Chickened Out, What the Cluck?

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chickenfestBY SARAH BARTHELOW
ILLUSTRATION BY TERESA GRASSESCHI

 

There’s nothing quite like a just-laid-that-day egg — or so I used to believe. Scores of urban chicken farmers — myself included — harbor fantasies of bright-yellow yolks, plump with nutrients, without considering what happens when those beloved backyard birds stop laying.

The first members of my flock were named Blanche and Lola. Blanche laid slightly elongated blue eggs and Lola petite brown ones. Eventually, the pair met an untimely end when I accidentally left the coop door ajar. A neighbor offered to donate a replacement pair. “They’ve still got a few good laying years left in them,” she promised. And so — gullibly — I acquired Betty and June.

Betty laid thin-shelled, watery brown eggs, until she succumbed to some sort of unknown chicken distemper a few weeks later. June, to this day, has not laid a single egg. So when I was reduced to running a well-funded retirement home for a washed-up old bird, I decided it was finally time to give June the proverbial axe. Or chef’s knife, as it were.

I did some research. I looked into chicken re-homing farms, mobile slaughtering units, and open urban green spaces with high coyote populations. I considered renaming her Justin Bieber to make doing the deed a little easier.

I called butchery expert Adam Danforth. “One bird?” he asked. “Just cradle it in your arm, slit its throat, and feel the warm blood flow over your hands. Seriously, that’s what I’d do.” Um, no thanks.

chickened outI read that the most humane butchery method is to stick a chicken in an upside-down traffic cone; it cuts off blood flow to the brain stem and makes the bird calm and docile. The head pops out the bottom of the cone so you can easily (or with great effort and multiple attempts, as the case may be) slit their throat and allow the blood to drain out.

When the day of reckoning arrived, my co-conspirator, Jess, showed up at my door sporting Carhartts and carrying a box of latex gloves, a traffic cone, and an axe. “In case the knife doesn’t work,” she explained. “OK,” I replied, skeptically, “I guess I’m ready.” And we headed to the backyard.

June’s adrenaline was pumping as hard as ours. We tried to snatch her in the chicken run, and she flew the coop, sprinting around the yard like a chicken with its head cut off (sorry). Finally, Jess managed to scoop her up, and we dumped her in the cone, which hung from the deck over an open yard-waste bin.

I paused, holding the chef’s knife in position. “Come on,” I thought to myself. “You can’t chicken out now!” I’ll spare you the gory details and just say that it was more traumatic for me than it was for June.

To go from Chicken Little to chicken dinner requires a lot more skill than I had imagined. I gave June a good dunk in hot water, and we plucked her feathers into the compost bin. Jess googled “how to butcher a chicken” and directed me where to cut to remove the unwanted organs and innards. I tried to forget that June had been sprinting around my yard just a few minutes earlier.

After making June into stock and retiring her to my freezer, I hung up my chicken-farmer hat for good, happy to shell out for the pasture-raised organic eggs at the grocery store. When all is said and done, my foray into yard-fresh eggs came out to somewhere around $26/dozen, not counting the cost of the traffic cone.

Sarah Barthelow is a freelance food writer and the voice behind the popular food podcast, And Eat it Too! She lives in Seattle, where she no longer keeps backyard chickens.

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