I’d never gotten an invitation like it. Did we want to come over this weekend or next, a friend e-mailed, and help her and her husband butcher chickens? She would do the actual slaughtering but they needed help with plucking, mostly. They’d give us a few chickens in return.
It was a good deal all around. They have two kids our Kai likes to play with, we’d get a chance to see how they do it, and we’d get some actual meat birds to eat, as opposed to our own roosters or the occasional laying hen that was really best for making stew and stock. Yes.
But when I woke up Saturday and the rain that had been going for days was still beating on the roof, I snuggled back down in bed with Kai, half-hoping for a reprieve. By the time I was up and dialing her number, I had dawdled to the point where we were going to be late for our 9am start time.
We were on, said our friend. They’d set up a station in the hay barn for washing and plucking, out of the rain and wind. It was actually good weather for the task, because flies wouldn’t be a bother.
We got there at 10. They had recruited another friend to babysit, to be paid in chickens as well, so we had four unencumbered adults to do the butchering – an unprecedented eight hands on deck. Of the four, I was the clear winner of the Most Useless Award, not so much because I was ponderously pregnant as because I was the only one who had never butchered a chicken. On our homestead, where we have only ever done one or two chickens at a time, that has been husband Joe’s task. And to make myself even less of an asset, here I was asking if I could take pictures as our friend thanked her birds then slit their throats. Was I going to write about it? I apologetically answered: yes, probably, feeling my chances of being invited back next year becoming substantially slimmer.
They had raised 40 Cornish Crosses, or “broilers,” and we were going to get through as many of them today as we could. The first part was the worst, of course. It is never comfortable to watch a creature die, and yet, these were free-ranging birds that would die quickly, outdoors, in the place where they’d lived, by the hand of the person who had raised them. Everything about it was ideal.
As she worked, our friend glanced down at her blood-splattered raincoat. Silly to have washed it, she said. She had just taken it out of the dryer because yesterday, her toddler had tumbled out of a shopping cart in the middle of the pristine Apple store and started bleeding all over the place. They left without the phone she’d gone to get, but with the bloody Apple shirt of the nice guy who worked at the store, which they weren’t sure whether to return. What’s the etiquette there? That she could tell a funny story and butcher chickens at the same time – clearly a pro.
She asked if either Joe or I wanted to try doing a bird. My theory is that if something scares me, I should try it; anything worth doing is a little intimidating. But I looked at Joe, who shook his head no. It’s sacred, he said softly, meaning that the person who raised the birds should be the one to slaughter them. Maybe next year, I thought, relieved.
Once she’d done four chickens, her husband came over to tell us everything was set. We left her to continue and carried the dead chickens by the feet to the hay shed. I tried to both carry my chicken and take pictures of the guys in front of me, carrying theirs. Seeing me struggle, Joe took my chicken from me wordlessly. I ran over to the car and threw my camera in; enough was enough.
Their four-year-old was waiting in the shed, standing on a chair so he could reach the table. He wanted to help with the plucking. We dunked each chicken in one tub to wash it, and then in a pot of scalding water (kept hot in a cooler) to loosen the feathers. Then we plucked. And plucked and plucked.
There’s a little technique involved, but plucking is the part that takes time but not much skill. Joe and I kept plucking as our host moved on to eviscerating, and his son asked what that meant, and he explained. Eventually the little guy joined the younger kids inside, where they were making buttermilk biscuits to eat with the chili we were having for lunch. We worked and chatted until lunchtime; we’d gotten 28 birds done, enough that we could call it quits and be home by naptime, with three bagged birds to put in our own freezer.
It was a rare kind of day, I thought as I drifted off, where I felt both like I deserved this nap because I’d been productive, and that we had all had fun, together. Usually we have to divide and conquer. In a few days, for instance, Kai would be my date at a friend’s wedding in LA. For all of us to jet off for four days while there’s a barn that needs finishing before winter, animals that need feeding, eggs that need collecting, tomatoes that need canning? We’d never get anywhere. But this old school way, where fun happens around work – this is the kind of playdate we can all go on.