It was a beautiful Saturday morning in Phoenix, the kind of morning when posh couples with Suri-like children sip espresso at La Grande Orange and the fit triathletes of Phoenix have been up for hours enjoying the weather and getting in their weekly miles.
I was at Boho Farm and Home in Arcadia with Caroline Van Slyke, her husband David, his brother in law and a Scottish terrier . . . "processing" chickens. As a pet-chicken owner with several generations of farming in my background, I wanted to see if I could be a part of the process, er, processing, and learn something new. Ever since Van Slyke's son told me about sending the chickens to "freezer camp," I was curious about how slaughtering chickens in a backyard really works.
Caroline was gracious enough to let me in on the process as a participant, and I tried to avoid setting expectations as I joined in and documented the process. And so, on a Saturday morning, I learned how to slaughter chickens.
I should make mention that a hip couple with a lovely baby and a pile of balloons arrives before me. Was I supposed to bring balloons? No, the couple and their photographer were using the front yard for a family photo shoot. I was headed to the backyard.
The Van Slykes keep a beautiful selection of egg-layers, but they also keep "meaties," poultry raised especially for eating. I showed up in jeans and flip-flops with purple dishwashing gloves and a bottle of wine. Poulet Rouge from Pennsylvania's Amish country are sunning themselves near the fence, watching us prepare for what is about to happen.
First, the men toast with sherry and we all gather, with gloves on, around an ice bin to say a brief prayer before beginning. Standing by are a long metal-topped table, more ice bins, a few knives, cutting boards, a bucket, bleach, a pot of boiling water, a pot of cool water, a hose, digital thermometer, and a traffic cone. There also are a few plastic tablecloths -- though in Boho Farm style, they are a green-and-white-checked pattern.
The traffic cone is turned upside down, affixed to a tree; part of the top portion of the traffic cone has been cut off. This process is broken up over two weekends, the first for a few males VanSlyke has and the next weekend for the ladies, who need another week to fatten up.
A bird is selected from the yard and carried through the gate. The cone method is used to keep the birds calm and to ensure the killing is humane. Chickens, in general, will relax when turned upside down. And so the bird is held gently by its feet and put into the cone until David sees the head come out of the other end. With a quick stroke, the neck is slit and blood begins to drain into the bucket below. There is not as much blood as one would expect.
Then the bird is "dipped" into the hot simmering water; the temperature has been taken and monitored with a digital thermometer. This loosens the feathers for plucking. Next, the bird is laid before Caroline and me and with gloves, we begin removing the feathers. All the fluffy feathers and breast and back feathers come off easily. We put them all into a metal trashcan lines with garbage bags. There is a slight scent of burned dirt and dander in the air, but nothing overwhelming.
Toward the end, the process becomes more tedious as we pull the wing and tail feathers and rinse the birds more while pulling the pin feathers. At this point, without feathers, they really do just look like a whole chickens from the grocer. Then a few dunks in the cool water pot, a few more plucks, and into the ice the birds go.
These are not just any ice bins. Van Slyke laughs as she mentions that one of the ice bins is from Hungary and was purchased from a high-end boutique in town. Her husband mocks her teasingly, and for a moment, you can see why tasks like this provided such bonding time for families of the past. Their young son looks on the whole process and offers ongoing, sometimes humorous commentary.
The process repeats until we have all of the birds on ice. There is a break, and we enjoy a glass of merlot. It's about 11:30 a.m. The group cleans the tables and then moves on to a slightly more gruesome task, removing the heads and the feet. The Van Slykes use the feet to make chicken stock and Caroline explains how a local chef has been lined up to receive the heads. Every part of the bird is utilized.
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I grab a bird from the ice and Caroline sits at another metal topped table. The metal surface makes disinfecting and rinsing with the hose easier. With a newly sharpened knife and butcher block, she expertly removed the heads and feet. I gather them each time and place them in plastic bags and put them on ice.
The guys begin gutting the chickens on butcher blocks on another table. I've done this with turkey before, but the process on a chicken is a little tricky, since they are small. From watching alone, I would venture to say that removing the esophagus and the crop and gizzard, without rupturing the crop, is the hardest part. The birds have not been fed in 24 hours, but they have been free ranging, so they have eaten some grass and bugs. But David has done this before and so I watch the expert at work. Once the guys are finished I take the bird and place it in a plastic bag, removing as much air as I can and placing them in the refrigerator.
Caroline then bleaches the surfaces to disinfect again, and we move the furniture back to its original places. David removes the trash can and hoses off the patio again. The blood from the bucket is poured into the rose bed for fertilization. And just like that -- it looks like the whole thing never happened. Except that there are many organic birds in the fridge, including one that Caroline intends to make for dinner.