Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Slaughter Day at Snowbasin: Meat birds

(* this post contains unapologetic description of the killing and the gutting of a chicken.  If this is not your cup of tea, I will not blame you for skipping this post*)

Our super high-tech setup :-)

Dealing death is a sacred undertaking.  The taking of life. We, as a culture, like to focus on only the birth and growth aspects of the circle of life, conveniently ignoring the darker truths of the waning, dying, decomposing half of that circle.  But each death presages rebirth in the symbolism of the circle.  Whether or not you believe in personal reincarnation; any physicist will tell you that the atoms and molecules that make up one life form, upon its death are re-cycled – through digestion or decomposition – into the physical structure of another life form.  Cerridwen, the keeper of the threshold, the cauldron of death and rebirth.  Kali, who dances ecstatic on the bodies of the dead, vanquishes demons and wears a necklace of skulls and a belt of bones.  Shiva, lord of fire and destruction (as well as of yoga and meditation).  All three are manifestations of this archetypal energy, which is so often ignored and demonized in our society today.

Creating life from life: this is a process that our bodies do for us, every single day.  Whether we take in plant life or animal life, it is the transmission of vital energy from one life form to another that sustains us.  I eat meat.  I did not for a long time, in fact (barring one bite of hamburger fed to my unsuspecting 3 year old self by an unscrupulous uncle) I had not eaten red meat before I moved to Alaska.  I did grow up eating fish and fowl.  And then, in high school, I went vegetarian.  Now I eat, relish and savor meats of all kinds (though I believe firmly in eating local, organic, or game meats) and am likely beginning to border on fanatic about bone broths.  There are many reasons for this choice, and I'm sure that I will devote a post to the complexities of the ethical and logistical choices involved.  But this post is shaping up to be lengthy as it is, and I begin to digress. 

I spent last Saturday processing meat birds at Snowbasin.  My dear friends over at Maple&Me have taken their little hillside homestead to the raising-animals-for-food level this year (and while its not a competition, I sometimes can't help envying them the sheer determination which has found them raising livestock in a small forest clearing while I with my lush would-be pastures have yet to invite such an endeavor to fully manifest), and raised 31 Cornish cross chickens, 3 Swedish blue ducks, and 10 mallards.  Between us, our freezers now hold 31 chickens and 3 Swedish ducks.  The mallards still have some growing to do! 

Processing 34 birds is no light undertaking.  In fact, it is heavier work than the word "processing" suggests.  Though the four of us definitely got an assembly line of tasks going, there was little mechanical or superficial about it as 'processing' suggests.  Each bird in turn, we killed by slitting the jugular vein or cutting off the head. I know we each held deep gratitude in our hearts for their passing lives, and often a "thank you, chicken" was heard before the knife cut. Then we left the bird body hanging over the blood bucket, collecting the blood that drained out, until the last muscle and nerve spasms quieted.  It was awe-ing to see the basis of the proverb "like a chicken with its head cut off" in real time.  To watch the intelligence and deeply embodied life energy of the body spend itself in the moments after death, made me realize, over and over again with each bird, just how much wisdom really does reside in the body.  The neural networks, the webs of neurological communication woven into the very flesh of our bodies!  The expression of the life force, of universal energy, of god-energy that is within us!  Not only in our mind's governing direction of thought, but within the tissues: the bones, the blood, the muscles, the nerves!  When the wild flapping of wings and the smaller death twitches were quiet and the blood finished draining out through the open neck into the bucket, the chicken was dunked into nearly boiling water for 10 seconds, lifted out and dunked again for a single second.  The next step was plucking feathers, which we did with a combination of patient and tedious hand plucking, and the mechanical chicken plucker rented for the occasion. 

This is when the body would arrive to me.  For the majority of the slaughter day, I manned the gutting station.  I took my turn now and then at plucking, killing and dunking, but the vast majority of my day was spent among intestines and with my hand inside the body cavity of a bird.  I have new appreciation for the word visceral.  The viscera are the internal organs, particularly the intestines, in a word: the guts.  When we have a 'visceral' reaction to something, it is a reaction that comes from the gut.  And we also frequently have a visceral reaction to encountering the viscera.  New and fascinating research shows that the gut is home to a 'second brain,' to a whole network of neural webs that guides our mood, thoughts, and decision making alongside the brain within our skulls.  When we have a 'gut feeling' about something, it is literally the neural working of the gut, which responds and processes information and both reacts to an effects the hormonal matrix going on at any given time. The heart also has a surprising percentage of neural cells, cells we might call brain cells except for the fact they are a part of the organ we call the heart.  This sheds a whole new light on the idea of mind-body awareness, mind-body modalitites of healing, and mind-body psychotherapy.  It was truly an honor to get so intimate with the guts.  Beautiful and fascinating, if a little macabre. 

