Chicken day went well. My wife and I were up with the morning dew to get the coolers and truck ready (space issues required that we rig a deck over 3/4 of the truck bed so we could fit all the birds below and have a place for all the coolers above) (thank you neighbor Ginny for lending us milk crates and plywood) (yep, milk crates and plywood — it was one of those kind of projects). Daughter Amy joined us to help with the actual loading of 60 meat chickens, 7 ducks, and 3 recalcitrant roosters whose recalcitrance finally earned them a ticket on this particular ride. When we were done everyone was quite fragrant.
I tarped them in (you want to see a man get happy, give him a pickup truck, a tarp, and a bungee cord Valu-Pak), checked the tie-downs on the coolers, and off we went, me and my 9 year-old copilot. We were running on “E”, so our first stop was at the gas station, where the fellow gassing next to us gave the back of the truck a funny look, what with the pyramid of coolers and the clucking and scratching coming from beneath the tarp. “It’s a bad day to be a chicken,” I said, and he laughed. The the ducks started quacking and he said, “That’s not a chicken.” And I said, “Couple of’em took a foreign language course.” He laughed, although when I told the story to my wife later, she performed what I would say was a quarter eye-roll.
A stretch of interstate then, and I kept checking the mirrors, because your good trucker knows nothing tests a tarp job like a 68-mile-per-hour wind. After running awhile I pulled off at an exit (again, just as any good trucker would) to check the state of the load. Coolers were holding tight. Tarp the same. I gotta say I took just a couple of seconds to back up, put my hands on my hips, and admire that tarp job. Tight as a drum. You take your satisfaction where you can find it. It was right about then I realized that in my zeal I had completely tarped over the taillights, meaning should any of the three State Patrol vehicles I had met going the other day wind up behind me, they too would want to study my tarp job, after which they would share a written critique payable by Visa or MasterCard. So that was a sheepish chicken farmer you saw re-doing his tarp job in the back lot of the Black River Falls rest area.
Nonetheless. Made it to the chicken butcher on time and even a little bit early. It’s quite a dang operation. Located in a very rural spot on an old farmstead. Things were going strong when we rolled up and took our place in line. When it was our turn, I backed up to the door and started handing over birds. From our vantage point we could see the killing cones, the scalder, and the tub plucker. When the last bird went to the cones, we pulled around the other side of the shed (it’s roughly the size of a railroad boxcar) and here’s the bottom line: Within ten minutes the first birds – plucked, washed, and slick as a whistle – started coming out, and within 20-25 minutes all 70 birds were nestled in the coolers.
My sister-in-law met me as I was sorting and icing down the carcasses, and like brazen drug dealers we set up a scale on the tailgate of the pickup truck and did some commerce, weighing out 14 birds for her and a few friends. Some of our Panamanian relatives were visiting (two older fellows who know their chickens) and I admit pride got the better of me as I dug through the coolers like a fisherman searching the live well for the biggest catch of the day until I could hoist the fattest bird and have my efforts rewarded by a chorus of “!Pollo Grande! !Pollo Grande!”
Then it was off for home. Amy had her usual moment of sadness when the birds were leaving the truck, but by the time we were around the other side of the shed she was happily helping pack them. Now she was in a joking mood, leaving me a note on the driver’s side of the truck saying “Mike…I started walking home.” which actually got me for a half-second until I heard the tittering coming from beneath the rumpled tarp on the passenger side. Her other good joke of the day (there is no air-conditioning in the truck, and open windows on the interstate precludes conversation to say nothing of whipping up a cyclone of the usual farm truck detritus so I had the windows closed and the dash blower on) was to use her toe to surreptitiously ease the temperature setting to High and wait to see how long it took me to notice. I did my part by responding slowly and with exaggerated confusion, even the sixteenth time.
At home, friends and neighbors arrived for their allotment of birds. The afternoon and evening progressed as a combination butchering bee (we part up many of the chickens) and social hour with storytelling, small talk, and garden and pig pen tours in between the bagging, knife sharpening, and trips to the freezer. One of our friends stayed extra late to help, switching from boning out chicken breasts to giving a bath to the toddler. You feel a lot of gratitude on days like this. The friendships and kitchen conversations are an intangible payoff for all those trips – morning, noon and evening, at a minimum – to the chicken paddocks over the past many weeks.
Regarding the trucking, what say the purists? Both my wife and I have done our turns on home butchering crews, and we often wonder if we’re copping out by not doing our birds at home. On the other hand, there are issues of microeconomics (in the past we have had our birds processed by an Amish family; the operation we patronized yesterday has been run by one woman and her crew for over twenty years; yesterday the customers coming through included everyone from a single mom with less than ten birds to a number of folks in the 30-50 bird range). Her prices are eminently reasonable in light of what the birds bring per pound were we buying them whole. The drive is longer than we would like, but there is also the issue of sanity – except for some miscellaneous cleanup to happen this morning, we were done with the day before 10 p.m. (the ambulance pager went off a tad after midnight, but never mind), another year’s provision socked away.
Last thing I did was walk a pail of chicken skin out the ridge to leave as an offering to the chicken spirits, although more likely they wound up in a coyote. The moon was so bright it threw shadows. Walking back to the house I saw the porch light flip on as Anneliese came out to rinse the last of the coolers. I have written this before and it remains true: chicken butchering day is one of the days I cherish my marriage the most. We go to bed good tired and feeling as if we have accomplished something tangible. And there is the idea of one of those chickens roasting some January Sunday. And for all of my talk over the years, I would still be just talking if not for my wife, who saw us to this farm, ordered that first batch of chicks, and set the wheels in motion so I could simply ride along.
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