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

Chicken dinner

Australorps on the grill

July 21, 2008

Back in May, the Seattle Times caught wind of the fact that urban hipsters like to raise chickens in their back yards. (Apparently, according to the Times, avant-garde Seattleites are also raising miniature goats. Until we decide to make our own goat cheese, I doubt this will happen on our property.) The Times quoted a chicken expert as saying that “chickens are sexy right now.” True, that. But the paper also published the following paragraph:

Like more and more folks, Wanerstrand originally wanted chickens for the environmentally friendly purpose of raising food in the city, decreasing the amount of fuel required for eggs by raising chickens instead of buying eggs trucked to a grocery store.

Wait a sec. Nobody I’ve talked to about raising chickens has ever claimed that keeping your own birds will cut down on carbon emissions, much less citing the environment as a major reason for becoming a fowl fancier.

I don’t care how many eggs your chickens lay or how much food you grow in your garden. You’re still going to have to buy at least some of your groceries, and for most of us (car-free diehards like Sarah Gilbert and Matthew Amster-Burton aside), that’s going to eventually mean getting in your car.

Avoiding eggs at the store — even locally raised ones — on the grounds that you’re saving the planet because those eggs didn’t have to make a truck trip ignores the fact that you still need to get to the store.

And if you’re keeping chickens in your back yard, chances are you had to burn plenty of gas to get all those bird supplies. Feed stores generally aren’t located within city limits, nor are they on bus lines — but then, you probably couldn’t carry lumber and feed and chicken wire and a bale of hay all at once on the bus anyway.

grilled chicken
A freshly grilled bird.

I suppose you could mail-order everything, including the chicken coop, but what’s the fun in that? Besides, that just means that airplanes and UPS had to use fuel to get all that stuff to your house. Using mail order, my friends, is just another way of passing the carbon buck.

Forget the planet. The best reasons for keeping your own chickens were cited 30 years ago by John Festus Adams in his hilarious Backyard Poultry Raising: “The reasons any particular person keeps, or wants to keep, chickens will be found to include one or more of these three options: for eggs, for meat, or for the hell of it.”

When my husband and I decided to raise our own chickens, our motivations were, in order of priority, top-quality eggs and entertainment. The meat part we hoped to avoid — not because we don’t like to eat chicken, but because having to dispose of roosters would be difficult. In our ideal back yard, we would’ve wound up with six hens and could’ve given three of them away to happy henkeepers. But in the sexist world of chicken raising, nobody wants roosters.

So we ate ours. After we brought them home from the local slaughterhouse, we plucked the remaining pinfeathers from two of the birds (the third went into the freezer) and brined them for a day before grilling them. They were moist and flavorful and — because I know you’re going to ask — we didn’t feel the least discomfort at eating roosters we had raised ourselves.

Of course, these birds hadn’t been raised for meat, so they weren’t exactly the perfect eating birds. At three months of age, they were still smaller than most meat birds are at two months old. And they were pretty active birds eating an ordinary (i.e., not fattening) diet, so they were a little lean. Not tough — just a little, um, chewy. We ate them hot off the grill and then shredded the leftovers for a pasta made with salsa verde.

I could feel guilty about all these fowl meals. But I’d feel more guilty if we’d done anything else.

We could’ve given the birds away, for example. (I did actually ask a farmer if he needed more boys on his farm, but the answer was no.) Giving the birds away, however, would’ve most likely meant that somebody else would’ve eventually eaten them.

We also could’ve simply abandoned the birds — you know, “Be free, little bird!” Freeing our fowl, however, would’ve also meant that somebody else — local dogs, cats, raccoons, or hawks — would’ve eventually eaten them. (Our local pet shelters don’t take roosters, of course.)

Eating the birds we’d raised ourselves, we decided, was ultimately our responsibility. Anything else would’ve been just another instance of passing the feathered buck.

And they were mighty tasty, too.

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by Kathleen Holt on Jul 30, 2008 at 9:58 PM PDT

Good for you for finding a processor to take care of the boys (RIP). I’ve heard horror stories from friends who tried to do the deed themselves and they’re still reeling from it.

2. by Caroline Cummins on Jul 31, 2008 at 4:09 PM PDT

We have yet to eat the third bird, who’s still chillin’ in our freezer. I did talk to one friend before we found our processor who shared her personal horror story of helping her father kill a pet duck. She said it was a “nasty smelly job” and “horrible,” but concluded, “I think if you’re going to eat meat, you should recognize that you’re eating an animal.” In other words, if you can’t handle the idea that a chicken breast was once attached to a living bird, perhaps you really should be a vegetarian.

3. by wayne on Aug 13, 2008 at 5:18 PM PDT

Killing your own is difficult right up to the moment after the cleaver falls...and then it’s just due process followed by an excellent meal. When it came time to ‘deliver’ my own cochin roosters, we had our eye contact and tender moment before the coup. I rest in the comfort that they had excellent lives of scratching around in the garden, sparring in the open, etc. I only regret that I hadn’t done it a few days sooner before their testosterone kicked in and they pecked each other bloody.

4. by Caroline Cummins on Aug 14, 2008 at 11:31 AM PDT

I have no residual guilt over killing our three roosters. And, frankly, I was less daunted by the actual killing (although I was nervous about chopping off my own fingers in my clumsiness) than the lengthy process of dressing the bird. I didn’t want all that effort to go to waste.

5. by Bradley Cramer on Aug 14, 2010 at 6:11 AM PDT

I would just like to point out that even though most of the fossil fuel you kept from being used to bring chicken to the supermarket was offset by what you did to raise them, you still cut down on the other environmental hazzards that conventional poultry production creates. Poultry from the supermarket is raised in confinement houses which overuse antibiotics, and contribute to water table contamination from all the manure run-off among other things. Even though you only raised a few of your own chickens you still made a small dent in that flawed system. Good for you!

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