Friday, September 11, 2009

Chicken Butchering 101

Well, we were finally able to rope someone in to helping us butcher our chickens. That "someone" was actually a mother and her two teenage sons. They were one of the families that responded to my cry for help on my homeschool list-serve and, ultimately, they were the only ones whose schedule meshed with ours. I now realize that they were sent from heaven to help us do this task.

**A small interruption to let you know that I will not be using their real names or using pictures that have their full identities revealed because I did not ask for their permission to do so.

They drove up yesterday morning in their older model mini-van. The mom, a 56 year old, gray headed, strong-in-a-very-gentle-kind-of-way, woman greeted us first. Her face was completely enveloped in a smile and I instantly relaxed. She was immediately gracious, warm hearted and obviously, completely up for this challenge and I can't tell you how much that reassured me. Her two teenage sons lumbered out of the van next. If I told you that they weren't wearing any shoes, would you imagine some backwoods kids with dirt on their faces and a couple of bad teeth? Nothing could be further from the truth. They were shoeless but they were also tall and lanky and had these beautifully ruddy faces that just seemed to be walking advertisements for health and vigor and free spiritedness and .... Let's just say, I instantly trusted their abilities.

After some introductions and a very brief tour of our place we got down to the business of preparing. First, we gathered all of our supplies, which included: propane burner for heating water, rope for hanging the chickens, makeshift table for gutting and cleaning, knives and miscellaneous other things that I may refer to throughout.

The oldest son (who was 16) got to work rigging up the ropes from which we would hang the chickens, first to kill them, then to pluck them. Then, we had to go about the business of catching our hapless victims. I say "we" but really it was the mom and the oldest boy who did the hard work. We all decided that it made sense to catch George first, as he was the meanest and would probably be best to just get out of the way. Plus, he wouldn't be able to terrorize any of the other chickens while we were trying to catch them. It was that first catch that was the hardest. Getting up your gumption is hard, even for the most seasoned veterans of the butchering clan. But, George was eventually caught. I believe it was a classic "sweep the leg" move that did it.

Once you catch a chicken, you begin to swing it like you would your arms while walking vigorously. (This isn't George, but another rooster. The one of George being caught and swung was too blurry.) They said the swinging makes the chickens dizzy and less able to "fight the power", if you will. Then, we hung him upside down from the foot noose that the boys had rigged. The boys proceeded to catch three more chickens and we hung them upside down, as well.

Here are the boys with George. August was glad to be able to get up close in a way that he had not been able to do since George was a chick. In fact, in the last few weeks, all of us tried to stay as far away from him as possible. The boys said their farewells and then...

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That is my four and a half year old son, killing a chicken. I think that August must have had a need to exert some muscle over that beast. Whatever his reason, he piped up, all on his own, that he wanted to be the one to butcher George. This was totally on his own initiative. Honestly, I hadn't even thought to ask whether he wanted to help with this part. I just assumed that would be way too big of a task and beyond his abilities. Let's just say that this was just one of the many ways that I was schooled through this process.

August wasn't able to completely cut the head off with the loppers but, to his defense, none of us were. They simply weren't sharp enough. We had to finish George off with a knife and then, for the other chickens, we used just the knife. After watching one more kill I decided that I was ready. I was determined to learn how to do every step of this process and this was the most important one.

It was a lot less hard than I thought it would be. Notice that I did not say it was "easier" than I expected. It wasn't an easy task, but it was completely do-able. You simply grab the neck, pull it down a bit, pull back some of the feathers so that you can see what you are doing and begin cutting. When you get in about 1/2 and inch or so, the blood starts flowing. What amazed me the most was how hot the blood was. It was such a vivid marker of the fact that this was a living animal. Most times, before I could finish cutting all the way through, the poor bird would start flapping around desperately. This was where it got messy. I would hold on to the neck, the best that I could, but the furious flapping inevitably sent blood flying. Not quite as bad as a horror flick, but bloody, nevertheless. Then, once the head was all the way off, I would step back and let it bleed out.

Here I am after a few kills, with blood on my hands and knife. The picture doesn't adequately show the evidence as well as I would like but I think that you get the idea. In the background you can see the pot of water for plucking heating up on the burner.

And then, the ugly truth.

After we let the chicken bleed out for awhile, we then took it over to this bucket that was filled with 130-140 degree soapy water. You would simply hold it by its feet and swish it around in the water for a little while. Not long at all really, something like 30 seconds or so. Then, you would pull it up out of the water a bit and test a clump of feathers. If they came off easily, the bird was ready to come out and be hung again for plucking.

