Sunday, May 2, 2010

my first farm chicken dinner

I am a 8-5 corporate employee, so weekends like this are when I get the bulk of my farm work done. When the combination of beautiful weather, a project list, and an event like the annual Poultry Swap all collide in 48 hours—I'm in my own personal bubble of agricultural ecstasy. So when Saturday morning arrived, sunny and full of promise, I was in rare form. I wanted to celebrate the day, my first real full day of work on my own farm. No errands, no plans, just me and this land. As I pulled on my rubber boots I felt as excited as a first date.

It all started with the chicken tractor. I walked outside and eyed up my pile of scrap wood and chicken wire. All I needed to build was a small open-air pen without a bottom. It's only purpose is to let the meat birds eat and fertilize the grass, while feeling sun and fresh air. Hopefully it's something predators can't get into easily and ends up being light enough for one person to drag easily. The poultry-moving device doesn't have to look pretty, it just needs to keep my thirteen cornish rocks in one confined grassy spot until I see fit to move them to another. Hammer in hand, away I went.

In a few minutes i whipped up a sorry looking pen. Aesthetics aside, it worked just fine. As I was moving the five-week-old chickens from their coop pen into their brave new world I could not help be be impressed at their size. In just over a month those cute fluffy yellow chicks were beasts! Time, care, and two fifty pound backs of feed gave me these white giants. Maybe it's the small farmer coming out in me, but as I moved them to pen to tractor I thought...I wonder how they'll taste?

So I decided to find out. I could harvest one bird and prepare it for my evening meal. After all I had all day, didn't I? It would be good practice too. If I planned on selling my chickens to friends and coworkers, or even giving them as gifts I would need to get decent at the nuts and bolts. So I put a canning pot on the stove to heat up 145 degrees, and went back to the tractor to pick out dinner. I was going to slaughter, cook, and eat my first farm-raised chicken.

For those of you who think this may be morbid, or sad, please don't. Cornish rocks are 100% food animals, unable to survive a few weeks past their 8-10 week harvest time due to their giant frames. If they aren't killed swiftly for dinner they'll usually die of heart attacks, organ failure, or broken legs. Now at about 3 pounds each, and all white feathers and bright eyes, my birds looked nothing like victims. They were happy, clean, birds. Instead of growing up in a dark factory with 10,000 other birds—these guys were living with 12, under my careful watch. They were living exactly the life I felt farm animals should live: outdoors, on green grass, seeing sunlight, and chasing flies. I picked up the fattest bird, held it by its feet (which lulls them instantly into submission), and walked it over to the chopping block. Here we go.

I thanked the bird, almost at a whisper, then with one swift hatchet move and all was done. No squawk, no pain, just over. I tied it upside down to a tree limb and let it bleed out. The boiling water had been moved from the stove, to right next to the stump, so as soon as the bird was empty I dumped the whole thing in the water and counted to sixty. When I pulled it out, the feathers came off like velcro, peeling off with just the slightest friction left to hold them to the skin. Just five short minutes ago this bird was blinking its eyes—now it looked exactly like what you'd see hanging on the streets of an Asian market.

Wow. How fast the animal turns into the recipe.

After the bird was cleaned of all feathers, I took a boning knife and removed the feet like Steve (my friend and Chuck Klosterman assassin) showed me. I followed his lessons and had an open Butchering Basics book by my side as well. Within a few moments the bird was eviscerated and ready for my kitchen. It looked exactly like what comes out of shrink wrap at the grocery store. I placed it in a big pyrex bowl of ice water in the sink and let it chill down to 40 degrees.

While it soaked I went outside and got to work on the garden. I expanded it a little, making room for the heirloom veggies I had ordered and was excited to finally taste. La Ratte potatoes, Dragon Tongue Beans, and pickling cucumbers were just some of the new additions I was planting this year. Seed Savers' Exchange offered these packets of heritage farm favorites and lettuces so I bought them. I had the seeds and the potatoes shipped to the office a few weeks ago. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of the fact I had a pound of rat spuds delivered to my desk. Yup. I had veggies, meat, eggs, and flour back at the new farm house. I was learning the fine are of really eating in.

