A little over a week ago, at JR’s behest, I began researching humane ways to kill chickens. When JR was a wee person, he worked at a neighborhood farm, and had slaughtered chickens using the old “axe-and-tree-stump” method, but, in addition to being plain old messy and dangerous, it’s not terribly humane, and so we wanted to seek out a better way. Our chickens are nearly five years old. They arrived in July of 2004 by mail. We were warned by the chicken company (really, what else am I to call it?) of an approximate arrival date, but I was still unprepared for the phone call from the post office at 4:45am on the morning of their arrival. Grumbling, I drove my bleary-eyed, caffeine-deprived self the five miles to the post office, and as I entered the lobby, I heard a constant flurry of “peep, peep, peep, peep, peep, peep, peep, peep, peep, peep, peep” (hopefully these 11 peeps get the point across. Constant peeping.). I decided that the woman working at the post office was more than deserving of quiet at that time of day, and so quickly forgave her the pre-dawn call. Chickens are fascinating when you first acquire them – ask anyone who has them or has had them – there is a tranquility to their prehistoric bird-bodies’ movements, so much so that one chicken-owner I know confessed to sitting in the chicken coop observing the birds any time she was under stress. Watching them was soothing, she said. Another chicken-rearing friend screamed out, “Oh! And I’ve got chickens,” during a long-overdue catch-up phone conversation. Judging from her enthusiasm, I was led to believe that this was the most exciting new development in her life at the time. Then we got chickens, and I began to understand. They are captivating, calming, and compelling in their own, not-quite-a-dog-or-a-cat kind of way. Admittedly, I am not a very good chicken husbandress. I prefer to leave the mundane feeding and watering chores to JR, but I am thrilled to have fresh eggs on hand at all times. And the lack of fresh eggs for the last two months is what brought us to the threshold of chicken slaughter. When chickens molt, or shed their feathers, they do not produce eggs. They are also notoriously bad at egg production in the wintertime, both because of the cold and the lack of sunlight. Egg farmers who wish to get the most eggs out of their chickens will often leave the light on inside the coop all night long. We don’t keep the palatial chicken mansion, which is far larger than my kitchen, illuminated, so often in the winter, our daily take of eggs drops precipitously to one, two, or three, down from one egg per chicken in the warmer and brighter seasons. We now have fourteen chickens, reduced from the high of twenty-five. We ordered hens-only, but received 23 hens and 2 roosters. JR gave one rooster away, as we found there could be just one alpha fowl. The other rooster was torn apart by roaming neighborhood pit bulls just a few days before Christmas 2006; all that remained were feathers strewn across the lawn. One hen was the victim of a suspected chicken hawk snatching gone awry. Her abdomen was torn as though fierce talons had grabbed ahold, but had lacked the strength to carry her beyond the top of the chicken run. We had one exotic bird, creatively named E.B., who decamped to the coyote-populated woods behind our house, presumably because birds of a feather really do flock together, and she was the only one of her type in our coop. Better to go into the wilds than try to tough it out where she had no friends. Other hens have disappeared in the course of free-ranging, and two were plucked of their feathers by the other hens until they were so sickly, they had to be removed from the coop. Pecking order is not just a saying, you know. The weakest of the flock will actually be pecked to bits by the others. So chickens are mean, as well as cliquey. Despite all this, it was bit disconcerting to start selection of which hen was to be killed first. For two months, we had been feeding them, which is not free, of course, and they had not returned the favor with eggs. And I mean not one egg in two months. While it is winter, they weren’t molting, and we had resigned ourselves to the belief that they were too old to produce. So rather than purchase roasting chicken for dinner, it made sense to begin slaughtering the non-egg-producing chickens we own. With fourteen hens remaining, we could easily have multiple chicken meals for the next three and a half months, figuring on killing one per