Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Beast to Belly - A Culinary Adventure

As I pull up at Arbor Farms on a cold Thursday morning, it is obvious that there is something unusual going on. The congregation of students in the parking lot slowly make their way inside and chat in small groups. Anticipation is in the air. Today is they day that we are going to catch and kill our own free-range chickens.

We meet Arbor Farms resident butcher who has agreed to accompany us to the farm. After roll call and a shuffling of carpool assignments we all head back out to our cars and head towards Homer, MI to meet our host David Schmucker, the owner of a small Amish poultry farm.

Upon arrival we meet David Schmucker and Henry and Lydia Bontrager. The Bontragers own and operate the local processing facility where David and other local farmers process their poultry. Today we will catch David’s chickens and process them at the Bontrager’s. It is a small, two-roomed area attached to the back of their home. After brief introductions, we are led outside and down the street to “catch” our birds. We are told to corner them and grab them by their legs. I volunteer to go first. Lucky for me, I own a handful of backyard chickens and have no problem trapping and catching my chicken. Others were not so lucky. Once the chickens realized what was going on, chaos ensued. In a squawking, feather-flying extravaganza each participant went in to the pen to try and corner their bird of choice with varying rates of success and high-pitched screams. Once caught, it is generally best to hold your chicken upside-down by its feet. It keeps them calm and we still had to walk back down the street to the processing facility. However, some people chose to cradle their chicken ever so lovingly, this of course inevitably resulted in chicken poop all over winter coats... can't say I didn't warn them.

After a short trek back to the Bontrager’s, we were ready to get started with the processing. Six killing cones lined the wall of the back room where we were to perform the executions. As the first round of chickens were placed in their cones, the Bontrager’s strapping four-year-old son quickly sliced the necks of all of the chickens with shocking speed and ambivalence. But wait! We wanted to kill our own chickens! Reluctantly, he hands over the knife and watches us struggle with killing the birds we have been bonding with for the last 15 minutes. Some of them had already been named. After the first round is bled out, they went in the scalder to loosen the feathers and then into the electric plucker. The electric plucker whirred and knocked the chickens around until they were featherless and ready for gutting.

In the other room, several stainless sinks line the wall and a large stainless steel table sits in the center of the room. Lydia is friendly and welcomes the first round of folks into the room. Rolling up our sleeves and removing layers as the room heats up, we get to cleaning our birds. We remove the feet and heads, saving the necks and feet for soup. Then we remove the innards. Being very careful to avoid tearing any crucial parts (mainly gallbladder and intestines) we remove the organs with vary levels of finesse. As each new group enters the room, those who have already processed their chicken offer help with the new round of birds. I take to processing the birds extremely well. In fact by bird number 3 I prep and gut the chicken in less than 15 minutes! Thank goodness, because if I am not any good, I will be in trouble come July. Lydia invited me back to help any time I like and I think I may take her up on her offer. With surprising speed we prep and gut our birds. Twenty oven-ready birds sit in racks ready to be packaged and weighed. A bucket full of gizzards, livers and hearts await sorting and packaging. Pink-cheeked and blood-smeared we each choose a bird and bring it to David for weighing. We pay for our birds and begin heading for home in small groups. Arrangements are being made to get together and enjoy our birds for dinners throughout the week.

As we left, I wasn’t as horrified by the experience as I thought that I would be. “I can do this again,” I thought to myself. I better be able to do it again. I have already ordered 60 chickens and 15 turkeys for my small farm that I am starting after graduation. In fact, the experience wasn’t horrifying at all, and, frankly, I am proud that we all faced our food in a way most Americans never have.