Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Sunday is Chicken-whacking Day

After church on Sunday morning, we had what I hope is a unique ritual. We'd attend Mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd. After that, we'd head home, change clothes, and kill chickens.

It was more organized than I make it seem, though. We had about twenty Rhode Island Red hens, kept for laying eggs. We also had over a hundred white Leghorn 'meat' birds, raised for, well, meat. The fact is, chicken nuggets, chicken breasts, and chicken tenders all, surprisingly, come from chickens.

Not a fact many like to face, and better off overlooked, especially at dinner time. However, on our farm we got to see many pretty ugly facts right up close and personal.

Everyone had a job to do. My assignment was to pick who, on that particular Sunday, was going to die. I would peer about the hen house, looking for a likely candidate. Stepping on my foot was a good way to get chosen. Any eye contact with me was another way to receive an invitation.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been *mumble-mumble* days since my last confession. Since then, I have hit my brother, scared my sister, and killed fifty chickens.”

“Yes, my child….Wh-what? Chickens?”

“Yes, Father.”

“You killed them?”

“Yes, Father.”

Long silence.

Fifty of them?”

“Yes, Father.”

Another long silence.

“3 ‘Hail Mary’s’ and an ‘Our Father.’”

“Thank you, Father.”

Thou Shalt Not Kill. I guess there are exceptions to every rule.

I’d chicken-pick, taking the victim to my dad, who would sling the bird upside down, suspending it from a crosspole by baling twine looped around its feet. As you can imagine, it would flap and squawk, until my dad put a board behind its neck and lopped its head off with a hatchet.

One bird, however, had other ideas. As the hatchet came down, he zigged when my dad thought he’d zag. Contact was made, but not cleanly, and the bird was somehow able to slip out of its leg noose and run away, head dangling to the side. Yes, indeed, a chicken with its head cut off, just as bizarre and awful as you imagine.

It ran down the hill, all helter-skelter, finally collapsing a few hundred yards away. As I went to retrieve it I felt a bit sick. A gallant, desperate try, ending in futility and eventually on my dinner plate. I considered maybe some sort of medal would be in order but I didn’t know how to notify his next of kin.

After soaking the bodies in hot water to loosen the quills, we kids would pluck off the feathers. My grandmother, Nana, had the nasty job of gutting the birds. She seemed to enjoy it, though. As she sliced and whittled, I would hear her muttering under her breath, “Well, Margie, you thought I wouldn’t find out, but I did, didn’t I, you little tramp! And now we meet again!” Sometimes Nana really scared me.

We’d perform this ritual ten times every Sunday, with most of the chickens going into the freezer for later. When my friends at school asked me what I did over the weekend, I always neglected to mention this part. In hindsight, perhaps if they knew what happened to those who crossed me, I might have earned more respect from the ‘in’ crowd.

I had friends who’d just as soon not know the short life history of their nuggets. I had other friends who hunted and didn’t blink twice at things like this. Fair enough. While it was a most unpleasant experience, I must say the chicken was the best I’ve ever tasted in my life. So it was a trade-off. Good food is often not guilt-free.

Not all the birds went the way of the plate. As mentioned earlier, the egg-layers were exempt from execution. We also had a few pet chickens, including my rooster, Chump. An elegant, svelte, white Leghorn, Chump would parade about the henhouse like he owned the place. He wasn’t quite housebroken and disliked being on a leash, but he’d come when you called him and could be trusted not to wander too far away. He liked to be scratched right in the small of his back and near the top of his drumsticks.

And he wasn’t too fond of Sundays.


rita said...

Yeah, your Nana scares me a little too, but I like her spunk.

We had a rooster and a few hens but no hen house, so every day started off with an egg hunt.

My cute little son, around 3 at the time, liked to chase that rooster with his tricycle. One day the rooster turned on him and chased my baby for all he was worth. I laughed till I cried, but then I cried a lot those pre-Effexor days.

Kristina said...

When I was a teenager, I used to chop wood after school.

We also had pet chickens, but they weren't much fun. The pet ducks were cute, though.