Keith’s parents usually raise a summer batch of meat chickens. When they do, our family participates in the harvest. We are grateful for homegrown fryers and roasters. We also enjoy canned chicken and broth. It’s nourishing. Yet, not everyone agrees. In fact, some find harvesting meat troubling. Such folks have their reasons. Meanwhile, we know that death is inevitable. We also understand the circle of life and the food chain.
We have learned from Mother Nature’s examples. The circle of life exists inside our own bodies and outside in the world all around us. We’ve seen insects, fauna, and flora ripped apart and eaten alive by predators. Such deaths appear truly inhumane. Yet, they have been the reality for centuries. And as far as we can tell, Mother Nature intends to keep it that way for centuries to come. In comparison, our domestic harvests seem more humane, especially if one is skilled. And dare I say it? It can be reassuring, even a pleasure, to harvest alongside skilled and knowledgeable folks.
Keith’s mom and dad are highly proficient in the entire process. His dad has a sense of humor and his mother is especially well organized. Keith’s sister and her family also participate for a three-family split. Last Sunday, we processed fifty. We’ll do another fifty, next Saturday. After my first decade, it’s more routine-like than a unique event. In fact, many of the harvests are now jumbled together in my mind. Just like the Cornish-cross chickens, the memories look the same; year after year. However, one seems to stand out…
It was a Saturday last fall, when we all got together. Sixty chickens would be freezer ready by early afternoon. Keith’s mom had the set up ready, the night before. Outside by the chicken coop, a makeshift table was covered in plastic. Large coolers were filled with water. The electric plucker was plugged in and the dipping water was heated. Freshly sharpened knives were placed on cutting boards. And harvesting began.
This time, Keith’s nephew was not participating. Instead, he had invited three buddies to go fishing. As we got started, they left for the lake. Unfortunately, the weather looked iffy. Dark clouds rolled in and the winds picked up. We had only processed a few chickens, before it started to rain heavily. As we were moving most of our operation inside the garage, Keith’s nephew and his friends returned. Their fishing trip was rained out. I asked if anyone thought the visitors would be interested in participating with us. There was laughter and someone squawked about video games.
Keith was undeterred. He asked the young men to carry a few things into the garage. They all pitched in and were thanked. Inside the garage, they watched the processing resume. They asked a few questions and two of them appeared genuinely interested. I encouraged one of them to try his hand at one of our assembly line stations. I offered up a knife, cutting board, and a naked chicken. He took me up on the offer. He had been watching at the leg station.
Not to be out done, one of the other young men asked to do the same. However, he had been watching at the more involved entrails station. It took him longer to complete the task, but he seemed determined. As their interest persisted, Keith and I invited the visitors to watch from start to finish. The beheading and plucking still took place out in the rain. So, the young men put on rain jackets and followed us out to the coop.
Before we started again, Keith asked the visitors if they had ever seen a “hypnotized” chicken. It was an odd question. So, they simply stared at Keith, without responding. Keith’s nephew was familiar with this farmyard trick. He quickly seized this opportunity to show off. He retrieved a chicken and set it breast side down on a flat surface. He held the chicken firmly with one hand. With his other hand, he placed his forefinger in front of the beak. Then he rhythmically moved it in an arc; from one eye to the other. When the chicken relaxed and no longer moved, he released it. His buddies revered him for the whole ninety seconds that the chicken remained motionless. It was an effective ice-breaker.
Next, Keith and I inquired what experience the visitors had in harvesting animals. They shared they had all harvested and cleaned fish. Two had accompanied others that hunted deer and partridge. However, none of them had harvested a chicken before. Keith then talked them through what they would witness. We asked if they understood. They all agreed and asked to watch.
A chicken was captured and Keith beheaded it. Once it bled out, it was dipped into the soapy, hot water. Then it was passed to me for plucking. When we use the plucker, it doesn’t take long. The plucker is a four-legged stand that holds a cylinder drum, mounted horizontally. The drum is covered with firm rubber fingers. They rotate rapidly. When the chicken’s body is held against the fingers, they strip the feathers right off. If you don’t hold the chicken firmly, both the feathers and chicken fly off.
Meanwhile, Keith caught another chicken and the process was repeated. Two of the three young men were intrigued. The other was either uninterested or uncomfortable. I couldn’t figure out which. He asked Keith’s nephew to play video games and they left. The two that remained asked to continue watching.
