Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Deed Gets Done

Stop right here. This is a friendly warning. I'm posting some pictures of the butchering (my first) at Mike and Lori's from Sunday and a description of what I learned. I have pretty tastefully cropped and blurred the photos so that there isn't any bright-red blood, but there are some up-close ones of me skinning our rooster. Yes, I held it together and was able to participate somewhat.

Mike started with one of his own roosters to see how I would do, and while it was slightly alarming, I didn't get woozy or feel the world fogging in on me from the edges. (I've fainted enough to know when it's coming--usually in response to seeing my own blood.) To be as quick and painless about it as possible, he makes two long slits along the neck so that the blood spills out fast and the heart pumps it all out of the body. Of course, the chicken flops around after it's dead -- like we all know they do -- but one of the benefits of hanging them is that they're not running around. That could have gotten to me. (My mother and sister-in-law have horror stories of being chased by headless chickens.) So, when it was time, I got Camillo out of the cage and hung him myself. That's how I got all the feathers stuck to my hand. But I did not slit his throat. I wasn't sure I could do it in a way that would make the process quick and painless.
Then, once all of their roosters had also been butchered and the blood drained out, it was time to skin. Mike and Lori's new fire pit isn't finished yet, so instead of plucking these, he just skinned them. So we'll be using them for soup, not roasting, grilling or smoking. (Actually, we'll be making the roosters into Grandma Carrie's famous chicken-pot-pie!) Anyway. After watching him skin two, I said I was ready to try skinning Camillo. After he started turning them inside out, they really started looking more like "meat" and less like "rooster" -- and I've worked enough with supermarket chicken/turkey carcasses for that to feel familiar, so I was pretty sure I could do it. Mike got the legs started, which is tricky, but once he got that done and the entrails out, it was my turn.
That leg sticking out did hit me in the face a few times as I was trying to get my hands in the right position. Annoying. (In the background you can see their extensive gardens which supply us with a vast majority of our vegetables since we get a CSA box from them - MiLo Acres - every week.)
Here Mike is telling me that when I pull down on the skin, I'm supposed to cut at the point of greatest tension and keep working my way around, pulling down. My doctor husband pointed out that I have my knife at the wrong angle for cutting fascia (the connective tissue that surrounds muscles). You're supposed to hold the knife at a 90 degree angle to the muscle and just saw lightly back and forth. I altered my technique and of course, it worked much better. (I tried not to think about the fact that he knows this not from butchering chickens but from cutting humans! In medical school/residency, in surgery, of course. But still. Ugh.)

Or maybe that's Mike pointing out the wing joint that I had to sever. I had a tough time with it, but I got it eventually.
Next time, my challenge to myself will be to reach in and pull out the entrails. Actually slitting a throat may have to wait for the third time--or fourth. Who knows. We left the necks on, since they make for great soup meat. Then once they were rinsed off, we took 'em home to chill. (Mike and Lori graciously cleaned up.) Right now we have three birds tenderizing in the refrigerator. I also learned it's best to let them sit in the fridge a few days before freezing them or cooking them. Who knew?

Also interesting to note in this process, though I don't have a picture of it, was the color difference between our bird and the others. It could have been just a difference in breeds or ages, but my husband suspected it had to do with quick-twitch muscles. Our rooster got to free-range through the yard (and subsequently had to outrun the dog) so had developed his leg muscles more than Mike and Lori's who have a large outdoor pen, but don't actually free-range. I can look in the pan with the three birds, and easily pick out Camillo's purpler legs. Odd.

In hindsight, I'm glad I did this, and am proud of myself that I saw it through. If push came to shove, I've proven to myself I could provide for my family some of our meat-eating habits. I could raise and butcher chickens should the world collapse around me.