I also started to see the Deer Tongue, Red Velvet and Arrowhead lettuces seeds I had ordered starting to sprout. The onions and Amish Snap Peas were also coming along well. As I sling my hoe it hit me that I could throw a dinner party here, featuring my own salad, veggies, roasted bird and warm bread... As sweat literally stung the corners of my eyes, I stopped planting, leaned on my hoe and took that notion in. I just stood there and satiated a bit. The garden rests on the flat bit of land above the farm house and below the sheep field. I closed my eyes and let some wind hit me. I heard the bees roaring in the apple trees above me. Joseph bleated for grain. Down by the well spring the geese were eating lush grass. The surviving chickens in the tractor were fat and now dust bathing in their shade. The place was thriving. I was thriving.

This little farm will feed me. It'll hurt, and burn, and cause sore muscles and sleepless nights but it will continue to feed me. That simple truth, is everything to me. Because darling, don't you realize that everything that any human being ever accomplished: from symphonies to atomic bombs was done because someone else was growing their food? Because someone else was doing the work that kept them alive? I prefer to cut out my middlemen. I want to be responsible for me, whatever that happens to be.

Between gardening breaks I brined the bird. I was following the step-by-step instructions in the newest issue of Cook's Country. I mixed a half cup of sugar and a half cup of salt into water and let the bird soak in the fridge for an hour. While the bird took in all that moisture and flavor: I went back to the garden to work. I knew I was getting a sunburn but didn't care. It's not good, I know, but after this winter it was a sadistic thrill to feel hot skin. I buried the chicken head, feet, and offal into the dirt below the garden soil. It would continue to feed me, and the soil, as compost.

When I couldn't take the heat, I went into the kitchen. It was in the mid-eighties outside but inside was a cool 68. I'd swill water, clean up, and go about more prep work. I took the bird out of it's brine bath and toweled it dry. (The dogs were very interested in this part.) Then I got out a honey mustard herb rub and some olive oil and massaged it into the meat. The magazine said to poke holes in the skin when doing this, so I did, and then placed the chunky little bird in a roasting pan, breast side down at 375 degrees. I would flip it and crank it up to 450 in about 45 minutes.

I went back to my work day. I finished up in the garden, fed the rabbits, collected eggs, and started preparing for the Poultry Swap in the morning. I had to clean out the back of the truck and get cages out of the barn for the Guinea fowl and meat rabbit buck I hoped to buy. When all was set for a day of bartering and haggling— I returned to the kitchen for more water, forgetting what was in the oven. I was blown away by the smell. My. Dear. Lord.

It was amazing! The place smelled of smells I never knew but always wanted, was starving for actually. Maybe it was the heat, or the work outside but that chicken roasting in the oven was tantric. I peaked in the oven and heard the crackling and smelled the herbs and fat. It was browning and bubbling. This was going to be amazing. Any yuck factor from the first phases of the meal was forgotten. All was excitement now. And after all that sun and work, I was famished.

When the day was done I took a long shower and changed into a sun dress instead of my usual farm clothes. I sat down outside on the deck to, as expected, a marvelous dinner. It was hands down the best chicken I had ever tasted. Sweet white meat and crispy skin and just a hint of herbs. On a bed of greens with some honey mustard dressing, it looked almost fake. I was impressed with myself for pulling it off, but also shocked that what had yellow feet and clucked a few hours earlier now was on the end of my fork. I felt the same way I did when knitting my first hat, or eating my first tomato. I had made this meal, really made it. I ate a third of the bird that night. I savored it, every single bite. I looked out over the farm around me sighed deeply.

I felt damn lucky. Yes, I had worked hard for the meal, and hard for the farm, but I felt lucky to have been able to reign in my wit and resources at the same time this place was available at the price it was. A perfect storm of timing, and recession, and evictions and now even births and deaths had all lead up to this chicken dinner on this deck. I felt it all the way into my bones. They shook.

I don't know why anyone needs to go across the globe on vacation. You want to really change your life? You want to be forced to slow down, think, and question the meaning of your existence? You want to better know how you fit into the story? Then buy a chick for 1.75 at Tractor Supply and follow a recipe. The whole world begins and ends there.

48 Comments:

Blogger ShepherdWannabe said...

Lovely post - thank you for sharing! I can imagine the first kill is the hardest. That's one of the things I'm not looking forward to when we start our farm. But you give me hope!

May 2, 2010 at 2:31 PM  
Blogger Melvin & Theresa said...

I have been keeping up with your blog for a few months now, and I am in awe of your journey. I love your writing. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to share your life with us. Please continue to do so.
Your farm is beautiful, and I wish you nothing but good.

May 2, 2010 at 2:49 PM  
Blogger Paula said...