After the next chicken was beheaded, one of the young men asked Keith a question. He inquired about the old saying, “run around like a chicken with its head cut off”. The young man said that it had never made sense to him. He added that even now as he watched a chicken with its head cut off, it still didn’t make much sense. I asked him why. He explained that once a chicken was beheaded, it just laid there. I informed him, that despite what he had observed, the old saying was true. Chickens can run around with their heads cut off.
The young men looked confused. One looked to Keith for clarification. Keith explained that the beheaded chickens had been kept restrained, as they bled-out. Keith shared that it minimized bruising of the meat. He told the young men that if we did not restrain them, they would indeed move more. One of them challenged, “Yeah, but they wouldn’t be able to run. They don’t have a head.” Keith countered, “Yes, they can still run or move without a head.” I interjected that muscles still react, until the nerves cease firing. This they said they had to see to believe. Keith obliged. The next headless chicken was released, with its feet planted on the ground. It took a few steps and then did some somersaults. The young men were motionless and speechless, until the chicken’s body ceased all movement. At which point, one whispered, “Wow. The nerves stopped firing.” The other young man nodded in wide-eyed agreement.
All along, I had watched both young men intently. Each of their responses had been carefully monitored. At no time had they behaved inappropriately or disrespectfully. Unfortunately, there are those that do. There are people who get a high from watching blood, gore, pain, suffering, and death; both of animals and humans. Their eyes, smirks, and comments often betray them. Personally, I have no tolerance for this. I will not knowingly provide opportunities that feed such illness.
The interest that these young men had seemed healthy. In fact, their questions showed a passionate yearn for real life learning. Such learning has its own “high”. Nerves fire, hormones are released, alpha waves flow, and neuro-pathways are connected in human brains. While the young men continued to bombard Keith with hungry questions, I shuttled two naked chickens to the garage. When I returned, we had an offer for the young men. They could each have a farm-fresh chicken to take home to their families. However, there was one condition. They had to process their own, from start to finish. I added that we would assist them as needed.
Honestly, I had difficulty anticipating their response. While I was hopeful, I was also prepared they’d reject the offer, in lieu of video games. Neither their acceptance or rejection would have surprised me. However, I was not prepared for their actual response. It was one of disbelief. Both had a hard time grasping the offer. They commented it was hard to believe we would allow them to do it. They also couldn’t believe they’d get to take home a chicken, too. It took them a while to realize that we were serious and that it wasn’t a mean-spirited joke. Then one smiled. He commented that he couldn’t wait to see his mom’s face when he walked in the door with a farm-fresh chicken. He commented, “There’s no way she’s gonna believe I did it myself.” The other concurred.
Both young men were excited. So much so, one asked without inhibition, “Can I choose my own chicken?” Keith and I laughed out loud. The young man quickly apologized, “I’m sorry. No, I should let you do it.” We laughed again. Keith told him not to apologize and of course they could choose their own chicken. I added, “I told you it was from start to finish and that includes catching the chicken.” They smiled and raced each other into the coop. As we listened to the flutter of flying chickens inside the coop, Keith and I shot each other sly grins. We knew they’d figure out how to catch one…eventually.
There was another good reason for our smiles. No, we weren’t making fun of the young men. No, we weren’t gloating because we had an audience. And no, we didn’t think we had converted two more people to the homesteading lifestyle. We were thrilled because we had recognized and secured another golden opportunity. Perhaps, another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that either of these young men will harvest chickens for their livelihood or as a hobby. I’m also not kidding myself. I know that harvesting one chicken is not enough to become skilled. In fact, Keith and I know they may never, ever harvest another chicken in their lifetime. However, Keith and I also know that such opportunities are precious and valuable. This was something far more important than a chicken dinner. This was about empowerment and confidence vs. ignorance and arrogance. Such opportunities can mean the difference between life and death, for more than just chickens.
Just imagine our World War II or Civil War grandfathers standing there at that moment. I’m certain they would have been in disbelief over our modern technology. However, I believe they would have been most bewildered by those young men. They were eighteen-years old. They lacked both experience and confidence in a basic life skill. It was the skill of harvesting the very food they’d eaten most of their lives. They consumed chicken often, whether from McDonald’s or from their microwaves at home. Yet, they had never harvested their own.