Here I am plucking one of the birds. I was amazed at how easily the feathers came off. I had heard and read horror stories of this stage of the process so I was really expecting the worst. The trick was to make sure that every feather was thoroughly soaked. If you had any dry feathers mixed in among the wet ones, it made for a sticky mess. This rarely happened because it was so easy to avoid. Even the wing feathers came out fairly easily. It was the pin feathers that were more of a challenge and, even these, were not that bad.

Here's a headless, naked George. The boys thought this sight was hilarious and they asked our helper to make him dance around on the table. Although you can't see her full face (on purpose) I think you can see a bit of the smile on her face. This was the countenance that she kept for most of the day. Truly remarkable.

This was the hardest part, the gutting. See my position. Not good on the back at all. The table needed to be a bit higher. I was taught how to completely clean out the chicken, which was also, not as hard as I imagined it would be. It was more time consuming than anything.

If you ever wondered what used to be in that hollow cavity of the chicken you brought home from the supermarket, well... here you go: The complete innards of a 20 week old rooster. Aidan, in particular, thought this was the coolest part of the whole day. He was absolutely fascinated by the internal organs and how everything worked. Our amazing helper took the time to painstakenly outline every organ, its purpose in the body and how it was connected to the other systems. Again, Aidan was enthralled.

I have to point something out from the picture above. See that white, kind of kidney shaped organ at the top left of the picture? Well, that is one of two testes. In a younger chicken, it would be the size of about a pinto bean. In our roosters, they were the size of an elongated plum. No wonder they were so full of machismo!

The only other organ that was bigger was the gizzard, which is their stomach. By the way, that was also fascinating to examine. It was this large white-irridescent type color. It was surrounded by very thick muscle which surrounded a very hard white "sack", within which was the gizzard itself. When you cut it open, it was full of the chicken's food and tons of little bitty pebbles. Those rocks, in combination with the incredibly muscular gizzard, are what help the chicken digest their food. Incredible!

Here is a chicken getting its last good rinsing before being put on ice. Something that struck me throughout this whole process was the "lack" of disinfecting practices. Every once in awhile, I would ask whether we needed to use something to make sure our surface was clean or the chicken itself or... you get the picture. I was reassured that all we needed to do was rinse well with water and we would be fine. Our helper went on to tell us that her brother (or husband, I can't remember exactly which one it was) used to work for a commercial chicken farm and that the USDA standards for chickens that are being chilled before packaging allows for them to sit in up to a foot of sludge. "Sludge" could include anything from blood, feathers, poop... you name it, it can be in there. Once I heard that, I was totally reassured that our processing was a hundredfold more sanitary. Furthermore, we were outside, in the sunshine and the fresh air, with fresh water flowing and clean ice waiting for the chickens. I don't know if I will ever be able to buy chicken from the store again. I realized a very important thing upon learning all of this. Although the chicken that you buy at the supermarket is cheaper than one you might buy from a smaller scale farm or local farmer, you can't put enough value on what is lost in terms of quality control and safety.

And here are all 14 roosters, on ice, ready to be put in the freezer after they have cooled for 24 hours.

It was an exhilirating, albeit exhausting, day. Up until the moment our helpers arrived, I was a complete basket case. I was totally overwhelmed at the task before us. I had so many mixed emotions as I approached what had to be done: fear of the unknown (that was an obvious one), apprehension about my abilities, sadness at losing some character from our chicken yard (but this wasn't that strong of an emotion), frustration that John was out of town and that I was the only one left to do this, but also, relief that this would soon be over and I could relax when I went to feed the chickens and clean their coop. All of those feelings and then the actual physical exhaustion I experienced, as well... let's just say that I was spent. I was literally sore by dinner time.

BUT!!!!! I did it and I could do it again. I know every step of the process and fully participated in those steps (except for the catching part, that's going to be tricky...) so I could very well do this again if I needed to. And I just might need to. We had made the executive decision to keep Obrahma because of his mild manner and beauty but, in the chaos of chicken catching yesterday, one other rooster was inadvertently missed. So, we have two roosters left in our yard. We're not exactly sure what two roosters and 36 hens will do to each other. Maybe Obrahma and "Red" will be so hen picked and outnumbered that they will become docile little roosters. More likely, they will get meaner, in order to have their way with as many hens as possilbe. We'll just have to see.

In the meantime, we now wait anxiously for eggs......

