Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Chicken Slaughter Party

My vegetarianism - always a bit wobbly - has taken the summer off, for several reasons. First, there aren’t a ton of culinary choices here in rural NoDak. On the rare occasion that I eat out, the menus are tightly traditional - steak, baked potatoes, walleye (the only fish out here, apparently), breaded shrimp, fried chicken (if you’re lucky) and, without fail, the saddest salad bar you’ve ever seen. (They would make any Californian cry. Jell-O? Macaroni salad? Canned peaches?)

Secondly, more than once, I have been gifted with beef from a farmer or rancher who raises their own grass-fed cattle. I simply don’t turn down generosity like that, especially when it results in a lean, local, organic cheeseburger for me. To allay my concerns, I was even shown the lush half-acre paddock that four cows had all to themselves; sure, they were doomed but at least the cows had space, peace and dignity until their appointed time. It also meant they weren’t being injected with antibiotics or growth hormones and that’s a big plus.

Finally, when I began this rural journey, I knew concessions would have to be made. To blend in to this world as much as I could, I even bought a orange duck blind/camo Otter box for my iPhone. I now ride old trucks and 4-wheelers instead of buses and cabs. Also, I knew I’d have to let some things go - like San Pellegrino, sushi, Ezekiel bread, fancy cheese and long, hot showers. (Sob!)

Oh, and any discussions around cultural entertainment (movies, music, TV) - those don’t exist. So, though I still strive to eat a plant-based diet, I avoid taking a militant approach; being an ‘organic nut’ surrounded by Big Ag is enough of a push for right now. (On the plus side, I see zillions of stars and planets every single night.)

But my vegetarianism received a significant boost after last Saturday’s Chicken Slaughter Party. After working on a 13-person crew that executed, de-feathered, cleaned and gutted 231 home-raised chickens, I have zero desire to ever get near another dead one, let alone eat it.

My neighbor, Powerful Pierre, has hosted the annual event for the last 16 years - a couple of his sisters jump in, along with their husbands. His wife, Evelyn, is there too, plus some other neighbors and a young boy named Leo. It started at 8 a.m. sharp, and I was there by 9 a.m., not so sharp.

I pulled my pick-up behind a long line of other pick-ups and walked into the garage, which resembled an organized crime scene. There were two long tables where folks were picking feathers, hacking off feet and gutting birds that had been alive only moments before. There were large metal bins filled with cold water and off to the side, Evelyn, wearing rubber gloves and wielding a scrub brush, happily washing their headless naked bodies with all her usual natural glee.

I was given the job of removing pin feathers, those small thick feather points that remained, though the birds were mostly naked by the time I got them. I watched my cousin, Manny, remove their feet with a knife like he’d done it a thousand times, which he had. (I cut off one foot myself, at the very end.) An older gentleman named Steve, with long gray-blonde hair and a Harley Davidson t-shirt, was an expert gutter. Long a huntsman, he raises livestock for the market - sheep, cows, chickens - and keeps horses, dogs and cats too, of course. He told us the story of how he met one of his daughter’s boyfriends and, after shaking his hand and finding no callouses (and discovering he did not know how to repair a fence), told her to dump him. She did.

Everybody had their job and I just tried not to embarrass the family name by sticking to mine. Those first 15 minutes were rough - with all the hacking, slicing and whacking, it was a very calm, but very violent scene. I had to get used to handling a headless body that often felt as heavy as a small baby. It was a mind twist, for sure.

But this is why I’ve come to this world, is it not? You learn a lot when you leave the comfort zone and I was at least 1,000 miles from mine. Funny thing is, I don’t really eat chicken, mainly because of all the crap they put into the meat, and also, because a industrial chicken life is a particularly bad one. We’re already eating them, do we have to be dicks about it too? (In my previous life, my favorite meat was lamb but I can no longer get past the idea of eating someone’s baby.)

Pierre had previously made the Heather-specific request, “No pictures!” so I was without my protection. Usually, I can keep my distance from weird scenes by hiding behind the lens, a journalistic trick, but no chance this time. It also means that for this post, I can’t just shove images at you, I have to describe them, which is excruciating in its own way.

I was only plucking for about 15 or 20 minutes before I had to go see where the action went down, exactly where these birds met their sudden deaths. The live chickens in the coop were all at the fence, silently staring at the scene, with some alarm. A man went in to the coop, grabbed a bird, and walked it to the stump and chopped its head off. Just like that, quick as you please. He threw the headless body in a bucket and I watched the body flap around, still protesting.

Meanwhile, the man had gone in to grab another bird and this time, I heard the mad clucking and recognized the sound - pure fear. That axe came down in mid-cluck and it was over for that particular chicken; it was that shrill, desperate sound that stayed with me, most of all.

After the bodies settle down, another fellow grabs one and places it over a de-feathering machine. There is a big, rotating wheel with fat round pegs and the rotation removes 99% of the feathers. It’s astonishing, really, how efficient this machine is as opposed to de-plucking by hand, as they did in days of yore.

