The Silence of the Chickens

(Warning! There are some graphic descriptions of chicken killing further down in this story. Proceed at your own risk.)

It’s been a busy weekend here at the Ocular Edifice. Our little kitten, Izzy had two kittens under the bed and my wife got so excited she jumped up and down like a kid. Izzy is a tiny little thing herself and the whole thing kind of reminds me of when teenagers have kids and we’re the grandparents. She’s been nosing around looking for a place to give birth for quite awhile and though we made several soft and inviting nests around the house to tempt her, she decided she liked it under the bed with the dust bunnies the best.

This morning when we couldn’t find her I immediately thought of the bed, but at first couldn’t see her because she had hidden up under the mattress and was peeking out like a wide eyed troll from under a bridge. I was down on the floor with a flashlight poking around, but didn’t find her until I heard her purring to beat the band, and there she was! Looking tired but pleased with herself.

We have attained... Kittens!

It’s lucky that there were only two as my wife was determined to keep them regardless of how many there might have been. She is set on becoming a crazy old cat lady someday and as long as they do their business outside, I can’t say as I will complain. Between the dogs and the cats, I can at least say that we are rarely cold in bed during the winter. Most of them tend to move to my wife’s side anyway, since I sometimes thrash around a bit during the night.

We decided to go ahead and have kittens ourselves this time even though I know there are a lot of deserving shelter animals. Over the years we have had our share of rescue cats, same as all of our dogs, but this time, we thought we’d let nature take its course and see what we might come up with. My wife did not have pets as a child and looking at her face when she saw the first kitten was worth the price of admission. Those are moments that should not be avoided, missed, or ignored.

Leslie’s new tattoo in progress!

So like I said, it was a busy weekend. I had knives to sharpen, work to be done in the garden, shopping, a movie, and kittens, as well as taking Leslie to Portland to work on her huge new tattoo for six hours.

I also made the most incredible Beef Jerky ever… I, am a God! The making of Beef Jerky is one of the great manly arts, right up there with the fine art of Smokology (smoking meat), Knife Sharpening, and the Building of Fires. I grasp at these small accomplishments as I can, since I don’t like cars, sports, or drinking. I take an inordinate amount of pleasure in my ability to take a poor abused and impossibly dull knife and bring it to a mystical, almost singing edge just like I come back into the house after a day of smoking a Pork Butt infused with the smell of smoldering Cherry wood and radiating the power of the Pit Master.

This last batch of Jerky was something new that I picked up on the cooking channel. I know that watching said channel is not exactly in line with the Manly Arts thing, but I love Alton Brown and I think that the final outcome excuses some of the process. In short, after a secret marinade of my own design (including hot soy sauce, Chinese 5 Spice, and crushed garlic, among other things), it is a cold drying process involving several paper air filters and a large box fan. Because there is no heat involved, the final product has a nearly perfect texture.

Killer Beef Jerky

So the slicing, marinating, sorting, and drying process made me think about the days of my youth spent in the Santa Cruz mountains on Scruffy Acres, which is what my father called our non-working seven acres in Bonny Doon. He had at one time or another in the neighborhood of a hundred and fifty chickens, several goats, and always two horses. It was not a money making concern and he liked to refer to himself (generously) as a gentleman farmer. Gentleman, yes… but the farming was more of a hobby than a calling.

The chickens were a fascination for him and he loved the pure, simple shape and feel of a freshly laid egg. There were always too many eggs for the household and he would leave several dozen in the back seat of an old and beat up Toyota station wagon parked out in the front driveway. Neighbors would drop by on their way into town and take a dozen or so, leaving a few dollars in exchange. It didn’t come anywhere near paying for the chicken feed and truth be told, he didn’t really care if they left money or not. He’d say, “Chickens are such harmless creatures. They just eat, and fuss around, and look pretty… And then they give you eggs.” An act, which he thought was next to miraculous.

That was back in the early seventies when most of my generation and my society were enraptured by the concept of living close to the land and becoming vegetarians. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, at least so we thought, and meditation was all the rage. I had given the whole vegetarian thing a good looking at and had conflicted thoughts on the subject. On the one hand, I was totally into the whole, love the planet thing, but on the other, my mother was an astounding cook, who made the best roast beef with Welsh Rare Bit on the west coast.

I finally decided that in order to maintain my hip credentials and still be available for my mother’s sumptuous repasts, I would learn to kill and prepare my own food. That way I could claim to be truly in touch with the land, give heartfelt honor to the animal to be eaten, and still go to my mother’s house for dinner.

Because my father raised innumerable chickens and because as an author he had written an extensive treatise on the subject of chickens and their place in the world (The Chicken Book) I figured he would be the ideal person to advise me on the process and practice of chicken butchery, chickens, I thought would be the perfect proving ground. Much less expensive and manageable than, say a pig or something.

