Wednesday, January 20, 2010

it's all about the chicken

Chicken killing Wednesday on Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, involves family and community, not least
Joel Salatin's grandson pickin' pinfeathers, standing on a five gallon bucket. Go here for more Polyface photos.

Where I come from, killing chickens – we did not call it anything but killing – was just a little something you learned in order to grow up knowing how to take care of yourself with your head screwed on right, akin to having a little mad money knotted into the corner of your handkerchief when you went out with a boy so as not to have to ‘depend’ upon him too much and get yourself locked into unwholesome ‘situations’ you didn’t want to be in.

The process is etched in my bones. Grandma, sorrowfully but matter-of-factly, would go into the chickenyard where they scratched and cooed in the fresh air and under the sun, catch the chickens one at a time, hold it, smooth its wings, while, with a faraway look in her eyes, she decided if this particular chicken’s time had come or not. She loved her chickens, while I did not.

Those who ran from her in their funny two-skinny-legged panic were caught with a chicken snicker – a wooden handle on a long stiff wire with a curve at the other end. It was snaked out to catch a chicken by the ankle and the surprised chicken swiftly pulled into Grandma’s arms. Those chosen were then hung by their feet from a twine loop strung on a line not used for clothes where Grandpa caught each by its downed head and snicked its throat with a razor. That chicken then began its death throes and the blood spattered widely around as it bled out and finally hung still. A big cast-iron cauldron of water had been heated in the chickenyard, and the chicken briefly was plunged into it to loosen the feathers before it was plucked.
That’s where my ‘help’ came in. Though I hated the smell of the hot wet feathers, and the feel of the feathers as they stuck to my hands and my clothing, and even felt as though they clung to my face and made me itch all over, still I did my little part.

Then Grandpa would cut off the head and, now that I think of it, probably enlarge the anus, and Grandma would pull out the innards and separate out the gizzard, the liver, and the heart from the odoriferous pile. Then, when they were all de-feathered and gutted and pretty clean, she’d take them into the kitchen and tip an iron burner on the wood range, shove a newspaper twist into the flames and flash-singe all the remaining pin-feathers on each corpse. That was about it, except of course she had to clean those gizzards by slicing them halfway through, turning them inside out and disposing of the stones and grains from the last meal they’d eaten. But that was worth it – the gizzard was Grandma’s favorite part, and since she shared it with me it became my favorite part, too. We’d also share the liver, and sometimes the heart. We shared in the kitchen, over the counter, before we sat down with the rest of them.

Usually the family would have at least one chicken dinner from the slaughter, while the rest – maybe 7 or 11, were packaged up for her chicken- and egg- customers.

We never had a platter of chicken wings, or chicken breasts. We had the whole chicken either roasted in its altogether or cut into back, wings, breast, neck, thighs and legs, then fried or stewed: chicken soup, chicken and dumplings, chicken and biscuits. Always gravy. Yummm.

Think about this – if you had to raise and kill the birds, yourself, and clean them, how many platters of chicken wings would you put away? Not too very darn many, I’d think, especially as there are only two on each chicken. Nor do you if you are a good boy or girl and buy your chickens pastured from a local farmer at the Farmers’ Market or down the street from you. For that matter, if you had to kill the chicken first you probably wouldn't eat too much chicken period!

Jeff McMurry raises his free-range chickens (selling them and their eggs at the Rutland Farmers' Market)
out in the country between Fort Ann and North Granville, New York.

Most pastured chickens do not come with the gizzards and liver packaged inside of them either, though Jeff and Cathy McMurry, who sell their Sunset Farm chickens and eggs (and rabbits and some beef, etc.) at the Rutland Farmers’ Market, package the livers, gizzards, and hearts and sell them separately to those who want them. Jeff's reasoning is that for those people who don’t want the offal it saves them a little bit of money, and for those who do – there they are. He also sells some chicken ‘parts’ such as breasts and legs separately.

Most of these farmers, if they do their own chicken killing, have invested in a chicken funnel – the chicken is thrust into it quickly so its head sticks out the bottom and its throat quickly snicked – instead of clothesline and twine; and a rolling barrel with rubber fingers which makes plucking easier. These do not make the process joyful, but ease the laboriousness quite a bit.

Last year Leo and I found ourselves in Virginia near the town of Swoope, where Joel Salatin lives -- he who was immortalized by Michael Pollan for his sustainable sun-to-grass-to-flesh Polyface Farm. As soon as we arrived and saw the Rube-Goldberg-like operation going on behind the house, I realized it was Wednesday – chicken killing day.

