Backyard Chicken Retirement Plans

I did it. I killed June.  

In the year that I had her, June never laid a single egg. So when I was reduced to running a well-funded retirement home for a washed-up old bird, I decided it was finally time to give June the proverbial axe. (Or chef’s knife, as it were…)

I did some research. I looked into chicken rehoming farms, mobile slaughtering units, or open urban green spaces with high coyote populations…

I thought about renaming her Justin Bieber to make doing the deed a little easier.

I called butchery expert Adam Danforth. “One bird?” he said. “Just cradle it in your arm, slit its throat, and feel the warm blood flow over your hands. That's what I'd do. (Seriously.) But then again, I love the feeling of warm blood.” Um, no thanks.

I had heard the best butchery method is to stick a chicken in an upside-down traffic cone; it cuts off blood flow to the brain stem and makes the bird calm and docile. The head pops out the bottom of the cone so you can easily (hah!) slit their throat and allow the blood to drain out. Lack of said cone was excuse enough for me to delay the execution by several months. Then I was at a foodie conference in Washington DC of all places where Molly - who happens to live near my neighborhood in Seattle - offered up the three extra cones she had just sitting outside her house. And another Seattleite, Jess - who happens to live just four blocks from me - said she would come over and help. I was out of excuses. 

Jess arrived at my door wearing Carhartts and plastic gloves, toting an axe and one of Molly’s cones. The hardest part of the day was catching June. We tried to snatch her in the chicken run and she flew the coop, sprinting around the yard like a chicken with its head cut off. (Sorry.) Finally Jess managed to scoop her up and we dumped her in the cone which hung from the deck over an open yard waste bin.

Enter chef’s knife. 

I’m choosing to spare you the gory details, and I’ll just say that it was more traumatic for me than it was for June. After I had finished the act, it was time for a lesson in butchery. My respect for butchers increased two hundred fold; to go from Chicken Little to chicken dinner requires a lot more effort and skill than I had imagined. You must first dip a bird in scalding water to release the pores around the feathers. We gave June a good dunk and plucked off all her feathers into the compost. By that point, she just looked like a roaster chicken which made things easier. Jess google on her iPhone “how to butcher a chicken” and directed me where to cut to remove the unwanted organs and innards. I can’t say it was a pleasant experience, but by that point the adrenaline was pumping hard enough that I didn’t take pause at tugging on the windpipe or scraping out the lungs. 

I transferred “June” to a large pot, covered her with water, and put her on the stove. Typical chickens that we roast at home are no more the six or eight months old. Given that June was pushing retirement age before I acquired her a year ago, her meat was far too tough to cook in any edible way, so I used the carcass to make stock. I added onions, celery, carrots and peppercorns to the pot and boiled it for several hours. After it had cooked down, I strained it through a cheese cloth to remove any bones, extra vegetable bits, and leftover feathers. The stock was rich and salty, with a faint flavor of well-earned muscle built over years of strutting around the coop.

I’d like to think I’m a homesteader not a hipster, but they say denial is the defining the mark of the you-know-what. When all is said and done, my foray into yard-fresh eggs thus far totals the economical price tag of $26 per dozen.

And so the chicken saga continues. I got Harriet to replace June. I was planning to tell you about her later. Once Norma stopped pecking her to death. And she got out of quarantine. But as it turned out, she met an untimely end while I was away in Portugal. Given my track record with chickens, she may have been lucky. 

So now it’s just Norma. Who’s broody. And won’t lay eggs. 

When tapered pants and bushy faces fade from fashion, perhaps this backyard poultry fetish will go with them.

Chicken Stock
Make 5 quarts

Chicken carcass - I usually use what's left over after carving a roast chicken
1 onion, quartered
2 stalks celery, chopped into 3 inch pieces
2 carrots, chopped into 3 inch pieces
2 inches ginger root, whole
Fresh springs of thyme, rosemary and oregano
1 T peppercorns
1 T salt

Place all ingredients in your largest stock pot and cover with cold water. 
Slowly bring to a boil, then reduce to the lowest simmer your burner will support.
Simmer uncovered on low for 4-5 hours.
Remove solids and strain remaining liquid through a cheesecloth.
Return to pot and allow to sit covered overnight in the refrigerator. 
The next day, remove fat solids from the top of the stock and discard.
Ladle remaining liquid into jars for freezing.