Part 1: Chicken Processing, the Dungeon, and a Pig Named Pat

And now for something completely different: today, I learned how to kill and process a chicken from start to finish (in other words, from feathered friend poking through the dirt to wrapped-in-freezer-paper carcass in my fridge ready for dinner). It was a strangely amazing, empowering experience, and I really think anyone who eats meat should learn what we learned today.

Distelrath Farms put on the workshop, and I am a new huge fan of the place and the people. Seriously, I want to work for them. Andrew taught and demonstrated and guided with humor, respect, and expertise, while Rachel snapped photos and offered good company and words of encouragement. However, the really cool thing for me about the place, which launched in February, is their passion for education and bringing young kids out in the dirt. It reminded me of my days working for the park service and non-profits in the Bay area, teaching kids about the animals and ecosystems right in front of their noses. This is going to be a place to watch in the coming years, Indianapolis – heck, I know I will be. And they have a “rescued” potbellied pig named Pat (after the SNL character) and Jill, the nicest donkey I’ve ever met, so what’s not to love?

summer 2002. this kid was rad. i was giving her some tough questions before she got her official jr. ranger badge.

Ten years ago, my second summer as a ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park.

There were eight of us attending the workshop, and we established a certain camaraderie early on just by the very nature of what we were about to do, I think. Some had laying hens or home flocks, one fellow was looking into buying a farm in Kentucky and starting a pastured broiler operation, another was a member of the farm. When we first called to register, Andrew’s response was, “Cool! [Long pause]… So, are you ready for this?” I think my response was an uncertain, “Ummm… I *think* so!”

And, frankly, I still wasn’t certain I was ready for it as I stood under the trees holding a very sharp knife, standing next to a calm chicken hanging from his feet, one hand looped gently around my Rhode Island Red’s beak and comb, preparing to cut his jugular vein on both sides. The anxiety of NOT MESSING UP was strong. Usually when you mess something up, you fix it or it sucks for a while until the pain wears off or it ends up not being nearly as big of a deal as you thought. With this, though, I wanted very much to dispatch this creature as kindly and humanely as I could. I missed the jugular on one side but managed to get it without much of a problem on the other side. Andrew referred to the otherwise lovely spot under the trees as “the dungeon.”

It is true that chickens’ nervous systems kick in when they die, which is where the “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” thing comes from. I didn’t realize, however, that you have about 20-30 seconds after severing the jugular before that occurs. I held the chicken’s head gently to help the blood drain for a bit before flapping occurred. Then we let them bleed out while we got the rest of the processing stuff ready to go (basically, a knife, a table, a water source, and a bucket).

Next up: processing the birds. I’m going to wait, though, until Rachel uploads some photos to share more. For now, I am so glad that I took part in this. I think if more people were exposed to learning events like this, they would slowly begin re-thinking how they live, how they eat, and what their relationships are or should be with the rest of the living creatures in this world. I also feel a little like I can conquer the world, too – or at least someday maybe have a broiler operation of my own.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' chicken processing workshop: Chris' chicken.

Chris’ chicken, which was a male Leghorn. We’re trying beer can chicken, then I’ll turn the leftovers into probably the best broth ever.

17 thoughts on “Part 1: Chicken Processing, the Dungeon, and a Pig Named Pat

    • It was really amazing, actually. We had been asking around and keeping our eyes open for this exact thing – we had asked another fellow where he had learned to butcher chickens and were trying to invite ourselves along for the ride the next time he did so. :)

  1. So my first thought is “yikes!” I definitely think people should know where there food comes from, but I believe just the beginning of these series of posts will reiterate that I shall eat eggs, but the chicken shall live. So exciting that you guys are so proactive in learning about this stuff and our impact on animal life.

    • I think the greatest “moral” of the story (if you want to even call it that) is to know where your food comes from, no matter what you’re eating. I was reading a book that basically said you can be part of a horrible food system even just eating vegetables (i.e. supporting monocultures, poor farming practices that strip the land of nutrients, etc.). I think the more local you can get, the better – there’s so much more accountability when you can drive across town and see the farm your food comes from. And thank you! It was a really interesting experience.

  2. Maine and Indiana will never get closer together (unless we really woo the tectonic plates or something) and that’s *lame* because I really would have enjoyed attending this workshop with you. My boyfriend thinks he can figure out how to slaughter from reading books and looking up the process online; I know that’s possible, but I prefer hands-on learning in the company of friends.