To gut a chicken, first cut off the head if it is still attached.  Then insert sharp knife into the knee joint.  Once the main knee tendon is sliced – I believe this would be the ACL in a human – the joint is easy to twist and break the foot off from the end of the drumstick.  Place feet and head in the foot-and-head-bucket for Maple's later use as bait on the trap line.  Then, at the neck end, slice into the skin to uncover the crop and the throat.  Gently detatch the crop from the surrounding fascia that anchors it to neck and trachea and skin using a combination of gentle knife work and patient fingers.  Leaving a tail to the input and the output tubes of the crop, reserve the crop for Maple to blow up into ornamental balls like so:

Clean and inflate crops and hang to dry.

Then detach the trachea from the strong fascia connecting it to the muscles of the neck.  Chicken tracheas are so very cool looking.  Maple saved and dried a few of them too, just because they're really really neat, but unfortunately we've yet to have brilliant idea for their use.

Then turn the chicken around so that it is lying on its back and the butt is facing you.  At the end of the breast bone (where the solar plexus is on a human), pull the skin away from the body gently, so that the knife has a bit of clearance so as not to puncture the guts.  Make an incision here and cut all the way down to the vent.  The vent is the all purpose excretory organ for a chicken, used both for laying eggs and for pooping.  Do chickens pee?  I don't know.  I tend to think that the near-diarrhea consistency of their poop means that they eliminate excess liquid that way instead?  Cut just to the vent, with out puncturing the gut tube that connects it to the intestines.  Then cut a circle – very carefully again to avoid punctures – around the vent.  We actually found it easiest to just cut through (and off) the whole tail – which tended to be very very dirty and lacking in much meat – instead of cutting the vent out of the tail.  Once the vent is free, you essentially have a fully connected system from input at trachea to output at vent that is only connected to the meat-body by fascia.  And so, if you are careful, the entirely of the guts will come out as one fascinating mass.  More often mine came out as two fascinating messes; there is a distinct and function layer of fascia dividing the lower and upper internal organs.  So more often than not, I would get the guts and gizzard in one handful, and then after a bit of finger work getting through the fascia, the heart, lungs, liver, gall bladder, and trachea would come out. 

Only a couple of times did I puncture intestinal walls, leading to charming shit oozing out.  They took the birds off food 24 hours in advance, but we're thinking next year 36 or even 48 would be better.  The couple of birds whose entrails were actually empty were a much easier gutting experience logistically.  But we'll see, because we found that the birds, denied of food, started to fill their crops, gizzards, and intestines with dirt instead!

We kept aside a bunch of the livers and a bunch of the hearts:  I plan on making pate with the one, and something fabulous with the other.  The gall bladder is attached to the liver and a BRIGHT GREEN in color.  So crazy cool.  From my recent delving into the organ-meridian theory of traditional Chinese medicine, I know that the gall bladder aids in processing and detoxifying anything the liver is not equipped to deal with – specifically, the bile that the spleen produces allows the body to break down and assimilate fats.  (if I'm remembering correctly.  Probably I should re-do my homework on all of this before i post it on the interwebs where anyone will be able to see it forever)  I carefully removed this from the livers before setting the liver aside for pate. 

The rest of the guts went into the gut bucket, which very quickly became heaven for the zillions of large black flies that apparated when gut bucket appeared.  It was really pretty gross.  The flies and the smell from that bucket round abouts hour 9. 

