Something pretty intense happened over here recently, and if you are a vegetarian / vegan / animal lover, please forgo this post and let your opinion of us remain untarnished. But seriously guys… whoa. We ate our first chicken. Whoa again.
Please meet the dearly departed chicken. It’s still weird to look at this picture and realize she’s not running around the coop in the backyard.
We always knew it was an inevitability that we would start eating the chickens when their egg production went down, and this little hen in particular was sort of always tapped to be the first to go. Unfortunately, she seemed to have a bad habit of going broody and was never a great layer in any case. “Going broody” occurs when a hen becomes convinced she is hatching a bunch of adorable baby chicks underneath her and refuses to leave the nest to eat, drink water, or be productive. Broody hens without fertilized eggs can starve to death… so this is a fairly serious condition that has to be dealt with in a number of aggressive ways. Blaise had cured her of being broody twice already, and on her third bout, we were starting to become pretty frustrated and more and more convinced she was going to head to the chopping block sooner rather than later. Fortunately, she stopped being broody and was allowed to peck around the yard a few more months. However, she was also a sort of “bad attitude” type of gal, and had another bad habit of harassing the younger chickens and picking squabbles with some of the adults. Ugh.
A few weeks ago, Blaise noticed that this chicken had begun to molt. Molting, as many of you may guess, occurs when chickens lose their feathers and, for a time, stop laying eggs. After molting occurs, chickens may or may not start laying again, but they are never quite as prolific as they once were.
It was time.
At first I was filled with a sort of macabre fascination with the whole butchering process, although as with any death-situation, there is always the forethought and emotional preparation beforehand and then the actuality of dealing with the situation once it occurs. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was really going to react when she was dead, so I was honestly a little nervous.
We invited my brother over to share in the event (he had expressed some interest in the process), and we waited until he arrived to do the deed. Since Blaise had committed to wringing her neck, I needed someone to hold onto! Turns out, when Blaise had the hen in his hands, I bolted inside and made loud squealing noises while I heard the squabbling outside. Real mature, Cal. Nice work.
The death took a little longer than I had anticipated. It was sort of hard to watch, really. I had ventured outside by this point and was a little taken aback by her twitching. I know she was dead, but this post-mortem was a little… graphic.
A quick side note: Blaise – and most specifically, his father – are birders and are fairly accustomed to wringing necks of birds and skinning / de-feathering / etc. those of the aviary persuasion. A lot of my family hunts as well, and I am a supporter of ethical hunting although I do not do it myself. I know some of you may disagree, but let’s all realize that everyone’s opinions differ and be respectful and understanding of each other, okay? Deal.
Blaise’s Dad lives next door to us, so Blaise ventured over to ask for a quick word of advice on skinning the bird, and surprisingly, his Dad headed straight back with him to show us how it was done. He was extremely efficient at disassembling the bird and once again, I stood there wide-eyed and by this time was a bit more fascinated by the whole thing. It reminded me a lot of dissecting fetal pigs in high school, to be honest. “This is the heart, this is the liver,” etc.
Blaise had prepared a quick brine solution inside, so we let her sit in a combination of salt water, cloves, citrus, and other spices for a time before we cooked her in a Dutch oven.
Sort of gross. Sort of really fascinating.
While the bird was baking, we fried up the giblets with some onions and served them atop homemade tortilla chips as a little appetizer.
The finished product was fairly good, although she was an older bird, so she wasn’t as tender as the silly things you get at the market. We fried up some mashed potato pancakes and served the chicken atop those, and ate our feast by the fire outside. We (well, I) felt rather ceremonious about the occasion, and there was a bit of pomp and circumstance involved in the dinner.
In hindsight, I had a strange sense of satisfaction and guilt about the whole thing. I woke up the next morning feeling awfully strange that I had one of my darling chickens in my belly, and that instead of 16 hens running around outside, there were only 15.
However, I have to strongly state that owning backyard chickens comes with an ethical obligation to be responsible for their healthy life and death. Chickens aren’t like cats and dogs (although with those you also must be ethical and thoughtful about their life cycle), and they aren’t cuddly pets that you keep as companions. Our chickens are kept for their eggs, and when they are no longer laying, we have to be practical about whether or not to keep them around.
Furthermore, although I was vegetarian myself for about seven years (a lazy vegetarian, truly, but a vegetarian nonetheless), I have always supported being aware and responsible about where your food comes from – especially your meat. We know each thing this chicken consumed during her life, we know that she was well treated, that she died a respectful death, and that we were responsible in the whole process.
And that, my friends, is the tale of our first chicken dinner. It certainly won’t be the last, but at least we’ve gotten over the hump of finally doing it and hopefully it won’t be so fraught with emotion in the future. Surely I’ll have more thoughts about the experience as time goes on — I already have so many — so we’ll see how it goes.