week. However, when JR suggested a Buff Orpington be the first to the slaughter, I balked at the idea of killing the perfectly formed yellow birds. “They’re pretty,” I said. “Ok, how about the Silver Laced Wyandottes?” “Oh, but I like those, too,” I replied, “I like their black and white, um, lacy, pattern. What about the Australorps?” Those birds are large and jet black with a little hint of emerald green tipping on the feathers when viewed in the light. But this is winter in New England, and there is a dearth of light, so they seemed, well, more boring than the others. An Australorp it was. Though we had settled into our decision, it still felt weird to sentence one of these girls to death when they’d been a fixture here for nearly five years, making it imperative that we find a humane way to kill them. I found an article that covered the various ways of killing chickens, including the “axe-and-tree-stump” method, which was not recommended as it is dangerous for the chicken and human, and it results in a chicken that is more difficult to pluck and that has tougher meat because of the running-around-with-the-head-cut-off stress. Another method involved hanging the chicken upside down by its feet for at least three minutes, which causes the blood to rush to its head and keeps it calm while the slaughterer jams a very sharp knife into its brain through its beak. But the most curious method involved hypnotizing the chicken. In this method, the soon-to-be slaughterer places the chicken’s head down on a smooth surface and then draws a line straight out from the chicken’s beak to a point a few inches away. The soon-to-be-slaughterer does this multiple times until the chicken is lulled into a trance. At this point, the chicken may stay in place for a few minutes up to a few hours. The instructions we read mentioned something about telling the chicken to quit smoking before waking it from its hypnotic state, but also reminded us that if we were going to kill it, that would also take care of the chicken’s smoking habit. It strikes me that some chicken-keepers might have a bit of a quirky, gallows-style humor. Not surprisingly, of the methods described, JR was most intrigued by the hypnosis method. A week ago on Sunday, he set out to hypnotize chickens. I happened to be out during the hypnosis experiment, and when I returned, the reported results were cause for dismay. “I tried to hypnotize ten chickens,” JR said, “that shit doesn’t work.” I’m pretty certain JR didn’t mention anything about smoking cessation while he attempted to hypnotize our chickens, but if, even telepathically, he mentioned egg-laying, it seems that the chickens got the message. On Monday, he collected eight eggs. On Tuesday, eleven. And just this weekend, they managed to get back to their one-egg-per-day-per-hen quota, saving them from near-certain death. As such, you should expect some egg-centric recipes to be posted this week. And, no, I could not resist “egg-centric”, thank you very much for asking.
Dinner tonight: Not eggs. At least not tonight. Chicken and White Bean Soup with Garlic Toast. Estimated cost for two: $5.69. The onion was around a half-pound at 65-cents per pound, so 33-cents. The carrot was around 20-cents (I bought a one-pound bag for $1.99 rather than my usual 5-pound bag for $3.99. I cannot explain this behavior myself.), the celery was also around 20-cents. The oil was 45-cents or so. The beans were 99-cents, and the broth was the very last of my turkey-in-a-hole-in-the-ground carcass stock, but if you were to purchase it, it would be two 4-cup containers at $2.19 each for Whole Foods Store Brand chicken broth. The sausage was 1/2 pound on sale for $3.99/pound, so $2.00, and the chicken was whole split breast, also on sale for $2.99/pound, and it cost $3.06. The thyme and crushed red pepper we’ll call 15-cents. One bunch of kale costs $2.49, and that also went into the soup. The garlic for the toasts is around 10-cents, and the bread was $3.29 for fancy bakery bread. We’ll use about 1/4 of that, so that’s approximately 83-cents. The soup costs $14.25 for 6 to 8 servings, so keeping our cost estimate the low end of the serving spectrum, we’ll call that $2.38 per serving. If you served 8, the cost per serving comes down to $1.78. This recipe is not egg-centric, but I will post it in the next week or so. And, can I tell you? The taste of farm fresh eggs is so much better appreciated after having been deprived of them and having considered backyard slaughter. Trust me on this.