After their harvest, their parents would be in disbelief. Put another way, this disbelief meant lack of belief and lack of confidence in these eighteen-year old men. Keith and I don’t find that funny. Less than a hundred years ago in America, young men and women even younger than fourteen often lived on their own; some had children, too. And most of these men and women had both the experience and confidence to harvest their own food; their lives depended on it. Not only would their parents have expected it, they would have begun training them as toddlers.
When the coop door opened, only one of the young men exited. His hair was helter-skelter and white feathers adorned it. In one hand, he held a chicken by a single leg. The other hand he was waving about his head to brush off feathers. He closed the door and faced us. He was wearing a proud grin; the chicken was not. Keith encouraged him to grab both legs of the chicken. He did so and walked straight to the beheading stump. The young man quickly grabbed the ax. Then he paused and looked completely lost. He was in a quandary how to juggle the ax with a live chicken flapping its wings. Keith talked him through the steps, starting with, “Put the ax back on the ground.”
Keith taught the young man how to calm and secure the bird first. He did as Keith instructed. Once both legs and both outstretched wings were combined in his left hand, he rested the chicken on the stump. Next, Keith directed him to place the head, just off the edge. And Keith cautioned him on the use of the ax. He warned him to guard his fingers and not to close his eyes.
The young man took a deep breath and swung the ax. Unfortunately, it hit just lower than his target point. Blood sprayed him from a gaping wound in the bird’s upper breast. The bird reacted accordingly, flopping and squawking in pain. The young man got nervous and was about to swing the ax again. Keith stopped him. He told him to slow down and focus. Keith had him re-position the bird. This time the young man swung the ax true to its mark. The chicken was relieved of its pain. And the young man was relieved to have severed its head.
Afterwards, the young man apologized, “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to…” Keith told him, “This was your first time. Of course, we don’t like it when an animal suffers. You did just fine with your second swing. Harvesting is a skill that requires practice.” The young man quickly responded, “But it looked so easy when you did it.” Keith answered with a warm and knowing smile, “I’ve had years of practice.” The young man nodded in deference. He understood years of practice and skill; he was an experienced hockey player. He took his decapitated chicken and soaked it in the steaming pot of soapy water. Afterwards, he and I worked on the plucking.
During his buddy’s mishap, the second young man had exited the coop. He had watched the ordeal silently, while holding his chicken like a football. Keith asked if he was ready. He hesitated and said, “I don’t want to miss.” Keith told him, “That’s good. How ‘bout I hold your chicken and you take a couple practice swings with the ax?” He thought that was a great idea and passed off the chicken to Keith. After three or four swings into the bare stump, he told Keith, “I think I’m ready.”
Keith walked the second young man through the same instructions his buddy had received. A look of relief washed over his face, as he was successful on his first swing. He turned, smiled, and teased his friend, “I got it on the first try!” His friend responded, “I saw. That’s great! I didn’t do so good.” He somberly held up his naked chicken. The meat of the upper-right breast was nearly severed off. The wound hadn’t looked as severe with the feathers still intact. This wouldn’t have happened had we used killing-cones. I made a mental note. Then I offered some comic relief and told him, “Ah, you just wanted boneless chicken.” There was laughter.
As the second young man was soaking his chicken, I made another offer to the first one. “Would you like to trade your chicken with the boneless breast for another one?” He was interested and responded, “Sure!” I could tell he thought he’d trade at the end of the day. So, I walked over and took his chicken. He looked confused. Keith knew what I was up to and told him, “Go grab yourself another chicken from the coop.” It took just a second for him to realize what was going on. Then he made a dash inside the coop and quickly came back out with another chicken. He headed straight to the stump.
This time the young man had a determination, and dare I say some confidence, that had not existed only minutes before. This second chicken was dispatched quickly and without err. The young man moved independently from soaking to plucking. His buddy waited and watched. When he was done, they walked together to the garage. There they would gut their naked chickens. I followed them.
Gutting a chicken can be challenging for first-timers. I’m not a beginner, have had excellent mentors, and I still struggle at times. Some people just have more talent for this job than others. I have accepted this. My chickens still taste just as good, even if I have torn the skin or have cut a hole too big. While the guys would receive seasoned instruction from those already in the garage, I would offer extra encouragement.
