Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and cat in Portland, Oregon.

Bye bye birdies

The flock gets halved

By
July 16, 2008

By the second week of July, our rawrking Black Australorps had matured into fully crowing birds. At 5 p.m. and again at 5 a.m., they would crow in a round, a trio of black birds taking turns announcing their manliness. This could last 10 minutes or an hour, depending on how musical the guys were feeling. The smaller Araucanas, meanwhile, were totally silent.

So now we had three noisy boys (have a listen to their warbling, below) and three quiet birds of indeterminate gender. My husband had been considering taking a day off work to slaughter the two Australorps that had been the noisiest, but when we realized that we now had three certified roosters, he lost heart.

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Yes, we have books showing how to kill birds. The nails stuck in a chopping block to hold the bird’s neck down while you hold it and strike the (hopefully just one) blow. The demos of how to drain the bird’s blood. The pot of boiling water to scald the feathers loose so you can pluck them more easily. The anatomical diagrams indicating how to carefully carve out the bird’s entrails without breaking them and spoiling the meat.

birds in a box
The three Black Australorps, waiting in a box at the poultry processor.

Call us cold-blooded, but it wasn’t the killing that made us nervous so much as the butchering. If you’re going to go to the trouble of turning your backyard into a makeshift abattoir and get blood and feathers everywhere, you want the dressed meat to be perfect. You want that bird to taste like you spent eight hours preparing it, damn it. And, frankly, we weren’t sure we’d be able to do a good job.

I envisioned uncookable, inedible hunks of bird, and felt appalled at the idea of a wasted death. Three wasted deaths, even.

So I asked the farmer who currently provides us with our farm eggs — Dan Turner of Wooden Bridge Farm in Skamokawa, Washington — where he “processes” (that’s the industry term) his chickens and ducks and turkeys. Then I put in a call to said processor: Scott at Harrington Poultry, in Boring, Oregon.

poultry pickup door
The Poultry Pick-Up door, with our cooler waiting beside it.

For three bucks a bird, Harrington would take care of everything. “How long would we have to wait?” I asked. “Oh, you just go have breakfast and come back, and you’ll be ready to go,” Scott cheerfully replied.

On Tuesday night we caged the three Black Australorps in the garage and left them with water but no food. (It’s easier to butcher a bird with an empty gut.) On Thursday morning — after their last rousing fanfare at 5 a.m. — we squeezed them into a plastic box and bungee-corded a chicken-wire lid on top, then hit the road.

By 7:30 we had found Harrington Poultry — a farmhouse with a long building in back for the chicken processing — and dropped off our three birds in their box. Other small-scale farmers were unloading crates crammed full of white ducks and russet-colored roosters. Scott, in a long yellow apron, wrote down my name and our puny total number of birds, and told us to leave our cooler by the pickup door, at the other end of the building from the loading bay. We said goodbye to the birds. And then we left.

Would we have felt more conflicted if the birds that turned out to be boys were the Araucanas? Probably. The Australorps, while perfectly mellow, pretty much exemplified the phrase “dumb clucks.” After our lone chicken break from the run — all six birds running around the back yard — the Australorps were the easiest to catch, while wily Araucana Stevie, of course, managed to hide in the shrubbery for a good 10 minutes.

The Australorps also lacked personality, which meant that we didn’t feel particularly affectionate toward them. And until they began to grow combs and wattles, we couldn’t tell them apart visually at all. One bird eventually grew two enormous wattles, a second only one large wattle, and the third grew tiny wattles. During their last week or so of life, we dubbed them Mr. Wattles, One Wattle, and No Wattles.

I suppose you could accuse us of being eugenicists (you killed the dumb ones!) or racists (you killed the black ones!) instead of just plain sexist (you killed the boys!). You could also accuse us of passing the buck to Harrington Poultry, paying blood money to professionals to handle our fowl assassinations for us. You would probably be right on all counts.

bagged chickens
Our three Australorps, bagged to go.

But mostly we just felt relieved to have people who knew what they were doing take care of it for us. We ate breakfast at Dean's Homestyle Cafe in Damascus, Oregon, figuring that any red-painted shack with a dozen cars parked out front was probably a good bet — and it turned out to be the Double R Diner of Damascus, with all the diner basics (chicken-fried steak, liver and onions) and mugs for regulars with their names on them. We drove back to Harrington, where we handed over nine bucks in exchange for four plastic bags: three small chicken bodies and one bag of giblets. They fit easily inside our little cooler.

I poked my head inside the processing building and watched two rows of women separate chicken parts by hand. There was blood on the floor, but it didn’t smell bad. Frankly, everybody seemed to be having a good time, chatting and laughing.

They knew what they were doing, and were good at it. I was glad we’d handed our birds over to them.

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1. by Carrie Floyd on Jul 16, 2008 at 11:35 PM PDT

Caroline,
It’s been a great story from the beginning, but tell me this isn’t the end — is it soup, pie, or salad for those chickens?

2. by caleb on Jul 17, 2008 at 3:38 PM PDT

We spatchcocked and grilled two of them. Lacking woodchips, as we always do, we used smoked paprika in the rub. They were small, the fire was hot, and the cooking time was about 25 minutes.

Caroline thought they were a little tough, I guess they were, especially the thighs, but I didn’t mind. The flavor was great, I’m sure in part from the brine and in part from all the dandelion leaves we fed them.

The third one is in the freezer and will probably get a stew-ish treatment. Coq au vin, or mole, perhaps?

3. by anonymous on Nov 14, 2010 at 7:43 PM PST

This post is great. I’ve got a pet turkey that I’m thinking about taking there.
Thanks for the info.

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