I was able to eat food that night and have not sworn off meat by any stretch of the imagination. We do buy nearly all of our meat from local farmers and are making a concerted effort to avoid supporting large, cruel farms with our purchase dollars. However, homesteading is not something I'm ready to commit to 100%. I have, however, offered to come and help with other butcherings in the future -- if for no other reason, so I can learn how to pluck.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Monday marks the first official advance-sales date for my chapbook Belonging. I know I've already put up my website page, made an "event" on FB, and the postcards sent by Finishing Line Press have begun arriving in mailboxes. (And now I've blogged about it.) However, if you think that having seen one of these things makes you exempt from harassing phone calls -- well, you're right. I'm not going to call you. There is a good chance, though, that if your email address is in my gmail account, you'll be getting a friendly email from me sometime in the next six weeks! You have that to look forward to.

Here's my new website page about the chapbook. (With printable ordering form.)

Here's the website for Finishing Line Press and their Advance Sales Page. They also have an Amazon Store where you can buy their older titles.

The toughest part is doing all this publicity work now and having to wait until January to actually hold the finished product in my hand. That is a day I'm really looking forward to.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Life of a Carnivore

Back when we got the chicks we'd said We're only keeping one rooster even if it turns out that we've got more than one male.

Now what we were going to do with other males remained to be seen. We knew enough about roosters to know that having more than one would lead to fights, stress out the hens (perhaps hampering their laying), and serious increase the noise level.

Evidently, projecting that they were all girls, and thus labeling them with superimposed graphics, doesn't influence their genetic makeup.

Fortunately, of the 10 chicks we got, only two of them ended up being roosters. And they got named: Camillo & Grey Legs. (Mistake #1. But seriously, how do you talk about a think without having something to refer to it by?) So, that meant it really was a cockfight... fighting to the death... but a fight of a rather different nature.

Barbara Kingsolver, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle helped us (as painful as it was for the kids) to determine qualities to look for: First, which crow is more pleasing to the ear? Grey Legs wins that one with a clear-throated sound that is not raspy and harsh -- as Camillo's is. Second, which rooster protects the hens? In several instances, like when our part-Lab (part-border-collie) dog chased the hens, Grey Legs would take off after the dog while Camillo idly watched the commotion from a safe distance.

On a side note about the dog: It's pretty amazing that while the chickens are in the yard, the dog is content to leave the birds alone. (The border-collie nature wins.) She has even, on occasion, calmly herded them out of the front yard and into the back/side yard where we'd prefer them to stay. But all that's when they're on the mown grass. In the event that one of the chickens should squawk while in the tall boggy area of our drained pond, her Lab genetics take over and nothing, not the children wailing, me yelling, or lightning, can keep her from chasing them--bounding through the tall grasses, floppy ears perked... lookin' for the bird, lookin' for the bird, I was born to find the bird...
See! Evidence I didn't know I had.
There's the white rooster, Camillo, trying to outrun the hens.

Back to the roosters.
Third, is the rooster kind? "Kind?" you're thinking. "How would you even begin to determine if a rooster is kind?" Well, spend some time watching chickens -- which is a lot of fun -- and you'll soon see. Camillo always pushed his way to the front to eat scratch out of our hands. Grey Legs waited and let the ladies eat first. Neither one of them attacked us -- so that's good. But I have, several times, seen Grey Legs pull a worm or grub from the ground and give it to one of the hens. Kindness.

You're getting the picture: Camillo's getting the axe. Tomorrow, in fact. But here's the thing: We can't just kill him & leave him for the foxes & coyotes. We've never been hunters and have never butchered before. Shoot. I've never even gutted a fish. So how do we even do the thing that's most responsible?

Fortunately, we have friends. Friends who, on our request, are inviting us over when they butcher their chickens and will teach me/us. I'm determined to be responsibly involved in process... the whole process of being a carnivore: raising the animal, protecting it from predators, feeding it, killing it, preparing it, and eating it.

I keep telling my kids (who are still refusing to eat the bird) that this is the trade we're making: We gave Camillo a healthy, happy life. In return, he will make our lives healthier and happier. It is a partnership. It is a reasonable trade and we will not be wasteful of his life. We will prepare the meat and make stock from the bones... if there are scraps on our plate, we will give them to the dog. We will use everything he give to us. (Or that we take from him -- however you want to look at it.)

