For the past two years, I set aside a huge chunk of time in September and October for harvest and preparation for winter storage (freezing, root cellaring and canning). This year, with the addition of 15 meat birds to our flock, our first ‘harvest’ was planned for a hot weekend in the middle of July, a date determined more by the size of the birds than our desire to do the deed. We decided to try Jumbo Cornish X Rock chicks from a mail order catalogue. These little ‘fat birds’ as we fondly referred to them are hybrid crosses out of Murray McMurray’s Hatchery (Iowa). The clever catalogue writer wrote: 'The rapid growth of these chicks is fantastic and the feed efficiency remarkable’ Boy they weren’t kidding!. Out of the 15, we had 5 males and 10 females. They ate and ate and ate. The males were ready to go after 8 weeks, but, of course, we weren't ready for harvest until they were 10 weeks. Feeling guilty that their legs were going to break from the sheer mass of their bodies, we prioritized some time and started preparations.
Last year our neighbor, Pete, showed us how to 'harvest' a turkey. A chicken didn't seem much different, so we swallowed our distaste for the task and got to work. Sean sharpened our hunting knife and I gathered an orange 'road' cone, a bucket and a burlap bag. Sean cut off the smaller end of the cone just big enough so the bird's head and neck would fit through and screwed it to a makeshift support we built next to a shed. We created a 'cleaning station' near our fire pit that included a portable table, sharpened pairing knife, a large cutting board, rubber gloves and a 5 gallon bucket for feathers. I boiled a large pot of water on the stove and left it to sit in the fire pit until we were ready.
To justify taking any sort of life, even for personal sustenance, we needed a spiritual context. In the film Cold Mountain, there is a scene where an old goat shepherd gently holds and strokes an animal while softly telling it 'you done a good job' before slitting its throat. The idea that everything has a purpose is integral to farm life, whether it be self-sustaining, permaculture or traditional. We told each of our birds they did a good job as we walked them over to the shed.
First we placed the head of the chicken inside a hole cut out of a small burlap bag and wrapped the rest of the bag snugly around the wings. As I held the wings close to its body, Sean picked it up and placed it upside down with his head sticking through the smaller end of the cone. Then I slit the delicate skin and arteries in its throat and held the head while it bled out into the bucket. Surprisingly, this moment was relatively peaceful. The chicken seemed to accept its fate and I mindfully switched my focus to the sounds of the farm and forest. After 3 or 4 minutes, its eyes were closed and its body drooped quietly.
We took the lives of 4 birds and then placed them in a plastic tub filled with cold water and ice next to the 'cleaning station.' The cold water constricts the bird's pores and makes it easier to pull out the feathers. I grabbed my bird and cut off the head with a cleaver and began plucking. This takes forever! Once the majority of feathers are off, dunk the bird in the hot water (140-150 degrees is optimal) to clean it. Some say the hot water loosens the feathers but I personally find cold water better. After the bird is de-feathered and looking more like the store bought variety, it's time for gutting. This is my least favorite part but because I have the stronger stomach, I'm the delegated gutter.
First, with my pairing knife, wearing my rubber gloves, I very slowly separate the neck skin from the neck bone and cut the neck bone as close to the body as I can. I then gently separate the crop from the skin and remove the organ in one piece, careful not to pierce it, which causes an annoying mess. I then move to the other end of the bird. I cut a large circle around the anus, again, careful not to pierce any internal organs. Here's where you need the strong stomach….I then insert my hand into the anal cavity and gently remove the intestines and internal organs, careful not to puncture the skin, which can complicate the taste of the meat. If you cut the circle around the anus large enough, the innards should slide out relatively easily. I use my fingertips to separate the organs from the walls (the lungs are the hardest to separate from the top of the bird) and scrape everything out as best I can until it's hollow. Personally, I leave the neck bone it, but you can cut it out if you'd like.
One of the best tips my neighbor gave me was to study a diagram of the inner anatomy of a chicken to figure out what the heart and kidneys look like. These are great for making dog food.
Finally, after the bird is de-feathered and gutted, soak it in a large pot of salted cold water for one hour then rinse and pat dry. Place 2 birds on a cookie sheet and cover with wet paper towels. Refrigerate for 24-48 hours so let rigor mortis set in (this natural process softens the meat). If your birds are gigantic like mine, cut it in half from head to toe for vacuum sealing and freezing or bake it up using your favorite recipe.
To be honest, the rapid growth of the Cornish X Rocks kindof freaks us out. Next time we are going to try Freedom Flyers from a hatchery in Pennsylvania.