This post may have disturbing content to some.
The night’s sleep was interesting. I had about three separate episodes of dreams where I was late to get up. One of them I found myself back in Rhode Island and after glancing at the time I knew I wouldn’t make it back to the farm. David had expressed that he wanted me ready by 8.00am. We had a busy day but our first farm chore was lengthy. Before feeding the chickens and checking for eggs we needed to grab a rooster.
I held the old wooden door as David slipped in and plucked the white bodied rooster from the mass of birds. Disapproving squawks resonated through the valley. David eased the door open, rooster tucked snugly under his arm, and walked across the pen. The cool morning breeze rushed through the valley catching the budding walnuts and burr oaks creating a whooshing that resembled the ocean. Was I still dreaming, back in Rhode Island? David inverted the bird, to much of his disapproval, and placed him snugly in a metal funnel shaped apparatus. He turned toward me and held out the worn wooden handle of a knife, one that his father had used in his lifetime. With a quick gesture towards the bird he told me, “You’re up.” David grasped the bird’s temples and exposed it neck so I could get a good view.
The rooster was calm, as calm as any inverted bird with its head sticking out of a metal cone could be. The breeze pushed the earthy aroma of manure into my nostrils and the valley – song birds still asleep – was almost silent. I’ve never seen fear in an animal, but I am confident that the rooster wasn’t scared. David drew and invisible line with his finger to show me where to make my cut. With him holding the birds head still I made a swift cut deep enough to severe the artery. The exsanguination took no more than a minute, the crimson blood flowing steadily out of the bird’s body. After the flow decreased to a slow dribble the body seemingly came back to life. David had forewarned me about this; it wasn’t the animal struggling to live, rather the cells, starved for oxygen, going into shock. As the bird went through its final throes, I turned away.
Once all the life had drained from the rooster we took it inside. David had put a pot of water on the stove, now at a rolling boil. He plunged the bird into the pot for about 60 seconds and removed the bird handing it to me. After a quick demo, I plucked the bird, removed the feet, and, with David’s help, eviscerated it. Once extracted, I placed the warm offals in a small dish to be used later. I asked David how I should process the meat and he gave me a fabulous answer, “It’s your chicken, you do whatever you want.” He was right, it was my chicken. I quickly butchered the bird just to separate the parts to make them cook faster. After a quick sear, I dropped the meat into the soup and let it simmer for a few hours. I used the bones for stock. The offals – liver, heart, gizzard and testicles, which I found to be delicious- and meat in the soup. The remaining pieces of meat clinging to the bones were cleaned and I gave them back to David for his dogs. All told not a single part of the bird went to waste.
We dined the following night on my chicken and it was amazing. The rooster had such a strong ‘chickeny’ flavor, that when I mentioned it to David he jested, “It almost tastes like rabbit.” He wasn’t wrong. I have never been able to make a dish from an animal I knew; something I processed from the beginning to end. As a chef it was one of the finest experiences I could have asked for. As we enjoyed the meal I fully understood what David meant: “It’s your chicken.” I certainly felt like it was. If anything my dreams that night may have been an indication of my apprehension. I had asked David, when he first told me the plan to slaughter a rooster, that I wanted to participate. I wanted to understand a process of the food system that happens hundreds of miles away from any kitchen. From start to finish I felt a myriad of emotions. I was nervous that I wouldn’t deliver a swift death; anxious about the killing itself; remorseful that I was taking life; but most of all humbled to be able to witness and participate processing a chicken from start to finish in a humane, responsible and respectful manner. But not just any chicken: my chicken.