Lost Skills: Butchering

This is going to be a controversial post for some people, so please consider yourselves warned: I will be talking about killing animals, including the mention of blood and guts and slaughter. There are no images.

It is my strongly held opinion that there is nothing wrong, per se, with humans eating meat – provided it is done ethically. Which is to say, the animals involved live good lives, and were killed in as stress-free and painless a manner as is possible.

What this means, practically speaking, is that you need to either raise and kill, and butcher your own animals, or you need to know and trust your butcher, and preferably the farmer from whom the butcher gets the carcasses. Many farmers, especially small scale producers, care for their animals and make sure that they are treated well, and slaughtered humanely. It definitely means being aware of where your meat comes from.

Personally, I refuse to eat feedlot beef (or lamb, or goat, or whatever) or what I refer to as ‘torture chicken’, chickens that have been raised their entire (short) lives in crowded barns without ever getting to eat grass and bugs or sand-bathe in a sunny spot outdoors. Chicken is a good example, because most people can actually raise their own chooks, and killing & butchering a chicken is relatively straight-forward.

It’s worth knowing that in Australia, it is legal to kill and eat an animal that you own, provided you do not sell the meat (or provide it to paying guests, as in a restaurant or bed & breakfast; offering the meat to guests is fine if they are not paying you) and no part of the carcass leaves your property (i.e. you can’t throw the bones into the local river – using the municipal garbage service for the feet & head of your chicken is technically illegal too, but likely won’t get you into trouble for the home-scale one bird a month or less that most people are likely to actually do).

We keep chickens, most of which we hatch ourselves and raise fomr birth. They’re not pets, exactly, but we care about them and we care for them. They’re fed every day, and they’re tame enough to flock around my feet in the hopes of treats (fruit and veg scraps, pumpkin seeds, snails from the vegetable patch, ..) whenever I go outside. In winter they get hot mash in the morning instead of just their regular scratch mix or soaked and sprouted grain; they free range across the property on sunny days, and have fully enclosed runs with solid roofs over half the run to give them sheltered outdoor space on rainy days. They live well. And some of them – mostly the extra roosters – have a bad day at some point, where they are taken off to somewhere the others can’t see or hear, and beheaded with a single stroke of a very sharp blade.

The first time was.. difficult. Not physically, it’s not really complicated to cut the head off an animal that much smaller than me, but chickens flop and thrash after they’re dead. So do ducks, as an aside, and geese. It’s an autonomic nervous reaction, meant (or so biologists hypothesise) to protect the flock by giving a predator something to focus on while the others escape. It’s really unpleasant to experience, especially the first time, when you panic and fear that you’ve failed to actually kill the bird and it is now suffering terror and pain because of your incompetence. All the while, the neck stump is spurting arterial blood in every direction, making the entire area (and anyone in it) look like they’ve just attended a serial killers conference. It’s traumatic, and messy, and horrible. Dried blood is sticky, and feathers stick to it like crazy.

And then there’s the plucking (best done while the bird is still warm – if it gets cold and rigor mortis sets in, the feathers are significantly harder to pull out; do not believe the internet about dipping the friggin chicken in boiling water to loosen the feathers, you then have a corpse that smells of wet burnt feathers, and the feathers are still really hard to pluck). And the gutting.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to get your hand inside the body cavity of a chicken to gently loosen and pull out the insides without nicking or squeezing the intestines? It takes practice. Expect the first time to be messy and stinky. Use very sharp scissors and knives, and be careful not to cut yourself.

The process is this: cut off the wing-tips, and the feet; you may have to break the legs first, effectively dislocating the knee joint so that you can cut through the tendons. Remove the oil gland from the tip of the tail. Cut the skin and flesh around the base of the neck until you have detached the neck (and oesophagus) from the shoulders of the bird. There is a membrane along the inside of the body cavity; you want to pull that away from the meat of the bird if you can, but gently. Using a very sharp knife and being very careful, cut around the cloaca without nicking the intestine. Now reach intot he bird from the neck and gently pull the entire digestive system out, keeping the oesophagus and intestines intact; after this you can pull out the heart and liver if they don’t come out with the rest. Rinse the bird in clean water, then place it in a 3% – 8% brine overnight (this tenderises the meat and infuses salt into it – you can also put herbs in the brine if you want).

The process for a small mammal is very similar, although you replace the plucking stage with skinning. Rabbits and guinea pigs (don’t judge – they were initially domesticated as food animals, and they’re perfectly edible; the meat tastes a lot like rabbit) are easy to raise in a back yard. Small birds (like quail) and birds with very strongly attached feathers (like muscovy ducks) may also be easier to simply skin than to pluck; make your own decisions there. For me, the pleasures of keeping the skin are not worth the effort of plucking a muscovy, but everyone has their own opinions.

It does get easier (and less messy) with practice. Everything does. The first time I put henna in my hair, the process took about three hours and I got henna everywhere; now it takes 10 minutes and the cleanup is a quick wipedown on the bathroom counter and washing the bowl I mixed the henna up in. Butchering a chicken, like any other task, skill or activity, is always going to be hardest the first time you do it. I think it’s worth doing, or at least knowing how to do it.

Not so very long ago, this was a skill that virtually all adult humans had. When a family sat down to a Sunday dinner, or a Christmas roast, often the animal being served (a goose, turkey, duck or chicken, even a pig or lamb) had been raised by the family, or at least bought as a live animal and slaughtered and prepared at home. Even if you never have to actually do that, I think it’s worth knowing how to do it, and knowing that you could. It’s worth being aware of where your food comes from, and what is involved in turning it into food. So when we all sit down to celebrate the season with our families (both genetic and chosen), we should spare a moment to appreciate the animals which died to feed us, and the people who killed and butchered and prepared them.

A little gratitude seems appropriate to the season, after all. 🙂