Gaining a better understanding of where our food comes from is one of the major goals of the Chatham Food Studies program. This semester I had the opportunity to do that in a big way by raising chickens, taking them all the way from their second day of life to my own dinner table. While that may have been wholly unremarkable a century ago, few of us get (or would even want) that opportunity today. Maybe it’s obvious to point out that the pale, plastic-wrapped birds in the supermarket meat case were once living, clucking things. And maybe it’s obvious to observe that the price of those chickens in no way reflects the incredible labor and expense that goes into raising a bird in a humane, compassionate way. And surely it’s obvious that to eat meat is to take a life, and that it therefore must be done thoughtfully and respectfully. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.
We just concluded our second round of trials (done in conjunction with Dickinson College, PASA and the Rodale Institute) to test the effects of soy versus non-soy feed in broiler chickens. The trials were prompted by concern over phytoestrogens in food, which could potentially be harmful to certain at-risk populations. As a graduate assistant at Eden Hall Farm, this meant a crash course in chicken rearing. Over the past year I’ve helped to design moveable chicken coops, painstakingly weighed the broilers and their feed, and learned just how much a hundred chickens can poop (it’s a lot). The first batch was sent away to be processed, but for the second round we made plans for a hands-on workshop.
Hands-on, as it turned out, really meant hands-on. Mike Badger, director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, brought his mobile processing unit up to Eden Hall on a sunny Tuesday in late October. After a short introduction and overview of the equipment, we were invited to jump right in. A wash of emotion came over me as I prepared to slit my first chicken’s throat, and it took me by surprise. After all, weren’t these the animals I had been grumbling about a few hours ago when they proved all but impossible to catch and keep on the scale? But I was still taking a life. I was glad that wasn’t easy. And even though some 9 billion chickens are slaughtered every year in this country, at that moment, this one felt awfully important.
After that, the rest of the process came fairly easily. I learned how to scald the bird to loosen its feathers, watched it tumble around in a remarkably simple but effective plucking machine, and clumsily eviscerated and trimmed the birds until they more or less resembled the ones at the Giant Eagle down the road. Now in a familiar form, Hanna and I brought the birds home and set to work. Knowing we couldn’t waste any of it, we fried the livers, made stock from the bones and feet, and made a confit of the hearts and gizzard. The star of the day was a beautiful roast chicken, seasoned only with salt and pepper and topped with a simple pan sauce. The result was a meal peppered with “oh wows” and “gahhhs.” Was it the organic feed and access to fresh pasture that made that chicken delicious? Or did it just taste better because I knew it personally, and knew that it had been raised and slaughtered the right way? Does it even matter? Who knows. It was a damn good roast chicken.
Here are some pictures of the workshop. Though I haven’t included anything especially graphic, you may not want to scroll down if you are sensitive to these sorts of things.
The mobile processor.
Mike gives the group the rundown.
Shauna jumps right in.
Mike shows Sarah how to clean up the bird.
It’s not terribly pretty.
Hanna and Hannah weigh and bag the chickens.