The Chicken Book by Page Smith

So I present myself to my father in his detached study with the eight foot walls of solid bookshelves and his collection of eclectic art and I ask him, “How do you kill a chicken?” and he says, “Here are a couple of books on the subject.” And then he appears to be quite busy with his writing, or something…

Well I take a look at these books, which are dry academic tomes of little use to me. They include an obtuse instruction wherein the handler holds a chicken’s head in one hand, prying the beak open and then uses the other hand to plunge a scalpel up through the roof of the mouth into the chicken’s brain… an image that still sits in my brain like a toad in a pond nearly 40 years later. I quickly decide that these books are not going to be a help and turn to my mother who being from the south and of a poor family appeared to be a better source.

“Well.” She says, “First thing you do is take the chicken’s head in your right hand and you hold the chicken’s feet up in the air with the other hand…” Which she demonstrates with her own hands as if she were holding out a scroll in front of her like a town crier from the history channel. “Then,” she says, “You let go with your left hand and when the chicken drops, you use your right hand to snap the chicken like a whip! Breaking it’s neck.”

When you raise free range chickens, you always end up with too many roosters. I mean, you figure that out of any selection of fertile eggs, a large percentage will be male and since most people can’t tell a male chick from a female chick until the bird had gotten quite large, by the time they start to crow, there are simply too many males around. You only need one rooster to about thirty hens and when you have too many of them, they squabble and fight with each other trying to run the flock, not to mention that the poor hens get so much romantic attention that they end up with all the feathers worn off their backs.

Home made chicken coop

So it was decided that in order to fulfill my back to the land idea, I would be given pretty much as many roosters as I wanted which I could honor and commune with to my heart’s content, then I would snap their necks like a whip (as per my mother) and they would end up in the soup pot. Due to the squabbling and fighting, free range roosters are not good for much else than the soup pot as they are as tough as old rawhide. My father supplied me with an old gunny sack with about eight chickens in it and so I go down by the chicken coop behind the redwood grove to commune with the roosters, who, by the way, are the meanest, dumbest creatures on the face of the planet.

I take the first bird out of the bag where he has become a little confused and disoriented and I do exactly what my mother described. I take the rooster’s head in my right hand, grasping it from behind with my index and middle fingers on either side of it’s lower beak. Then I take the feet in the other hand and hold him up in front of me… Chickens go kind of limp when you hold them upside down, so there is this moment of communing and then I let go of the feet, the bird begins its descent and I attempt to snap it like a whip. I feel a distinct crack in the neck and I throw the bird to the ground.

It promptly gets up, looks around like a convict that’s been accidentally released from prison, realizes in its tiny chicken brain that things are pretty serious here and takes off at a dead run. It takes me a couple of hours to finally catch it as it has figured out that I am not communing with it for its own good and it could give a damn if I am close to the land or not.

When I finally catch the thing, I figure out what I did wrong, and this time instead of giving it a gentle chiropractic adjustment, I yank the neck for all it’s worth and feel the separation of about an inch and a half… five chickens later, I have the hang of the thing and I am dispatching them in a businesslike manner.

At this point, I notice my father standing up near the house, watching me from behind a tree. He kind of swaggers down to where I am standing surrounded by dead chickens and with the nearly empty gunny sack at my feet. He says, “Here son.” He always called me son, just as I always called him father. He says, “Here son… Let me show you how it’s done.”

Then he reaches into the bag, takes out a tough old rooster, the winner of a hundred battles, he takes the head in his right hand and the feet in his left. He holds the chicken out in front of him as if displaying a trophy. He lets go of the feet, snaps the chicken like a whip and throws it to the ground.

That chicken jumps straight up like a puppet coming up out of a Jack in the Box and takes right off flying, right up into the trees. He doesn’t come down for three days. That man had never killed a chicken in his life…

When I related this story to my young friends, they were quite impressed with the whole idea although they perhaps did not really get the whole story. Anyway, it was a popular concept and I had a few friends ask me if I would teach them how to kill and eat their own food as well, I suppose the reason being that they didn’t wish to give up burgers either.

At this point, I think I should give you a warning… Things are about to get quite graphic and the faint of heart might just want to stop reading.

I collected several roosters (like I said, there are always too many) and brought them down into town where I met with my friend Deanna and a friend of hers. There we went out in the front yard and prepared for the communing and the whip snapping. I showed them how to hold the head and the feet and explained what the separation would feel like in order to forgo the whole resurrection thing and we proceeded.

I would hand a chicken to Deanna, she would grab the chicken in the correct manner and then when she let the feet go, she would shake the poor bird like a feather duster while it squawked and struggled. Seeing the bird in distress, I would take it from her and quickly dispatch it with the whip-snapping move.

The last chicken of the day, she went through the whole process again, this time coming very close to success. I could see the poor bird was suffering, so I grabbed it by the head and snapped it as quickly as I could… At which point the head came off in my hand and the rooster took off in a final running, somersaulting, squawking, bundle of feathers, bouncing off the side of the house and spraying blood everywhere.

Deanna and her friend ran inside screaming and didn’t eat meat for years.

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