The sun was out and there was a fresh spring-like smell in the air. Water dripped from the barn roof into a puddle near the door. The cows, near the barn, were slurping from their trough – the ice in it was melting.
I rotated and rolled the large cook’s knife I held in my hand; the rivets through the handle and tang were still cold.
I lifted the knife up; a quick and heavy downward swing of the knife, and I felt the heel push into the chopping block below. A slight forward movement with the knife on the block, and the rest of the blade was in contact with the surface.
One down, ten more to go.
I flipped the now headless bird into the snow; the carcass flipped and jumped; I knocked the head into a bucket – wiped the blood from the knife, and walked to the coop to get another bird.
Walking back from the coop, the headless bird now lay motionless; the snow in front of the chopping block starts to take on the appearance some twisted form of a snowcone.
Two down, nine more to go.
We ended up dividing the lot into two batches. Six birds and five birds. With each batch, the process was the same. Two to three headless birds in a 5 gallon pale – I’d walk up to the farm house from the coops – buckets in hand. Scald, pluck, scorch the remaining fine feathers with a torch, remove feet, remove oil gland, remove trachea and neck skin, gut, since and chill. Repeat.
This was the first time that I witnessed the scald method. Usually, when cleaning fowl, the carcass is too small, as with ruffed grouse, to really warrant going beyond the breast meat, or, the skin just seems far too greasy, as was with the ducks we had the last summer – in this case, I skinned the ducks. The pigs we helped butcher a few years ago, we opted for skinning instead of scalding. Rabbits, squirrels and deer are all skinned, too.
The killing turns out to be almost the easiest part (assuming you are not bothered overly much by the removal of life); the plucking is messy – feathers stick to your hands, and the removal of the entrails is slippery – there is quite a bit of fat on chickens. There is water involved at both ends of the uncomfortable for hands spectrum – hot for scalding, and icy-cold for chilling.
By late afternoon, the carcasses were chilling in tubs of ice water; we had cleaned up the work area in the farmhouse’s basement; the entrails that some consider edible were in the farmhouse freezer and the buckets of soggy feathers were out of the house.
On the ride home home, I found myself mulling over the sensorial aspects of the day’s task. The red snow, noises made by headless carcasses, and smells. I had given my mom a call – knowing that she, during her quixotic-commune days, had butchered chickens, as well. She asked me, “What’d you think of the smell?” I thought for a second or two, and replied, “It smelled like yellow.” I knew she wasn’t referring to the smell of burnt feathers from the scorching, she was thinking of the bird itself – freshly plucked and at the point where you have started to clean out the cavity. It has a yellow smell to me. My mom knew exactly what I meant. That’s the best way I can describe it. I’m curious what others describe the smell as – leave a comment below.