my first farm chicken dinner
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.