****Edited to add:
I forgot to mention that almost all of the above pictures were taken by Aidan. I desperately wanted a pictorial account of this experience but knew that I couldn't do two things at once. I asked Aidan if he would be the official photographer and he excitedly accepted. It turned out to be a great set up because that way that he could be involved without having to literally have his hands in the muck. He said that he really enjoyed taking the pictures and I think that he did a wonderful job.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Where is his body, exactly?

August fell asleep immediately after dinner, again, and when we went into the living room to begin our evening activities, this is what we found. Talk about an "out of body" experience! That boy was tired!

Morning surprise

When spider webs unite, they can tie up
a lion.
--Ethiopian Proverb

The other morning I woke up very early (just one of those days) to find the world completely draped in fog. Maybe because I was up just at daybreak but there was something very magical about it all. I did my chicken duties first and then I got Beulah and we went on our morning walk. As we were walking down our driveway I couldn't help but notice the incredible number of spider webs. Actually, it wasn't the number I was surprised by the most, as we have seen LOTS more webs around lately. It was the fact that they were so very visible. Upon closer inspection I realized the reason. Because of the very heavy fog, every inch of every strand was drenched in dew drops. I only wish the sun had been able to poke through the clouds a little more. If so, those beads of moisture would have glistened like diamonds. They were pretty miraculous anyway, despite the dreary light.

That bottom picture reminds me of the word pictures that form in my mind when I read Peter Pan to the boys. The descriptions of the wobbly fairies stumbling home from an all night party bring to mind strings of dewy pearls and fairy dust.

I'm sure that's what happened the night before last.

End of Summer

"Lord, it is time. The summer was very big. Lay thy shadow on the sundials, and on the meadows let the winds go loose. Command the last fruits that they shall be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them on to fulfillment and drive the last sweetness into the heavenly wine."
-Rainer Maria Rilke

Well, yesterday may have been the "unofficial" last day of summer but, in a year where summer was very un-summerlike...well, it's hard to make that call. Plus, we're still getting goods from our garden. Yes, the yellow squash is done, as is the corn and the beans. But our okra and tomatoes don't seem to know the meaning of slowing down. We even still find the occasional zucchini, hiding under its own giant leaves. In fact, I made a vegetable lasagna tonight that used zucchini in place of noodles. It was very good, by the way, and I'd be happy to share the recipe.

As I shared back in May, we were pretty late getting our seedlings into the ground so we are just now harvesting our cantaloupes and watermelons. Above you will see our first Moon & Stars melon. It is an heirloom seed and was very common here in the Missouri Ozarks back in the 1800's. It was decently good. It wasn't a deep red but it was very juicy and eatable. In fact, John cut it up and we all sat on the front porch, slurping juice and spitting seeds. Our cantaloupes, so far, have been good as well. They have only a hint of a rind, which makes for just that much more melon. Once we cut up one of these puppies, we pretty much eat it at every meal. Thankfully, cantaloupe is one of the few fruits that August will eat.

And the tomatoes... ah, the tomatoes. We somehow ended up with a ridiculous amount of cherry tomato plants, which has been a bit frustrating. We've made a few batches of sauce but we've basically frozen the rest. We figured, no sense heating up the kitchen now when we could do it in the cooler weather. But these tomatoes shown above are actually the volunteer plants that shot up late this spring. The previous owners had a few tomatoes planted along our house and a few of them were actually still producing tomatoes when we moved in last November! Many tomatoes, however, fell to the ground before we even showed up on the scene and from those seeds came the above tomatoes. And they are delicious! I made a grilled turkey, cheese and tomato sandwich on sourdough bread the other day and I do believe it was one of the best sandwiches that I ever did eat!

John has started some seedlings for a Fall garden, but I think it will be on a much smaller scale than the Summer garden. We've got a lot going on right now (he at work, me at home) and it seems right to rest a bit and regain some energy. It will be early Spring before we know it, anyway, and we'll start the whole cycle over again then.

Friday, September 4, 2009


I just wanted to take the opportunity to say "Hello!" to those of you that have begun to follow my blog on a regular basis. As much as I hate to admit it, I look at you all as my mini fan base, my groupies, my entourage, so to speak. Thank you for helping me grow a big ole head!

To my family and friends, thank you for your love and devotion. It is such a gift to be able to share my life with you and to know that, as much as is possible, you are still "right there". Leaving Atlanta and moving to a totally new city was a very difficult thing to do and it brings me so much peace and comfort to think that you get to stowaway on the journey with us. Please, continue to keep close.

