Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Farm Class

I killed a chicken.  Well, technically I killed three.  And, more technically, they were all roosters.  But I did it.  Whew, I had to get that off my chest.

If you'd like to discover how I ended up killing three roosters, read on.  If not, the please enjoy this LOL Cat.

On Friday, D and I took some "farm classes" from the lovely couple who own Sand Creek Farm in Cameron, Texas.  We learned chicken processing and chicken meat canning , and  I took a soap making class.  Oh, by the way, "processing" is the fancy euphemism for killing and butchering an animal.

First of all, let me apologize for a lack of pictures.  I intended to take my camera and document the classes (with the consent of Sand Creek Farm, of course), but in my excitement and nervousness, I just forgot.  It wasn't until we were on our way home that I remembered my camera.  So I've filled this post with stock photos from Google Images.

I'd also like to say that everyone present was as gentle as possible to the birds. No bird suffered or was harmed unnecessarily.

Processing:  Definitely the hardest part for me.  Up until this day, the biggest thing I'd killed myself was a cockroach.  I mean, I once hit a possum with my car but that was by accident.  And I'd never even picked up a chicken.  The roosters who were going to meet their maker were several years old (this is important later).  They'd been roaming the farm and were starting to make a nuisance of themselves, so it was time to go.

If you want a down-and-dirty tutorial of chicken processing, try this one at

Sorry, buddy, today was not your lucky day.
So the day starts off with Ben, one of the owners, catching up two roosters and bringing them over to the killing cones.

The birds go in head first and then you kill them (ideally) by slicing the jugular on either side of the windpipe, without cutting into the windpipe.  This allows a much more peaceful and less painful death by bleeding out rather than by suffocation.  So, Ben did the first one, another classmate did the second.  Then it was my turn.  I was feeling a little queasy at this point and a little lightheaded.  I didn't know if I could go through with this.  But the class was my idea and I'd signed up for it.  It was time to put on my big girl pants and just do it.  I had a lot of stops and starts and I just couldn't bring myself to do it the first few times.  Ben, thankfully, was very patient with me and helped me figure out the best technique and offered encouraging words, "Just do it!  Get the first one down and you can do the rest."  I lost my cool a few times, but when it was over, I'd dispatched three roosters.

After I'd done my first one, Ben says to me, "Okay, now go catch two more and bring them over here."  WHAT?!  I have to catch these guys too?  Nobody mentioned that before.  I never felt more like a prissy city girl than I did trying to catch those roosters.  They're all in a covered pen and you catch them by hooking a leg with a little metal "V" on a stick and pulling the rooster to you.  Then you grab his legs and your done.  

Sounds easy, right?  Ha.  To catch these dudes, you have to ignore every ounce of self-preservation instinct in you.  So, hooking a leg was simple enough.  Till you try to pull the rooster towards you.  He starts to flap and that other leg with it's spur is coming at you and his beak just has your name on it.  You instinctively want to pull back, but, oh no, you have to go forward and grab that flapping, squawking bird before you get pecked or spurred.   Oh, and I mentioned that these roosters were several years old.  This wasn't their first rodeo.  They knew how to get themselves out of tight spots, they'd survived several previous attempts at being caught up for Sunday dinner, that's how they'd made it this far.  And those spurs were big.  Over 3 inches on a couple of them.

Yeah,  THAT'S the spur.
So there I was, hooking a leg, pulling bird to me and trying to catch this leg that was just a blur.  I missed time and time again.  I just knew by their clucking that these birds were laughing at me.  "Hey, check this girl out, she thinks she's gonna catch one of us.  Ha!"

I had no luck for a several minutes and then Ben comes over.  "No, reach in there and grab that bird - don't protect your face!  Hook him and go in and put your hands on him.  Then grab his legs."  I never felt so silly in my life - wrestling with a 6 pound bird and the bird winning time and time again.  Finally I got the hang of it.  I hooked a leg, pulled the bird towards me and pushed the bird down to the ground with one hand while I dropped the hook and caught up his legs with the other.  Elated with my success, I ran over, put that bird in the cone and let D take care of it.

After the killing, comes the scalding and plucking.  That's pretty self-explanatory.  Then was the evisceration.  Eviscerating a chicken is MUCH more than just taking off the head and feet and pulling out the guts.  It takes time and you have to be careful.  For those of us who were new to it, it took nearly 10 minutes per bird.  Now imagine a factory farm that takes something like 30 seconds per bird.

Canning:  This was fun.  I'd water bath canned twice before and had both a disaster and a success.  To can the meat from the roosters, we used pressure canners made by All-American.  Wow, these things are tanks.  I was a little nervous to use a pressure canner since I've never even seen one in person but it was so easy.

All-American pressure canner
Canning consists of 5 steps.  1) prepare the jars/lids/gaskets, 2) prepare the food, 3) put the food in the jars, 4) add liquid, 5) cook in the canner.  It's much simpler than you think.  After we broke down the birds, we packed the jars and added water to fill each jar about 3/4 full.  Then we put the lids on and packed the canners.  Then we processed for 90 minutes.  After the jars cool (which can take overnight), the resulting product is luscious, melt-off-the-bone meat with a gelatinous liquid surrounding the meat.  You can use this liquid to flavor soups, stews and sauces to go with your chicken.  Yum.

Soap Making:   This was the most fun.  We made the soap with tallow rendered from the cattle on the farm, organic olive oil and coconut oil.  You make soap by combining oils with lye mixed with water, mix thoroughly, pour in a mold and you're done.  It's pretty simple but the lye is also pretty dangerous.

We made a cinnamon spice scented soap and an unscented oatmeal soap.  I brought back a bar of the cinnamon spice soap.  It's a little strong smelling while you're actually using it but it leaves a really pleasing scent on your skin afterwards.

All the soaps are scented with essential oils.  If the recipes include things like lavender, cinnamon or oatmeal, it's ground on the spot from whole ingredients.  It's very nice to know what goes into each batch and know that it was sourced carefully and that the maker cares so much about what she produces.  You can pronounce and visualize every single ingredient that we used.

I'm very glad that we took these classes.  It helps bring home the fact that for every meat product you eat, an animal dies to give you that meat.  We have to respect the animal and our food.  To know that a chicken died to make a McNugget is more than a little depressing.  To know that a chicken died to make a beautiful, sustaining Sunday meal for a family that will last several through reincarnations as chicken soup or chicken tacos over the next few days, is something different altogether.  I had a lot of respect for the roosters that day.    Now I know exactly what it takes to put my dinner on my table.

The soap making exemplified using all parts of the animal.  While it wasn't chicken, we were using fat from cattle on the farm to make the soap.  It was beautiful and very respectful.

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