They started with Keith’s dad, where they cut off the lower part of the legs with the feet. They laughed at his jokes and watched him pull tendons that moved the chicken’s toes. Next, Keith’s dad had them neatly trim off some skin from around the neck. When they finished, they asked what to do with the sleeve-like remnants. Keith’s dad was anticipating this very moment. With a serious tone, he asked the young men, “Don’t you know what that is?” They looked confused. One fessed up and said he had no idea. Keith’s dad told them it was a condom. The young men blushed and couldn’t stifle their laughter. They had been caught off guard. Keith’s dad smiled from ear to ear. Keith’s mother rolled her eyes.
Afterwards, they moved to the station with Keith’s mom. They removed the trachea, esophagus, and crop. They already knew that chickens didn’t have teeth. However, they now learned that chickens consume rocks to grind the grain and other foods within their gizzard. Next, they worked with Keith’s brother-in-law, removing the entrails. They were cautioned not to puncture the intestines or gall bladder. One of them learned why, the hard way. With a wrinkled-up nose, he rushed his chicken to the water hose.
Finally, Keith’s sister showed the guys how to clean the gizzards, thoroughly rinse the carcasses, and package their birds. The young men continued to be respectful and attentive. They asked questions and sought clarification. They were diligent and persistent. They were men that our modern world believes are only interested in video games. Had we listened to popular opinion, they’d have missed out on this opportunity. Personally, Keith and I believe video game excuses are a parent problem; not a kid problem.
The young men held up their final products with pride. We all applauded them. This day, they would bring home trophies their entire families could enjoy. Each was looking forward to showing off and eating their own chicken. They exclaimed that it’d be the best chicken they had ever eaten. We hoped so, too. In fact, Keith and I believed this chicken could satiate them in ways like none other. Perhaps, it would even feed them for many years to come.
Meanwhile, Keith and I hoped their parents would receive their gift with enthusiasm and praise. We longed for the young men to continue their learning, via cooking their chicken, too. However, many parents today do not allow their children to cook. In fact, many parents themselves only cook in a microwave. Some lack the skills for traditional cooking. Others say it’s too messy and time consuming.
Time. It’s a precious resource. So are offspring. After all, they are the next generation. And like it or not, we will be dependent on them at some point. Honestly, if there’s time for video games, there’s time for life skills. Aren’t kids worth this investment? Even if it’s messy and frustrating, what could be more important? And what if unskilled adults stuck out their own necks and learned such skills, alongside their kids? After all, the only thing truly shameful and embarrassing is not trying. And what could be more painful than regret?
Whether the young men cooked their chickens or not, we may never know. However, Keith and I were confident they would remember this day. We believed they valued what they had experienced, as they had a personal investment in it. We hoped one day they’d get to harvest another chicken. Perhaps they’d even “pay it forward” by helping at least two others to do the same. Maybe recipients would be from older generations and from younger generations. Unfortunately, the odds were stacked against it. Why? Keith and I knew such opportunities are uncommon. In some places, they are highly unpopular or even despised, too. Besides, the young men would likely be robbed along life’s modern highways.
There are thieves that steal accomplishments and confidence. Sometimes, it’s by taking. And other times, it’s by giving gifts of backwards compliments and negative comments. Someone may have an irrational fear both of germs and the young men’s chickens. After all, they did not come from a grocery store. Someone may be “grossed-out” because they still looked like the animals they came from. After all, they had bones and were not nugget shaped. And someone may throw their chickens away; along with the young men’s sense of accomplishment. After all, some Americans don’t know what to do with whole chickens; much less, teenage men and women with life skills.
Many lives are now consumed with video games and virtual reality shows. Instead of seizing real life and death activities, artificial killing and death is fought over and rewarded. Then virtual life continues with a push of the reset button. As minds feed on virtual reality, bodies feed on artificial and adulterated foods. Ironically, such folks laugh at us. They believe our lifestyle is a waste of time, energy, and money. Some even protest against our real lives. They swear to the God of Mother Nature, that harvesting one’s own food is cruel, obsolete, and cult-like. Tragically, such ignorant squawking is a pervasive reality today.
“Maize cannot get justice in a chicken’s court.” – African proverb
Fortunately, such nonsense won’t survive forever. Why? Mother Nature won’t tolerate it. She doesn’t care about political correctness, money, labels, Hollywood, or statues. She doesn’t care if humans are offended. In fact, Mother Nature has her own agenda. While folks game to control and alter her, she has her own rules and laws. She will fight back. Warning! Mother Nature doesn’t play fair. Nor does she award participation trophies. Why? She isn’t playing around. And come Hell or high water, Mother Nature’s cycle of life and death will continue.