How did I get myself into this mess? It’s 12:45 on a Saturday night and I need to learn how to kill and process chickens before 7 A.M., when I’ll have to dispatch 25 roosters.
This sort of thing happens more than I’d like to admit. For some reason people assume that because I know how to butcher whole pigs or sides of beef, I also have some sort of clue about killing and gutting animals. And that leads to the phone calls:
“Hey man, my rooster population is out of control.” This farmer has about 50 roosters on his hands—49 too many—so he’s giving them to friends to eat. “You want to come out and slaughter a bunch of chickens?” Of course I do. But I’ve never killed a chicken in my life. Everything I know about processing fowl comes from a chapter in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m sure “kill cones” are involved. “Uh, sure. I’d love to. Do you have any kill cones?” No kill cones. “No problem. We can use orange traffic cones.” I can’t believe these words are coming out of my mouth. “Great,” the farmer says. “See you next week.”
Time to get on the phone.
The first call is to my mom. She grew up on a small farm in Ontario, Canada, and I remember her telling me about killing chickens, so she seems like the person to turn to. Unfortunately the last time she saw a chicken killed was during the Eisenhower administration, and her only words of advice are that chickens really do run around with their heads cut off.
Harry from The Brooklyn Kitchen, the only other soul I know who has killed a chicken, is out of town driving the steep and treacherous mountain roads of St. Thomas. All he can tell me is that driving on the left side of the road is making him contemplate his own mortality. No dice.
So I drop the whole issue for the rest of the week and wallow in defeat, hoping that the problem will just disappear.
And then: “Still on for Sunday?” Never has a simple text message filled me with such dread and self-loathing. No escaping my fate now. What to do? I did once hear something about YouTube videos… And so, with a stiff drink in one hand and my computer mouse in the other, I set about exploring chicken snuff films.
Most of the videos I find are full of earnest farm types wearing full work gear. They are well organized and well equipped, and the whole scene makes me feel like my last-minute, low-budget endeavor is doomed for failure. We have no kill cones. No chicken pluckers. No gutting tables. We have no vats of ice water in which to chill the birds. We have no chance.
And then it happens. Well into my third tumbler of bourbon, I find what I’ve been looking for: a video of two guys in a backyard, slightly intoxicated, processing chickens with little more than a knife, a hose, and, yes, a bright orange traffic cone. The man gutting the chicken is making a heavy-metal face and spraying water into the air, singing, “We’re going DOWN to the CHICKEN FA-A-ARM!!!” Suddenly I’m home. They aren’t well prepared, or earnest, or even sober, but they are having a great time killing and gutting chickens.
I watch the five-minute movie over and over. The methods they use are basically the same as those in the other videos, just with fewer fancy tools. The chickens die just as well and are as cleanly processed (the guts and windpipe are removed, then the cavity of the chicken is hosed out); yet the whole thing seems infinitely more possible because, honestly, if these guys can do it, anyone can.
The next morning I wake up before the alarm to shower and organize my knives. By the time I arrive at the farm, the farmer is already out front. “Do we know what we’re doing?” he asks. “Yeah, we’re good,” I reply. “I watched a bunch of YouTube videos about it last night.” He starts laughing hysterically. “Of course—perfect!”