And to those of you who have somehow stumbled upon this little speck of cyberspace, it is wonderful to have you. When I acquired my first unknown (to me, that is) "follower", I did take pause for a moment or two. I wondered if my writing voice would change or if I would start painting myself in a different light. But then I realized, I don't have time for the putting on of airs. It's hard enough to authentically share my life with you, let alone give my thoughts time to percolate in some hot house of chimeric ideas in order to create some phantasmic version of myself.

I'm afraid that all of you are only going to get plain ole me.

And, as always, I love to hear your comments. Please feel free to tell me what you think about what you see or read here.

Thanks again for reading.

"If the only prayer you said
in your whole life was,
'thank you,'
that would suffice."
--Meister Eckhart

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


The boys, Beulah and I decided to go on another adventure today. Our purpose was multifaceted. The main goal was to enjoy, yet another, perfect weather day--the kind that gently heralds in Autumn. I am also trying to be creative about how to get the boys outside and moving. If I achieve that goal, then I also accomplish an exercise session with Beulah dog, which is vitally important. So I decided to try Letterboxing with the boys.

I had read about this activity before and thought that it sounded like the grandest fun. The best explanation for what it is comes from the description of the book The Letterboxer's Companion:
"Letterboxing is an intriguing mix of hiking, puzzle solving, treasure hunting, and rubber stamp artistry, topped off with the thrill of discovery."

Basically, people create boxes that hold inside a bound blank book of some sort and a rubber stamp and then they hide the box somewhere in the world. At the Letterboxing website, people post where they've hidden their box, along with directions on how to find it. Once you find the box, the idea is that you will take the stamp that is inside and use it to stamp your own book, showing that you found the box. Then, you are to take your own stamp that you've chosen to represent yourself or your family and you stamp it in the book within the box, recording that you, too, have found the box. Many people make their own stamps, which is so very cool. At the website, we clicked on Missouri and found locations within our county. All of them happened to be at the same park, but it is a BIG park with miles of trails that twist and turn throughout the woods, so there is still a sense of grand adventure.

I decided that we would try and find one of the five boxes, as I had no idea how difficult this would be or how long we would have to hike to find it. It turned out to be the perfect level of difficulty for my boys' first attempt. It was easy enough to find, yet provided a basic challenge in following directions. The above pictures show the tree, or crag as it was described in the directions, in which we found the box, the box hidden inside the tree, and then the book within that held the stamps of all those who had found the book before us.

We will definitely do this again. As I don't know how to carve my own stamp just yet, we'll probably just try to pick one out at the craft store. It might be neat for each of the boys to pick out one for themselves, as well as have their own books to be stamped. Then, whenever we travel somewhere, we could look up possible Letterbox locations in the area, and have a grand adventure somewhere else in the country.

Can you tell that I thought this was as much fun as the boys?

"I decided that adventure was the best way to learn..."

Lloyd Alexander

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Climb a tree - it gets you closer to heaven.

~Author Unknown

Eat your heart out, Eric Carle!

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly.
--Richard Buckminster Fuller

Well, we are doing a bang up job with this monarch fostering. We can almost see them growing right before our eyes. Each day, Aidan and I sit down with each of our four containers and make observations about what we see. I ask Aidan some questions about the caterpillars, like whether there is any difference in food consumption based on the size of the caterpillar or whether a bigger caterpillar poops more or less than a smaller one. Then, when he gathers his thoughts, he narrates back to me what I should record in our log. One fun aspect of this daily activity is the hands on measuring that Aidan has gotten to do. We take the caterpillars out of the container, in order to clean it, and while they are out, Aidan takes the opportunity to get out his ruler and, as accurately as possible, measure each one's length. We're not able to measure every single one, every day since some of them like to hang out on the side of the container and we don't like to disturb them. Plus, they are really hard to unstick, even if we wanted to. But, it's really exciting to be able to record their ridiculous growth.

Two wonderful bonuses from this experience (which was supposed to be merely for fun and enjoyment but has turned into so much more):
1) Aidan has learned, from having to measure accurately, how an inch is, most simply, divided into fourths. So, when something is two fourths, that is the same as one half.
2) By having to dictate to me what he wants me to write, he has to put his thoughts into complete sentences. In just one week of doing this, his "writing" skills have improved immensely.

This project has shown me that "science" doesn't have to be all big and complicated. Instead, it's actually the smaller, more intimate observations and discoveries that make a bigger impression and, magically, light the fire of curiosity even more.

