There was a period of about 18 months when I was a vegetarian, with some months stricter than others. There was an absolutely ridiculous time when I ate meat in general but the only pork I consumed was prosciutto imported from Italy, “because they know how to treat their pigs,” I reasoned. Now, I accept that I am going to eat meat because it is delicious and nutritious, but I try to be mindful about the source of my meat.
Mano Farm is on the same property as Funny Farms, a small farm that raises pastured chickens. Quin and Justin trade vegetables for a chicken every other week, and they are truly delicious. Seizing the opportunity of this proximity to a clean, sustainable, humane chicken farm, I asked one of the farm’s owners, Paul, if I could be involved with the harvest. On Wednesday morning, I walked down to the front of the property and began my education about chicken processing.
First, we went to the pasture where the chickens were roaming around these Chicken Tractors modeled after the Joel Salatin pastured chicken practices. (Salatin is featured in Food, Inc. and mentioned in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.) We put them in these crates to transfer to the area where the killing cones, scalder, and plucker were. After disinfecting the processing tables, knives and storage coolers, Paul started the exsanguination process.
The chickens are put head first into these cones, which have a bucket placed under them to catch the blood. I was startled at first by the amount that the chickens flopped around while bleeding out, but Paul told me that it was natural and I eventually got used to it. After they stopped moving completely, they were transferred into a scalder. The water was 140° F, hot enough to loosen the feathers from the chicken but not hot enough to start cooking the meat.
After scalding, the chickens went in the plucker (above). They spun around for about 45 seconds, and when they come out, they are nearly feather-free. At the processing table, my first job was to take out any feathers that remained in the birds, or any that were not fully removed. I felt like a chicken dermatologist ridding the skin of imperfections.
Watching the others do the more intense processing (i.e., chopping feet off, chopping heads off, gutting the birds) made me want to learn how to do it. I slowly graduated to feet removal, and I removed a few oil glands from the tail end of the bird. Apparently, leaving the oil gland on gives the chicken a funky flavor. Eventually, though, I went through the step-by-step process of removing the crop (a sac where chickens store food), loosening the trachea, cutting open the bottom, and coaxing the entire inner cavity out in one fell swoop. In the process, I learned everything I need to know about chicken anatomy. I ended up processing two chickens almost entirely by myself; I did everything except for the neck removal, which was a lot harder than I was expecting.
For lunch after this mind-blowing experience, I brought home a couple of chicken hearts, pan-seared them, and tossed them with kelp noodles, lettuce from the farm, sesame seeds, shredded carrot, and a sesame oil vinaigrette. Chicken heart is delicious, especially when it was beating just a few hours before you ate it.
Despite the fairly lax tone of this post, I am pretty sure I am still suffering from PCSD (post chicken stress disorder). It is good to know the process behind getting chicken from the farm to my belly, and it motivated me to learn how to prepare offal properly. Taking the guts out and putting them on the compost pile made me want to learn how to make sausage from fresh chicken intestine, using as much of the bird as possible. I hope that I am able to go through that process one day.