Yesterday was one long day. When I awoke early, it was pitch black outside with a full moon in the western sky. The winds were so strong – and loud – that I opened the door to see if was just the wind and not a truck mistakenly roaring down my driveway. The dark, combined with the roaring winds, made me feel just a bit uneasy. A quick peek out the window showed the coop dark for the first time since the warmer months. Whether the heat bulb had burned out or the wind had somehow had a hand in it, it didn’t matter – the scene was eery. The timing, ironic. Not much freaks me out in my life these days, and I don’t fear for much, even if we do live a bit off the road. But for some reason, with the combination of darkness, violent weather, the full moon and the task at hand, I was not feeling my full confidence. But we had a date at 7:30 with the Amish farmer. On we went…
To make things even a bit more harsh, when I opened the door I noticed we’d had our first snow. Not much, but enough to cast a slight white over the frosty leaves. It was so cold, and I just wasn’t ready for it. We had work to do, and this would make it less pleasant still. I handled the boxes in thick gloves, but Elihu’s job required bare hands. His job was to vent the hens to find the non-layers. It was easy pickins; they were still on the roosting bars tucked up into fluffy breasts and resting when we entered. A couple of the new roosters insisted on crowing (very loud in such a small space) and it helped further my resolve in getting them gone. But getting Shirley Nelson? And Judson? He was named after my beloved home in Evanston. One of our first guys. And all the rest, too. Each had some story. Jessie was our very first-ever hatched chicken. Man, for me this was hard stuff. But Elihu honestly didn’t seem to feel the same. In fact, he was light hearted as he plucked the hens from the bars and checked their vents. “Nope” he said, brightly, “She’s a non-layer. Goodbye, Gabriella. Goodbye, Inca. Sorry girls. But thanks.” he handed them down to me, and I proceeded to shove them, protesting and squawking, into a box.
We took the longer but less winding road. We wanted to give them as stress-free a ride as possible. I got into the groove, and began to get myself mentally ready. About halfway through the thirty mile drive the car began to smell of fresh chicken poop, and it helped motivate me to stay the course. When we arrived at the farm, Ben was just starting up. He was in a good mood and amenable to my chat. I always had questions, and thankfully, he was happy to answer them. A lot had changed since my first visit to his place almost five years ago. I remembered the adrenaline that pumped through my system the first time. It was still a sad place, it still had me a bit on edge as I listened to the mad flapping of the protesting birds, the clack-clack-clack of their legs kicking against the metal cones as they bled out. Ich. I tried to be a professional farmer this time, I tried to keep my focus on our end goal here. I distracted myself by sharing some of our experiences with him. I laughed casually at the two of us from a few years back. I tried to act like this was nothing at all to me now. Like this stuff was natural to us, like we were now somehow peers of this man. As if. He commended us on how far we’d come, how much we’d learned. “Some folks come in here and kiss the birds one last time”, he laughed to me. “And some of em even cry.” I just shook my head with him in shared amazement. Some people…
The birds came back home in the same boxes they left in. Only this time they were in plastic bags and covered in ice. As I hauled the boxes off to the car, I was impressed with how much heavier they seemed now. Of course they were almost all in one box, and there was the ice, but nonetheless they felt different. We all know the phenomenon of living weight being easier to lift, the animal in question – whether human or not – always helps out a bit. Whether it’s in the form of a struggle or a simple willingness to be lifted, the animation of life just seems to lessen the weight. Wow. It was a lot of bird. Let’s see, if we were walking away with over fifty pounds of chicken, we should be eating for quite a few months. If I could actually eat these guys. I wasn’t still convinced. Even after all this. Yeah, I was still a little sad, and this was harder than I’d thought it would be.
Just an hour ago I made peace with cutting up and roasting our first bird. I inspected the legs and saw the few feathers that were left were dark. Cora? Choco? Missy? Forget it. Just forget it, I told myself again and again. Keep going… Although these were all old birds, and they’d probably be better made into soup, I still wanted to try and see just how tender or tough these old birds were. I went online and watched a quick tutorial on cutting up a whole chicken. I sharpened my knife. And I began. Oh boy. Some of the goop inside was still there. And so too was a tract full of tiny, undeveloped eggs. Oh dear. What to do? I googled for answers but none came. Anyway, what exactly does one google for in this case? “Lungs and bits of intestine left inside chicken, ok to bake as is?” Yeeps. Ok, keep going. I fairly mangled this poor dear. All this progress, and now it comes to a clunky halt at the hands of the chef? Julia Child would freak out if she saw what I was doing to this poor bird! I did my best, however, and decided to make up for the lack of butchering skill with a tasty rub. I created an impromptu, Pakistani-inspired mix of spices, mixed it with butter (fat always improves things, doesn’t it?) and I spread the pieces in a pan. Rubbed and smothered them as best I could, put them in the oven and hoped for the best.
To be honest, I don’t know why it should freak me out that the tiny eggs were still there. Nor that some of the intestine was still there either. Really, I love chicken liver. And I eat their eggs. And the meat, of course. It’s all the same stuff really. Most important, there’s no poop here. That’s the only real potential problem I guess. My hope is that the smell of the roasting bird will help me overcome my ambivalence about dinner. And as I sit here now and write, that scent is now filling the house. While most often it’s a welcome thing, I cannot say that I’m feeling the same tonight. If only we hadn’t named them. If only the cavity had been entirely clean. If only. But what on earth am I whining about? Half of the world eats birds like this. I’m gonna guess not every cook in every corner of the world cleans the bird as perfectly as possible. And many a grandmother has wrung the neck of her own dinner.
I’m clearly still a beginner at all of this, and I have a long way to go til this feels completely right. I know unquestionably that this is the way to go, but there’s a lot of cultural stuff to overcome. My bird might be done soon, but it’ll take me just a little bit longer.