It's so funny. On one post you show adorable ducklings or bunnies, and on another you write about dispatching a broiler and cooking and eating it. I go from dreading the idea of slaughtering poultry and rabbits to liking the idea again very much. I guess everyone's journey to this idea is different, and I hope that when the time comes, I'll move bravely forward and not chicken out (no pun intended) at the last minute.

But I will admit, I've already learned how to sharpen my hatchet, and it has quite an edge on it now.

I hope you'll write about your first rabbit as well. Do you think you'll grow lamb for slaughter as well?

May 2, 2010 at 3:07 PM  
Blogger Summermelonfarm said...

Oh my gosh, I can smell that chicken all the way in CA! Everything tastes better in the country air, doesn't it?!!! Thank you for sharing your story today, Jenna. We wish we were right there with ya. :)

May 2, 2010 at 3:20 PM  
Blogger small farm girl said...

It was hard for me to kill the animals too. Chickens,rabbits; I just couldn't make myself do it. Then one day, like you, I told myself I was going to do it. So when it was time to deal the death blow, I said a little prayer. It was hard to do at first, but the taste later made up for it. They had had a good life and I thanked them for making my life better.
I really enjoy your blog. It makes me realize what a wonderful life farm life really is.

May 2, 2010 at 3:25 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I'll write about the rabbits, yes. And when this farm gets it's flock of sheep for Gibson and I to really farm with: they will be lambs for meat and ewes for wool. Absolutely. But I will not be butchering lambs. They'll be processed off site or a done by a traveling butcher. I simply don't have the tools or experience to do it right (or walk-in freezer hangin space).

But I do have some recipes...

May 2, 2010 at 3:41 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Beautiful post, Jenna. What a rewarding day! Personally I don't think the first kill is that traumatic - by the time you get to the point where it's time to actually take a life, you've spent so much time preparing with that end in mind. It becomes just another step in the process of reaching your goal (dinner, living off the land, etc.). Granted, I learned how to dress game from a couple of farm boys in Iowa who had a habit of shooting rabbits off the back porch - so things never became too sentimental.

May 2, 2010 at 3:55 PM  
Blogger Rosie said...

Jenna,
For best results let the meat sit in the refrig for 24 hrs to 48 before you cook it, the brining helps but the time for the muscles to relax gives the best results.

We did our first "harvest" (in over 20 years)last month. We are building a Whizbang chicken plucker for future use. Too bad you are on the other coast or we would lend it to you.

Rosann in SF bay area California

May 2, 2010 at 4:24 PM  
Blogger Sarah Rachelle said...

Wow. That is so awesome! Reading your experience got me really excited. In my family, I was the kid that always volunteered to help my mom debone the chicken for dinner. Raw meat has never intimidated me, but I wonder if I could take that extra step and venture into the world of the chicken before it became raw meat on my table. I hope so. I love the picture of your chicken with you dog obviously admiring it in the background. It tells all! :-)
Thanks for sharing that experience.

May 2, 2010 at 4:28 PM  
Blogger chppie said...

you know you csn save the chicken neck and well-scrubbed feet and put them in the fridge for when your bird is done and just bones. Add a bunch of water and boil it long and slow for a real nice stock. The natural gelatin in the feet add a lot of richness to the stock. And there's nothing like homemade chicken soup.

May 2, 2010 at 4:32 PM  
Blogger bookjunky said...

Impressive. I have three roos I've been needing to get rid of for weeks - overcrowding is causing problems. But so far I've lacked the balls to do it. I enjoyed your story as well as the details of the process. I know when I finally get the gumption to take care of it I'll enjoy it as much as you did yours.

May 2, 2010 at 4:36 PM  
Blogger Ohiofarmgirl said...

Great work! Our meaties (or dinner chix as I'm calling them) are just about ready. How long will you wait on the rest of them?

BTW, great work on the tractor..its doing its job.
:-)

May 2, 2010 at 4:44 PM  
Blogger Debi said...

Jenna, you never cease to amaze and inspire me! What a day,thanks for sharing!

Blessings,
Debi

May 2, 2010 at 4:52 PM  
Blogger Aimee said...

Oh man! That is SO awesome, and I cannot help but feel just a tiny bit jealous!!

May 2, 2010 at 5:23 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

well done! very inspiring post and most interesting writing...i am so much enjoying your blog..sharon at farm and fru fru

May 2, 2010 at 5:53 PM  
Blogger MollyKnits said...

Moving, touching, inspiring post.

May 2, 2010 at 6:45 PM  
Blogger SWEETHEARTS MOM said...

I know it sounds gross but your dogs would eat and thrive on the chicken and rabbit innards. You have inspired me to buy the rocks for meat.