Joel was out and about on the farm, but his son, Daniel, was heading up the operation, and it was for all the world just like a strawberry packing operation that I’m more familiar with – everyone with their specific job on the ‘line’ all the way down to a small boy, Joel’s grandson, standing on a five gallon pail by his daddy at the end of the line, rather ineffectually picking pinfeathers out of the carcasses with his little fingers. This, of course, is how we meat-eaters are inoculated against the tragedy that human beings are carnivorous. And yes, there was a fiesta feeling in the air, lots of smiles and small talk – things were getting done, communally, that needed to be done.

So, thanks to Joel and Jeff and countless farmers who raise quality foods, we don’t have to kill our own chicken every time we want a chicken dinner, but it’s good to keep in mind that someone has to, and not to be too profligate about our demands for flesh, and to make good use of every bit of it.

When I buy a chicken it’s usually whole, and it’s usually frozen. After it’s defrosted I either roast it and make a soup out of the leavings, or, and I think this works best, I cut it up into two breast portions, two legs, and two thighs, with the wings and the back, as well as all the other bones, used to make a stock and then soup.

If you do the cutting up when the chicken still is partially frozen it’s easier because the flesh is firm, and the parts you aren’t using immediately can go back in the freezer. In that case I would use the breast first. Which is what I did the other night when I got a hankering for chicken cutlets from a suggestion by a fellow food-blogger, for Grilled Chicken Paillard with Gremolata. As you probably know, Paillard is American chefspeak for chicken breast, and a gremolata is parsley, garlic, and lemon zest chopped together. And as you can see, I breaded the cutlets instead of grilling them, which I think helps enclose the juices and keeps them moist. Free-range chickens can get a little sinewy, and will benefit by this treatment.
The following yields 2 servings.
Breaded Lemon Chicken Cutlets

1 whole chicken breast (2 halves) boned but including the skin; Zest of 1 lemon (zest the lemon into a small bowl so that it catches the spurting oils as well as the zest); Juice of 1 lemon; 1 egg; Panko bread crumbs – about a cup; 1 clove garlic; several sprigs of parsley; Salt & Pepper.

Peel the skin from the chicken, using your fingers and a small, sharp knife, and lay it out right-side-up in a frying pan. Turn the heat to medium low and render until the skin is crisp and all the fat is liquid in the pan, turning it a couple of times and pressing it down.Turn the heat off, remove the crisp skins, salt them, and eat them. Mmmmm. Chef’s rights! Leave that chicken fat right in the pan.

In the meantime pound each chicken half-breast until not very thin but even – probably about 1/3 inch thick. Place them into a bowl or plastic bag and cover with the lemon juice and a liberal sprinkling of salt. Close the bag, sucking all the air out of it, squish it so the lemon juice covers all the meat, or, if using a bowl do your damnedest to make the same thing happen. Refrigerate for at least ½ hour.

When the skin is rendered and every last bit of it is enjoyed, and you’ve licked your fingers, break the egg into a flat bowl and whisk until not stringy. Pour the panko crumbs into another flat bowl. Drain the chicken cutlets and dredge in the egg and then in the bread crumbs. Set aside to dry a bit while you prepare the pan.

Heat the chicken fat with a bit of additional olive oil and even some butter, if you like. Over a medium high heat brown the cutlets until golden on each side. Salt and pepper to taste. Place the chicken (in the same pan if it is ovenproof) in a 400° oven for about 20 minutes.

In the meantime, make the gremolata – chop the garlic, parsley and lemon zest until fine, put back into the small zest bowl and stir to pick up the lemon oils.

When the cutlets are done, sprinkle with the gremolata and serve.

The first time I did this I added to the lemon juice marinade some salty lemons and juice left over from making a little jar of preserved lemons. Those were the best, so if you have some preserved lemons by all means use a pinch of them.
I served this with a butternut squash pan-sautéed with the usual – garlic, scallion, hot pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Delish!

You can find my Best Chicken Liver Pâté here.

and Edward Schneider's Confit of Gizzard here.


The truth about industrialized food is becoming mainstream. Even Dear Abby counseled someone the other day that vegetarians were smart not to eat industrial meats, that pastured meats were healthy foods, but it all came down to choice. Which made me realize that truth goes through three steps: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; Finally, it is accepted as self-evident. Perhaps we’re coming close to that final step!

and maybe we'll pick on piggies next.

1 comment:

Alison said...

Fantastic post, Sharon!