Painted Rock

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.
A.A. Milne

This is one of the many reasons that I love living in Missouri. Last week, the boys and I got a bee in our bonnet and decided to check out a nearby Conservation Area known as Painted Rock. It is a good chunk of acreage along the Osage River, with a very nice hiking trail just the right length for those with shorter legs.

It was an absolutely beautiful day. Cooler, Fall-ish temperatures, dappled sunlight streaming through the trees, a dog with boundless energy, and a view that was hard to beat. Glorious!

George and why he must now go

I can't believe that I'm having to tell you this. I never, in a million years, would have believed that it would come to this. But I'm afraid, dear readers, that the George that we grew to know and love has now become, should I say it? Okay, mature, in a "manly" kind of way. He has reached his peak, if you know what I mean. And I'll tell you this, it is not pretty.

Just look at those eyes! You can tell just by the way he's looking at you. He's thinking, "I wonder how hard it would be to fly up on her back and peck the daylights out of her?"

I know, I know. I can't believe it either. But it happened. George has turned on us and I'm afraid there's no going back.

It began slowly and, ironically, it happened to John first. I went away for a weekend recently and so John was on chicken duty while I was gone. Well, John doesn't ordinarily spend a lot of time around the chickens, especially when it comes to giving them their bread and butter, so when he told me that George wasn't all that friendly to him, I kind of wasn't surprised. I mean, he was wondering where his sweet Holly mama was, the one who normally visits him twice a day to feed and water him. The one upon whose face he has looked and thought, "Are you my mother?" since the very beginning. I could understand that his feathers might be a bit ruffled at this "strange" man barging in on his yard.

Oh, and that's another thing. It really is His yard. It has been for quite awhile. While they were yet chicks, Aidan made that observation. "Mom," he said. "Obrahma will never be the head rooster."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because he's not aggressive enough. See, look at George. He has no problem pecking other chicks. If Obrahma won't peck, he can't be the head rooster. It will be George."

Truer words were never spoken! George is the head chicken. If only he was strutting around the chicken yard, led by his head. Unfortunately, he is now led by one thing, and one thing only. The pursuit of his lady friends. Or any lady friends, I discovered. I guess by nature of being female, I am looked upon as another possible conquest, despite my being 25 times bigger than he, and a HUMAN, thank you very much!!!!!

The other morning, armed with a cultivator, just in case, I opened up the chicken door to let out the chickens. As is my custom, I let down their door/ramp and then stand to the side to let them out. I usually stand there and watch them all come down, greeting each of them and telling them good morning. Well, once George emerged, he began his morning ritual of chasing down any chicken that tried to get food or water before him, or, so it seemed, any chicken that looked at him wrong. When he finished all of that running around he turned and saw me and, I suppose, realized that he hadn't chased me yet. I felt it before I experienced it. He was going to come at me. I held up the cultivator (like a hoe but with a forked end) so that it would be between me and George. That didn't seem to deter him a bit and he briskly walked over to me. I didn't want to wait and see what he would try so I kind of nudged him away with the cultivator. He nudged back. I nudged him again. He nudged me again, but this time it was a little stronger. I came back stronger.

(I must admit, that at this point, despite my growing hysteria, I did take a moment to note that the fact that his body was strong meant that he had a lot of muscle which meant that he would weigh a lot which meant he would make for a fine roaster in the oven. You think I'm kidding but I am totally serious. If this chicken was going to go down, at least he would make for good eating.)

He tried to dance around to an unguarded side of me. I danced along with him. He kept coming towards me. I kept pushing back. You get the idea. I didn't want to wait around to see how creative he was going to get. I just wanted to get out of there. I danced myself around so that I could slowly back up to the barn and escape through the door. As a last ditch effort to save my face (figuratively and literally), I turned and ran full throttle. I closed the door in his face and ran all the way to the house. That was not fun at all.

So, we've talked to the boys and they are okay with it. George will be butchered along with the other roosters. We always said that George and Obrahma would stay, but I'm even wavering on Obrahma now. What if, once George is out of the picture, he decides to man up and take over? I would be crushed. I used to think it would be nice to have a rooster around so that we could have more baby chicks in the future but, honestly, we've got way too many chickens and I need baby chicks like I need a hole in my head! Plus, the crowing, which August was so excited about, is not even a need. Our neighbor has a few roosters now and we can hear his plenty fine.

It will be awfully quiet around here, sans the roosters, but it will be a whole lot calmer as well. I like calm.