traumatic for the birds and the kids. But not for me. Killing is not in my nature, but I will do what I have to do to keep my family fed. Keeping my family safe and fed; that is the reason behind my drive to learn all of this.
I do know that the birds I killed that day lived better lives, and had better deaths, than birds from commerical operations. If we are going to eat meat that is the least we can do.
Yet another day that proves no matter how much you read, experience is the ONLY teacher worth having. If you really want to learn how to do something, you must simply get out there and DO IT. This was a difficult lesson for my girls and for me, but I truly believe it was a lesson worth learning: a lesson that will serve us well in the future at our little homestead in the country.