Over the years, our kitchen has produced great fried chicken, or so we’ve been told. We weren’t around to taste it, but our Poppow was. His job was to cull a poor-laying hen or extra rooster from the flock then deliver it to his mother. She scalded the chicken, plucked it, cleaned it, and cooked it. By all accounts, the fried chicken left a lasting impression on the memories and taste buds of those who ate it. Though this great taste was probably attributed to the cook’s skill, we shouldn’t neglect the chicken. According to American Livestock Breed Conservancy, many heritage breeds of chickens, like those formerly common around barnyards, are more flavorful, though slower-growing, than the broilers found in modern poultry houses.
This past weekend, Natalie and I processed our first chicken, testing this theory with one of our New Hampshire Reds (NHR), a popular heritage breed developed for both meat and egg production. Unfortunately, New Hampshire Red roosters have a reputation for aggression. Ours was no exception; we couldn’t turn our back on him without being attacked. Our other two roosters, a golden comet and a white Langshan, are peaceful enough toward us, yet protective of the hens, so they were spared for breeding. Alas, our NHR wasn’t.
Even though this rooster had been terrorizing us, killing him wasn’t pleasant. I’ve gained a new respect for farmers who raise their animals humanely, yet process them for food when the time comes. Killing an animal you’ve raised, whose coop door you’ve opened every morning and closed every night, to whom you’ve brought food and water daily, isn’t easy. But as hard as we knew it would be, we felt we should do it rather than some stranger from the sale barn.
We decided night would be the best time. Although it was drizzling, windy, and cold, we wanted it over with. We removed the sleeping chicken from the coop and proceeded as quickly as possible. We used a killing cone, in this case just an orange traffic cone turned upside down, in which the chicken was placed with his head sticking out the small end. The cone kept the chicken still and prevented him from flapping. I cut the jugular vein on the side of his neck. In about a minute, though it that seemed like ages, his eyes closed for good.
Thinking back about that night, I still feel a little repulsed. Although I believe it was the best thing to do for our flock, killing the chicken was an unpleasant experience.
Nevertheless, my wife and I went ahead and plucked and cleaned him. In our minds, to eat him was to honor him. This part took a while, but eventually we ended up with a roasting bird of 4.3 lbs. The next day, Natalie roasted him whole in the oven. Since the bird was about 6 months old, compared to 6 weeks old for modern broilers, his texture was slightly stringy, but his taste was superb. Natalie soaked the bird in a saltwater brine for about two hours, then buttered and seasoned it with salt and pepper. Then, into the oven, it went.
Two hours later, we were eating chicken, a free-range chicken, a chicken we had raised from a day-old chick. Of course, we tried not to think about this. We ate him, thankful to be rid of a mean rooster, yet thankful for him, as well. People who say chickens are, well, just chickens have never interacted much with them. Yes, they’re livestock, but they’re smart animals, whose personalities, for lack of better of word, become apparent as you raise them. Some, unfortunately, turn out meaner than others.