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Processing Chicken

Like most Americans, I am an omnivore. I eat red meat occasionally, but because of its environmental costs (or economic cost if it is sustainably raised), I don't like to eat much of it. I do relish fresh, local fish that doesn't break the bank — but that's hard to come by, even in the land of plenty where I live, 15 miles from the sea. So chicken is the go-to meat. I try to cook it with variety, but "chicken again" is on the menu for the majority of my family's dinners.

Yesterday I, along with about 10 other people determined to better understand the food they consume, attended a chicken processing class at Hidden Villa, a treasure of an organic, sustainable demonstration farm tucked into the watershed of Adobe Creek on the San Francisco Peninsula. Blair, who heads animal husbandry at the farm, and his assistant Virginia, are clearly dedicated to humane and environmentally beneficial farming.

We started at a shed dedicated to chicken "processing," the euphemism for slaughtering, plucking, gutting, deconstructing, chilling, and packaging the meat we mindlessly consume in such quantity. First, our teachers told us about the remarkable properties of the Cornish Crosses, a hybrid bred specifically for the "broiler" or meat (as opposed to laying) chicken industry. Cornish Crosses, Blair told us, convert grain to meat with remarkable efficiency. They grow big, meaty breasts, which Americans like, and are ready for slaughter at seven weeks.

Hidden Villa chickens, during their short lives, are rotated around pastureland in movable pens. Their waste provides excellent fertilizer for the grasses consumed by the ruminants on the farm. The chickens experience healthy, natural movement, bugs and grass of their own foraging, sunshine, the earth under their feet and the sky above.

Blair demoed one whole processing. Everything is set up to make the chicken's death quick, and (we believe) painless. There is a proper, efficient way to hold the chicken. Rather than a chopping block, the whole bird is slid head-first into a metal cone fixed to the shed wall. The bird's head pokes out the bottom of the cone.

Hold the head with one hand, feel the neck muscles. With a quick movement of the wrist, stick the knife in front of those muscles and pull it through the front.

It takes about 3 seconds for the chicken to completely lose consciousness. Continue holding the head as the chicken bleeds out and, now dead, the body goes through death throes while still in the cone.

Next, scald the dead bird in a vat of 1500 water for about 30 seconds. Stir the chicken around with a big wooden paddle. (This step looks very much like a "double-bubble, toil and trouble" operation.) If wing feathers pull out easily when you fish the bird from the water, it is ready to pluck, gut, and prepare for market. (In our country, this means removing head and feet.)

Disclosure: I stood around and photographed my fellow learners without getting my hands dirty. (I can provide any number of rationalizations, but there you have it.)

I took home three processed chickens and cooked two that evening for a dinner party. Blair had thought it better to wait 24 hours for the freshly slaughtered meat to tenderize, but ours roasted up perfectly.

I thank the chickens for delicious nourishment. I thank the earth that provided the grain that the chickens turned into meat. I thank my classmates for their concern and efforts to support mindful food consumption. I thank Hidden Villa for forging ahead with sustainable farming as the factory farming component of our food system grows increasingly less viable.

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