    Congrats to you and Chris for getting acquainted with this process. I agree with you: ever meat-eater should participate in something like this. I’m not planning on doing all future butchering myself (as I have a friend who does it as his business), but I’m definitely going to learn the first time around.

    • I know, right?! Let’s just scoot Indiana east a bit so we can enjoy things like this together! It made such a difference to me to have Chris as a partner in crime. It WAS scary, standing there with a giant knife, contemplating how best to kill my chicken without causing undue pain or stress. And, while having a friend nearby was nice, it was still up to me to actually make the first slice. I agree that hands on learning is the only way (for me, at least) to learn something like this. I looked at books and videos in advance to prep myself, but having a knowledgeable guide demonstrating each step was key.

  3. Good for you guys! What a great opportunity – I wish I could find something like that around here. I’m with you on wanting to kill the chicken as kindly and humanely as possible – I think the fear of messing up is what freaks me out the most. And if more people had to kill the animals they eat, we’d probably have a much healthier society (mentally and physically). I’ve always believed that everyone should go hunting or butcher an animal, just so they can experience the sacrifice the animal makes so that we can live. I’m so jealous of your experience – can’t wait to see more photos!

    • Thank you! It was quite an experience. The killing part was the worst, for sure. Andrew even said, “I’m not going to lie, this part sucks.” It did, but then after that, making the first cuts, it was really excellent to learn how to do it all. I don’t want to wax poetic over it, but it did feel empowering. And you know what? I really don’t mind processing chickens. It wasn’t stinky or particularly gross – it was interesting and cool to be learning a new skill.

      I feel like when you grow something yourself or do something like this, too, you are so much more cognizant of using everything you can and not wasting. We ate Chris’ bird last night for dinner (it was delicious, by the way, even though it wasn’t a standard meat bird), then I made up what will likely be the most delicious broth I’ve ever had. I was thinking about that today in the garden, too – if you know where something comes from and have an investment in it, I think you take care to not waste – or to compost everything that can’t be used. I don’t know… just some thoughts rolling around in this head o’ mine.

      • I’ve been thinking about waste, too, lately, and I totally agree. When you grow it or raise it yourself, you have an investment of time and energy and love, and I think people are more careful not to waste. At least, I’ve found that we certainly are. I think future generations will look back on our era and be appalled by the amount of waste. I’m sure anyone who grew up during the Depression must be disgusted at how food is wasted now – dumpsters full of perfectly fine produce can be found outside any grocery store on any given night.

        Speaking of the generation that grew up during the Depression, I was talking to my grandma about the chickens and how I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to kill them when the time comes. She said she used to go visit her sister who still lived on the family farm, bring home 4 or 5 chickens to the city, and dispatch them in the alley behind their house! I was shocked, and she was like, “Of course I chopped their heads off. We had to eat!” If she can do it, so can I (or so I keep telling myself).

      • @Dreambles, I have also been thinking about waste. I am guilty of it, but working on being better. I am even freezing my leftover broccoli stalks for possible use in a slaw or some kind of veggie patty or something.

    • Thanks, Alina! More to come – I hope there are some good pics of the process (although perhaps not too gory). To be honest, it wasn’t that gory, although maybe others would think it was. :)

    • Good for you! I do think it’s an important thing to learn. I think too many people don’t have any concept of what’s involved – myself definitely, definitely included! It’s exciting to be able to do things for yourself, to know where cuts of meat come from or how man tomatoes it takes to make a can of sauce.

  4. Pingback: Part 2: Chicken Processing, the Rusty Clippers, and Thanking Your Bird « Space-Farm Continuum

  5. Christie,

    Thanks for posting about this. What a grounding experience. Like I told you, I want to learn to do this, too. I’m so intrigued by everything you’ve been doing. I think you are smart to start now because food prices are going through the roof, and the more self-reliant and sustainably you can live, the better off you will be, I think.

    • Thank you, Tracey! If you had asked me even two years ago if I thought I’d be learning how to butcher a chicken, the answer would have been an emphatic, “You’re crazy!” It’s been a really interesting road, and, while I don’t want to get super hippy-dippy or anything, there is something very… visceral, I guess, and satisfying about knowing where your food comes from and actually have a hand in it – whether it’s growing your own veggies or canning your own foods or knowing the guy at the farmers’ market who sells the best corn. I don’t know… it’s just cool.

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