A Break from the Office
Last week, in preparation for the upcoming holiday, I took a break from the office and experienced the art of poultry processing for the first time. Having grown up in an urban environment I was never exposed to processing of any variety and always accepted my meat as it came—in a neatly-packaged-plastic-covered carton. I’m interested in knowing where my meat is sourced, the procedures involved in meat processing, and, should an occasion arise where I need to kill and process an animal on my own, I’d like to have the skills to do so. So when Dawn asked if I’d like to help out with processing her chickens and turkeys, I jumped at the opportunity.
We all convened at Dawn’s property by the river on a crisp and sunny Thursday morning. Noah, a sixteen year old well versed in the art of processing, and Dawn set up all the equipment we would need—the cylindrical cones used for killing, the electric scalder, the electric plucker, the knives for eviscerating, the buckets for discarded parts, and two large coolers filled with ice. While they dealt with all the technicalities I studied the movements and expressions of the chickens as they squawked and puttered about in large dog crates. Once everything was in place we chose our first victim and Dawn walked me through what goes down, start to finish.
I’ve never considered myself a squeamish person and I’m pretty comfortable with blood and open wounds. However, like most sentient beings, witnessing another living being experience trauma and suffering makes me uncomfortable and wanting to ease said suffering. It’s true, once the knife makes a cut the chicken bleeds out and dies fast. Still, in its final moments it is not uncommon for the chicken to convulse, long periods of stillness disrupted by a sudden violent jerks.
So after the hard part is over, we scald the birds and, if the bird is small enough, put them in the plucker which removes the majority of feathers. Dawn showed me how to make the correct cuts for evisceration and proceeded to identify all the parts—gizzards, hearts, livers, etc. As someone who never had much aptitude for biology in an academic context I feel like I learned more eviscerating two dozen chickens than I did in a high school biology lab. After seeing the process as a whole I was assigned a more specific task and one suited to my level of experience—quality control. I inspected each chicken for any aesthetic abnormalities before sealing the bird in a plastic bag and placing it in a cooler.
It’s a fascinating thing to witness. To see and be able to identify these parts—thigh, drumstick, breast, wing— inside a sealed plastic bag atop a bed of ice and know that these parts made up the whole of an animal that, minutes ago, was feathered and beaked, living and breathing. If everyone had the opportunity to participate in meat processing I think that as a species we’d be more mindful of our individual relationship to the meat on our plates. I’ll continue to eat locally sourced meat, one of Dawn’s chickens is nestled in a corner of my freezer right now, but poultry processing allowed me to reevaluate and think more deeply about my relationship with chicken, pork, beef, etc. and the ethical implications of eating animals.
The following day Noah, Dawn, and I all returned and were joined by the Craig family and Laura Collins. The Craig children, especially the oldest, Margaret Mary, were all quite enthused about Turkey processing, and an asset to the teams as a whole. I was shocked by the size of some of Dawn’s turkeys. I think biggest weighed in around 45-50 pounds and we all balked at the size of its talons in comparison to its turkey brethren. We paused midday to share pizza and listen to stories of processing days past.
After having participated in chicken and turkey processing I can say with confidence that I have not missed my true calling. However, when I decide to thaw my chicken and make a soup or sear it with a side of vegetables, or fry it in my cast iron skillet, I will take pride knowing that I didn’t just pick it up in a neatly-packaged-plastic-covered carton at my local grocery store.