But for the most part I was totally entranced by the insides of these birds.  I'll admit that by the last two, I was so tired and on that kind of autopilot that just wants the job at hand to be done and over with, that I did not maintain pure awe for them.  Until then however, I marveled.  I found lymph nodes and figured out what they were.  I gained this entirely new appreciation for fascia in general, for the beauty and economy and streamlined brilliant grace of our organs.  Lungs are fascinating.  When deflated in death, they are these squishy pinkish white blobs, and so small, they easily get lost among everything else.  Because of course, the lungs' job is to expand, to hold air, and to transmogrify the gas into a form in which it can enter the bloodstream without causing immediate aneurisms. 
I got this whole new appreciation for what my yoga anatomy teacher means when she says that in shoulderstand, we are giving our internal organs this massage and this rich experience of gravity in new ways.  Inversions yo.  Hips over head.  Bad ass. 

And it is all wrapped in fascia.  All of it.  And then that is wrapped in fascia and its all wrapped together in fascia.  I've been on a fascia kick recently, both in my teaching, my studying, and my practicing of the body.  And holy of holies, getting so supremely hands on with it was amazing.  Elucidating.  Enlightening even.  That same yoga anatomy teacher had the opportunity to work on human cadavers and spoke in awe of what she learned ...  I begin to see exactly what she meant.  Chickens are amazing, and amazing similar – on the very insides – to us.  I gained this whole new level of appreciation why for so many centuries, the butchers were better surgeouns than the physicians.  I know I'd rather have a man who knows a knife and knows muscle, fascia, blood, and guts intimately cut me open or sew me back together than one who knows treatises by Galen, some herbcraft, and which of the four humours is ascendant in my body. 

The eviscerated carcass was then put in a bathtub to cool.

Then we cleaned up the gutting station, flipped the door-on-sawhorses that was our table over.  Bleached the clean side, washed knives and cut up the carcasses, bagging breasts, drumsticks and wings for the freezer.  Some birds we left whole to roast, and all the other rib-spine-breastbone carcasses we froze in batches to make stock.  It was amazing finally seeing the bird we'd held upside down by the feet to kill, the bird  whose brave and beautiful new frontier of guts I'd just intimately explored, become the recongnizable and comforting cuts of meat we see in plastic at the store.

Meat and bone and reserved organs go in the freezer for the coming year.  Guts and feet and heads go in the guts bucket for trap bait and burbot bait.  Crops get blown up for super bad ass Christmas decorations.  Rake up the feathers that are covering the driveway and add feathers and the content of the blood bucket to the compost.  Let it sit a season before adding to the garden.

The Darlin'Man and I came home with a cooler of homegrown meat and a bucket of blood for the compost in repayment for our days work. 

In my mind, I hear the interwebs erupting into questions about 'but wasn't it hard?' "how can you be so blithe about so much death?"

In answer:  Yes.  It was hard.  Its wasn't so much at first.  I've dissected animals before, so that much was not new to me.  And so for the first bunch of hours, for the first 19 chickens it felt actually pretty easy.  The death wasn't bothering me, the guts weren't bothering me, my feet were getting sore and that was about it.  Then we took a break, went to the store to get more freezer bags, iced coffee (it was HOT day and physically taxing work), and ice cream.  When we got back and met the overwhelming scent of warm death, it was suddenly hard.  I tried denying it.  But it wasn't until I let myself feel the weight and experience the nausea that it was ok again.  And then it really was, other than being increasingly tired.  The work of killing and gutting and cutting is hard work, physically taxing, psychically draining.  A couple of times the drain got a little overwhelming or nausea crept back in.  I found myself chanting Shiva mantras with all the gratitude I could muster until the pure awe took back over.

It feels good.  It feels clean to bear the direct karmic weight of the deaths that feed me. It is heavy, but it is the good kind of grounding heavieness, the kind that brings awareness to action, not the kind that wraps awareness in chains.  I know people who have done a slaughter day and decided that really, eating chicken is not worth it.  And I respect that to the moon and back, to the sun and the stars and back again.  I respect that with the exact same kind of honest respect that had me cooking chicken wings for dinner the very next day; eating and enjoying delicious, intimately known meat with wine and vegetables. 

So thank you chickens, thank you Snowbasin, thank you chicken breeding farmers of past and present and those yet to come.  Thank you farmers who grew the grain.  Thank you sun for shining.  Thank you water.  Thank you wire-makers and fence-makers.  Thank you trees and sawmills.  Thank you fire.  Thank you life.  Thank you death. 

**photos courtesy of Justin Maple**

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