Then, the bodies are scalded and brought into the garage where their feet are cut off by Manny. Then, me and Eldean removed the feathers and they are gutted, cleaned and put into buckets of ice water where they stay for several hours. 

After taking all this in, I discovered that my face was wet. Why was I crying? Holy shit! What if someone sees? What to do? I do what any bleeding heart liberal would do, I went over to the kitten shack, picked up a fuzzy one and hugged it. Though I can pass for redneck often enough, evidently I’m just a cushy liberal at heart. Shit, hugging a kitten??? I felt like a character out of South Park or The Colbert Report - I even made myself laugh.

Wanting to fulfill my commitment and not wuss-out completely, I returned to the task and de-plucked for several hours until all the chickens were gone. After a while, I got used to it and joined in the lively banter. I even told a joke about nuns buying beer. Though I did occasionally sneak off to rub Preacher’s head (the dog) and hug another kitten now and again, I made it the whole way.

Over the bloody table, there was lots of congratulatory talk about how ‘nobody’s punctured a bile duct yet!’ and wasn’t that ‘great?’. Then, as one woman was teaching young Leo about chicken anatomy and how to gut a dead one, he said, “What’s THAT?” and poked a bile duct. Green bile sprayed everywhere and laughter ensued. I kept my head down and tried not to barf.

Meanwhile, Eldean, on my right said, “Oh, I hate it when there’s still poop in there,” as she ‘wiped’ a dead chicken’s butt. I've had a few glamorous days in my time but this was not one of those.

At one point, somebody flopped a dead chicken on the table and I swear, I heard it cluck. I commented on it and Steve explained that sometimes they lose their head mid-cluck and that last catch of breath is still in their throat. One big nudge and the rest of the cluck escapes, sounding very much like, “-UCK!” - the final sound of many unlucky souls, I'm sure.

So, after all 231 chickens were dead, the crew stopped for Dinner, which is actually Lunch to the rest of us. I was actually proud of myself that I still had an appetite, maybe I had some cajones after all. There were scalloped potatoes, baked beans, fried walleye, fruit salad, fresh tomatoes and some crazy super-healthy Wheatberry Salad that some liberal commie brought.

The crew, post-Dinner. My only sanctioned photo.
Oh yeah, that was me. The shining moment came when one of the expert gutters, a woman named Ann, wearing a blood-covered smock, leaned over to me and said those magical words:

“This is delicious! Can I get the recipe?”

I’m pretty sure I heard a brass band strike it up because when a native NoDak woman asks you for a recipe, my darling, you have ARRIVED! Even if she is covered in blood, it still counts.

Brent warned me that I would be exhausted at the end of the experience and he was dead right. Not sure if it was all the standing and focusing or all the surreal stimulation but I came home that afternoon and passed out on the bed, chicken blood and all, and slept deep for two hours, plucking feathers in my dreams.

Haven’t eaten meat since.

However, this may change on Sunday when Mama Iva visits. I am hosting a cookout for her here on the farm and Evelyn is bringing four of those bad boys, baked in some Filipino recipe favorite. Not sure how I will feel about chicken meat then. What if I experience PTSD-type flashbacks? What if I go searching for another kitten? What if I grow fangs and consume rabidly?

What if the Wheatberry Salad is no longer enough? 


Lisa said...

That was mesmerizing... I'm actually glad you didn't take photos, your words painted a vivid enough picture, that's for sure!
I'm SO glad Mama Iva is coming to visit!!!
Love, Lisa

Heather Clisby said...

Thanks, Lisa! Yes, I don't think the photos would have been very appealing, especially the bucket full of chicken feet. *Shiver*

Rita said...

That is so sad. Makes me even more determined to eat plant-based, where I live I have no excuse for eating meat. There are so many alternatives here.

Heather Clisby said...

Thanks for reading, Rita. I know it's a long one. Over the winter I'll be in SoCal so I can easily avoid meat - especially chicken.

JustAGirl said...

Wow. I'm speechless and a little teary eyed. Going to share with my dad who worked at a chicken slaughter place way back when.

Heather Clisby said...

Thanks for reading the entire post. I have new respect for folks like your dad who do the dirty work - it's exhausting and difficult, not to mention grisly. Glad I only had to do it the one day.

Tracy said...

oh my, this brought back many memories. I remember when my family had chickens and everyone gathering for the big slaughter day and my brother and I would run around calling each other names like "you are a chicken witb your head cut off". Good times.

and your comment about the salad bar maybe me laugh because it reminded me of the first time I brought Adam to South Dakota. We went to a steak house and he went up to the salad bar and came back with nothing except a look of horror on his face.

Heather Clisby said...

Ah, so now we are bonded over the chix slaughter experience.

When Reid visited a NoDak salad bar for the first time, you could hear him through the entire restaurant: "That's IT?!?"