9 BIRDS // elspeth

I've been cooking in snatches recently. After dinner, before bed, in the morning while the coffee brews. In these snips of time I've made lemon curd and rosehip jelly and applesauce and homemade bread and toasted pumpkin seeds from the two pumpkins we grew for jack-o-lanterns out front. In another snip of time we planted a couple of hazelnut trees in the spring through the Food Forest Initiative of Cape Cod and discovered one day recently that three tiny hazelnuts were ready for harvest. And two months ago, my friend Drew brought over nine chickens for us to raise for meat. 

Sally helped Alex load them into the moveable pen I built last spring when we got our six layers, before we set them up with a run and a coop. I bought an extra "hen hydrator" and got a few bags of meat bird crumble and in the moments before and after work we fed and watered and moved them. They were certainly a different breed from the layers—it's hard to believe that a chicken can eat and drink and excrete at such a pace. But eat and drink and excrete they did until exactly one week ago our friend Neily and I built a fire and brought a big pot of water to a boil and two by two slit their necks. If you don't want to hear about this, skip down a paragraph. I won't go into too much detail. But I will say it was both a challenging and satisfying day; going into it I had helped with the aftermath of killing a bird twice but had only a vague understanding of the steps. I now feel confident that I could do a reasonably good job of the whole thing, if I needed or wanted to, without help.

Besides the satisfaction, the best part about raising and processing our own birds has been the parts. Neily told me that in Jamaica near where he's from people will help a friend or neighbor kill their birds in exchange for the hearts and the feet and the livers and the other innards, which can be boiled and fed to a dog. Since he brought the knowledge and the rooster-catching-courage I gave him two birds and most of the parts, but I kept a few livers and feet for us. 

Neily instructed me on chicken foot soup, which I'd tried at roadside stands in Jamaica the two times we'd been to visit. It was easy enough: for about 4 feet, he said, you use a couple quarts of water and throw in a few of the necks too for flavor (like you would for stock) and then add scallions, potatoes, thyme, carrots, salt, pepper, and dumplings rolled from water and flour. The potatoes and dumplings break down to thicken up the broth and the feet and necks give it a rich chicken flavor, and after an hour or two of simmering you have a thick, delicious soup. My girls remembered it from last fall, when Neily made it after we had to kill the roosters, and gobbled it up despite having been home for the slaughter the day before. I made chicken liver paté, too, the next night with butter and thyme and brandy and mushrooms, and Nora declared it "very yummy." Still, I couldn't bring myself to roast the one chicken we kept from the freezer until Saturday. 

When we finally did it was excellent: huge and juicy and flavorful and succulent. We ate it with friends at a house on the bay watching the sun set with beer and mashed potatoes and three girls and two babies, and it felt fitting. Some days I'm not sure exactly where I fit into the world—whether I'm meant to be a writer or a farmer or a radio producer or a business owner or a community organizer or maybe a bit of all of these—but I did enjoy raising, processing, and eating these birds. One day, I imagine, I'll know for sure. Or maybe not! But for now, this feels like as solid a knowledge as any.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.