May 2, 2010 at 6:57 PM  
Blogger crowjoy said...

Good job. It's a hard job, an awkward job, an uncomfortable job, but a good job.

May 2, 2010 at 7:11 PM  
Blogger crowjoy said...

And, just curious, do you screen your comments or have you had the good fortune to remain undiscovered by the hardcores who will eviscerate you for eating meat?

May 2, 2010 at 7:12 PM  
Blogger DeDe said...

What an awesome day! You are such a tremendous inspiration and motivation to me. I will get there on day, and it will be because of you.

Okay, for your next book (after Chick Days), I'd love a Cold Antler Recipe book. I know the roasted chicken recipe came from Cook's, but still to have all of Jenna's Homesteading Recipes in one place would be divine.

May 2, 2010 at 8:50 PM  
Blogger Pam said...

Sounds like a totally satisfying day all around.

Peace,
Pam

May 2, 2010 at 9:56 PM  
OpenID ruralaspirations said...

Another fantastic post. Your first farm meal at the new place - congratulations!

I agree with the other person who said you should feed the feet and offal to your dogs. It's wonderful for them.

You made plucking the feathers sound easy. This is the part I am least looking forward to as I've heard it is quite time-consuming.

May 2, 2010 at 11:37 PM  
Blogger panthercreekcottage said...

Now that is a mouthwatering feast for the eyes Jenna. What a beautiful roast chicken. makes my mouth water. A hot shower,and a simple cotton dress feels so restful after a long day filled with farm chores. Of course libations and a good chaise works wonders too.

May 3, 2010 at 1:16 AM  
Blogger renee said...

Hej, I have been a lurker for a long time. Admire what you are doing. I live in a depopulated area in Sweden and have been homestaeding for 30 years. Surely some Plymouth Rock must be allowed to lay eggs Or there would be no chickens to be sold for meat?
I admire what you are doing and wish you the best with your new farm. Renee

May 3, 2010 at 5:04 AM  
Blogger The Muehli's said...

While I definitely dread the idea of the kill when we finally get chickens, I'm fairly certain that the flavor of the meal and satisfaction of knowing you raised that pure, healthy meat yourself will make it totally worth it.

Thanks for sharing your story...you've got a lovely farm!

May 3, 2010 at 8:04 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Montero said...

I raise and harvest my own meat chickens too. Two things I've picked up along the way that you might wanna try:
1) Hang the chicken with the guts in (7deg C) or leave it in the fridge for 3-4 days before eating it. The muscles relax and the meat is so much more tender.
2) Any blood you catch is a great fertiliser for hungry shrubs and trees (Think the old "fish, blood, bone" recipe). Might find it too rich for veg but good for perennials.

Congrats on your first chicken meal!

May 3, 2010 at 8:08 AM  
Blogger Sense of Home said...

Talk about local food! And fresh! It is good to know exactly where your food comes from.

-Brenda

May 3, 2010 at 9:09 AM  
Blogger Toni aka irishlas said...

It looks delicious!
There's nothing like a meal that comes from your backyard.

May 3, 2010 at 9:16 AM  
Blogger E said...

It may seem like nit picking but its not "I buried the ... awful into the dirt..." its offal. Maybe these words are related but offal is not necessary awful as you demonstrate by recycling it.

May 3, 2010 at 10:13 AM  
Blogger Matt_Middleton said...

That was a fantastic post. Feeling so inspired!

BTW, any chance you could write about balancing the corporate work with the farm work? I'm really curious how you pull that off.

May 3, 2010 at 11:00 AM  
Blogger Funny Ernie said...

I love this post. Our meat birds are 6 weeks old. I can't wait to harvest them. Though, I think I'll leave the initial whack to my hubby. I am positive I'd miss and lop off my hand or a finger instead. Congrats!

May 3, 2010 at 12:21 PM  
Blogger The Beers said...

Good job! Nice post. ;) Feeding oneself from food grown/raised at home is indeed empowering, in fact liberating!

It can also extend to your dogs in the form of feeding a raw diet. Instead of burying the offal, heads, and feet, your devoted canine carnivores would love the treat!

May 3, 2010 at 12:38 PM  
Blogger cpcable said...

Amazing, Jenna. I hope that I handle *my* first farm chicken dinner with your grace, poetry, and level-headedness.

May 3, 2010 at 12:39 PM  
Blogger Natalie and Trip said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I'm getting ready for my first butchin' very soon, and it seems overwhelming. I'm stumbling behind your footsteps in SW Virginia. Appalachia sends a warm hello... and wonders by chance if you'll be attending the Mt. Airy Fiddler's Convention?

