Winner, winner chicken dinner…

8 May

It’s hard to think about where our food comes from. Particularly when it’s so easy to go to the grocery store and throw that shrink-wrapped chicken breast in the cart for tonight’s dinner. The reason it’s hard to think about where it comes from (before it lands in the store) is because we don’t have to. If you delve into the topic and share what you learn, even in a way that children can understand, you might find a surprising number of people would just rather not know.

I had never owned a chicken prior to moving here. I had never eaten a truly free-range chicken egg before. I had never raised baby chicks and I had most certainly never processed a chicken.

The overall chicken experience here has evolved rather slowly over time, in stark contrast to our first on the job baby chick raising training – that was a trial by fire. We started out with 15 1-day old chicks from TSC that first April after moving here in early 2009. I let my son just randomly pick out chicks and then we picked 7 pullets. Pullets are supposed to be female chicks. If you buy your chicks “straight run” odds are you will end up with about 50% roosters. At the time, I’m not sure if we knew what any of those terms meant.

We lovingly started our baby chicks with all of the gear, a large, tall plastic storage bin, heat lamps, chick waterers, feed troughs and pine shavings. We immediately realized that this was a very high maintenance period in the life cycle of a chicken. They needed to be checked many times a day. They messed up the water, scattered the chick feed everywhere, and pooped A LOT.

What a relief to get them out to the coop and in a small enclosure so they could eat some grass, scratch around and act like a chicken.

After the chicks feathered out, we were able to tell if they resembled a Rhode Island Red, A Black Astrolorp or a Buff Orphington. We had a few of each and one Buff Orphington hen. And yes, of course we called her “Buffy”, she was our favorite.

Eventually they were large and agile enough to range freely. This was when we started counting our roosters. Uh, oh, we wanted A rooster or TWO. Not EIGHT. They comically started out with very sad, raspy crowing attempts. We giggled. They strutted around and established pecking orders, challenging each other with neck feathers fluffed out, wings forward and beaks striking. Our baby chicks, which we had tenderly held and named – didn’t really want us to hold them anymore. We felt rejected.

Needless to say, too many roosters can spoil a hen house. In fact, they were getting so aggressive that they were attacking our hens. And when they almost tried to kill our beloved Buffy that was the last straw.

So, we got on the internet and studied how to process a chicken. We set a date and gathered our courage along with our equipment. We put a large pot of water on the stove and made a plan. We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.

Because our motivation to process these roosters arose out of our protective instinct for our beloved Buffy. We felt justified in our cause, that she had been wronged, and if we did not terminate and eat the two worst offenders, she would be gone. Justice must be served up in the form of fried chicken. Heck, if we sold them or gave them away chances are they’d meet the same fate, shouldn’t we at least get dinner for our efforts?

The two roosters were targeted. The first one went quickly, but the second one got wise and ran off. We finally got him too. Sweaty, tired and feeling a little sick; we tasked ourselves to the real work: plucking feathers.

After plucking, cleaning and cutting up the chicken, we were a little dismayed by the looks of our scrawny leggy chickens. They looked so much bigger running around with all of those feathers! They sure didn’t look like store bought chicken. We had read that they might be tough so we soaked them in buttermilk overnight in the refrigerator.

We ate fried chicken the very next day, a sunny Sunday summer afternoon. It was pretty good. It was a lot of work. We were exhausted, it had been a long, dramatic weekend.

One week later we had to do it all over again. As nature would have it, the next two most aggressive roosters jockeyed for position, reestablishing rank. Buffy was still getting attacked and they were just as vicious. We realized that all the roosters, save one, must go. That was a tough realization to swallow.

We went through a variety of methods and mishaps to achieve our goal of freezer roosters. Needless to say, there was a learning curve. I would hasten to add that all of our methods were planned and evaluated for what we felt would be the most humane/pain-free end to a chicken life. Theory didn’t always play out as we hoped in our fumbled attempts at practice. For those botched jobs, we are genuinely regretful.

Later, even that one remaining rooster, the last one, attacked Jack, our son and so he had to go into the freezer too.

With no more roosters, our hens laid their large beautiful free-range eggs in uninterrupted bliss. But with no more chicken meat in the freezer, and a palate developed along with a conscience for homegrown chicken, we tentatively started researching the different types of meat birds out there…

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