I think this is a very valuable lesson for me to appreciate the amount of meat I've eaten in my life. It is sobering to think of how flippantly I treat the life of a agri-buisness caged-for-short-life chicken that ended up a gross Burger King chicken tender. I am woefully overdue for this dose of reality/responsibility.

Tomorrow, I may be woefully ill. But maybe I need to be. And I'm determined to do this. I'm even leaving the camera in my husband's hands to document how green I turn in this effort to be greener.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Loafing Under Trees

In his novel Middlesex, Jeffry Eugenides' narrator recounts the story of Princess Si Ling-Chi, who discovered the silk worm's thread when she was sitting under a tree and a cocoon fell into her cup of tea and unraveled. He writes, "Great discovery, whether of silk or gravity, are always windfalls. they happen to people loafing under trees."
So I resolve to do more loafing under trees.

Traveling a few weeks ago, I heard on NPR a report about how all our "screens" (smart phones, computers, televisions, ipods, etc.) are distracting us. They keep us from boredom, yes, but they prevent us from rest--the time we need to process and cement into our memory what we've learned. Checking our screens is the worst kind of recipe for addiction-making behavior: intermittent reinforcement. Constant checking prevents us from coming up with new ideas -- it inhibits our creativity -- even though the devices we are checking have the ability to greatly increase our production.
So I resolve to do more loafing under trees.

On the next program, Diane Rheem had on a man whose research showed the connection between our body and mind and how that affects our health. People with chronic pain treated themselves, by employing a relaxing technique and remembering back to a time in their lives when they were without pain to remember themselves back into wellness. He said in times of stress we need to break the cycle of our thought patterns, relax, and think of something else. He cited "believers" -- believers of anything -- being a healthier population than non-believers. The pattern of prayer takes us out of our routine, making us more relaxed, more healthy. One caller shared how in times of daily, routine stress, she stopped and recited poetry...
So I resolve to do more loafing under trees.

Summer is waning and soon the leaves will change... the weather will grow cold..
I believe I have someplace better to be right now.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Carolina Mountains Literary Festival

What a great weekend it was. I don't think I've ever learned so much in a festival weekend:
  • trivia facts: the quartz used in the Hale Telescope came from Mitchell county, Plott Hounds were a breed originated in Western North Carolina (I probably should have known that one, but I didn't grow up here), the 1904 Word's Fair had some 500 acres of land designated to "house" "indigenous peoples" from around the world and the Smithsonian arranged to have the rights to their bodies should they die during the fair.
  • new ways of thinking about writing poetry: the use of subordinating clauses to take you under surface meaning, abiding images, prose poetry as a means of avoiding the pretentious pause when reading line breaks, writing simply for the sound of the words, finding the plainest image to communicate meaning instead of the most abstruse one.
I also began to understand how each writer's process is different, needs to be, and the task is not necessarily to emulate a great writer's process, it is to discover your own. Stick with what works for you to be productive. Here are some processes writers described:
  • Long periods of self-loathing followed by furious bouts of typing. (hahaha!)
  • Starting poetry in the subconscious with #1 an "abiding image," #2 writing a big mess around that image, then in the conscious mind #3 attending to craft and paring it down.
  • One said, "Writing a novel is like putting hundreds of marbles on a table that's not quite level. And the moment I get them all to hold still I say -- I'm done. Because I know if I move just one thing, it'll all fall apart."
  • One has stopped journaling because it prevents her from writing anything else that day.
  • One calls it "canabalizing" (plagiarizing?) his own work as he takes the same images, words, and uses them in fiction, poetry, essay...
  • Some take copious notes and jot down things, some hold it all in their minds.
I was also very moved when Paul Cuadros was able to address 60 middle school students and probably 60 high school students... (there were about 240 in the room) about issues of immigration in small rural communities. His book A Home on the Field is very relevant and a worthwhile read -- especially if you like soccer. I would recommend it to you all.

And if you don't believe me that it was a great weekend, check out what an unbiased participant had to say: Robin's Blog.