May 3, 2010 at 2:01 PM  
Blogger Flartus said...

This is just the kind of post I read your blog for! I've said to my partner that I want to butcher my own bird at least once, so I can feel I honestly know what it means to eat meat. (We raised meat rabbits when I was a kid, but I was never around for the killing.)

At any rate, congrats on your first solo coop-to-plate cooking! Sounds like you did a top-notch job.

Isn't it wonderful to sit down to dinner and know that everything came from your land, your sweat, your hands? You're part of an elite club.

May 3, 2010 at 3:24 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

What a fantastic post! I was enthralled from beginning to end. I long to have enough garden beds to feed myself vegies in summer. Maybe this summer our third bed and a seperate potato bed will happen! I'm happy to keep supporting local farmers for my meat though!

May 3, 2010 at 7:59 PM  
Blogger Aimee said...

just finished reading your book which I had stumbled on at our local library....LOVED LOVED LOVED IT!!! So fun to now see your blog...thanks for all your homesteading inspiration!

May 3, 2010 at 8:35 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

Lyrical post. I too, could almost smell the finished dinner. When we get chickens, it will probably only be for eggs. To this point in my life, I've only dressed out and eaten fish. It would be a harder step for me to "do the deed" with a chicken. Bravo to you for your gumption!

May 3, 2010 at 11:41 PM  
Blogger chris said...

Hi Jenna-

I've been reading your stuff for about a year, and love it. Huge congrats on the farm.

Your description from slaughter to meal was fantastic, I'd be happy using it as a guide for my first slaughter.

I think traveling is so important to create new experiences and find different perspectives on life. Raising a chicken is something I have never done, and I think I would be the better for it. I understand that we can create new experiences and perspectives without leaving our home, but something about travel jars me, and I would be a much poorer person without it. I suppose that's all a really long-winded way of saying, loved your post, but don't diss vacations.

May 4, 2010 at 2:22 PM  
Blogger Judy Hamilton said...

Ah, yes...good for you. I am proud of you, girl!
I ditto the "feed the dogs" comments. Our two old fellas see us setting up for "harvesting" and they start paying real close attention. We dole out the heads as fresh as possible, and store up the feet in the freezer for a tasty treat. Also, we prize the hearts and livers for our own harvesting day lunch and the following morning's breakfast. The dogs only wish they were so lucky!
Long live the good doggies!

May 4, 2010 at 7:51 PM  
Blogger SouthernHeart said...

Wonderful post and what a journey! I'm glad it was delicious...you earned it!

http://www.patacakebabies.com/wordpress

May 5, 2010 at 12:28 AM  
Blogger Damn The Broccoli said...

The only thing I object to is the choice of bird. Whereas yours are leading a happy life they are still a breed that was never meant to exist and without outside intervention would soon stop existing.

When does a flock of heritage chickens capable of breeding for themselves hit Cold Antler?

Otherwise a great tale and one I hope to share in one day when the Farm finds me.

May 5, 2010 at 12:18 PM  
Blogger Zucchinimom said...

I have seriously wanted to raise meat birds and I think we just might do it now!!! Lovely post...I can almost taste it!

May 5, 2010 at 2:55 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

l I wish I had as much room as you did. I live in the city and even though I am in a cramped space, I still grow some of my own food in my own garden. It was really easy, all I did was follow this sites simple steps.
http://yovia.com/blogs/farmlife/2010/04/28/farm-life/?gcid=1677

May 6, 2010 at 3:51 PM  
Blogger Rosanne said...

Jenna,
thanks for this post -- it made it all seem possible for this wannabe farm girl.
Right now I'm learning the vegetable gardening until we're able to get away from our subdivision home. If we ever get our farm I will be heartened by reading of your experiences in becoming more self-sufficient.
The best to you!

May 9, 2010 at 12:55 AM  
Blogger Nest said...

What an amazing day! Your first farm dinner will probably be the most memorable! You are an inspiration!

May 9, 2010 at 7:07 PM  
Blogger Crystal said...

I would love to learn to do that. Bravo to you.

December 24, 2010 at 6:13 PM  
Blogger John said...

Chickens can be an entertaining addition to the family and building your own backyard chicken coop whether it is a portable or permanent fixture can be very satisfying. Check out http://www.buildingchickencoopsnow.com to see how satisfying building a chicken coop can be.

March 4, 2011 at 9:24 AM  

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