Friday, March 18, 2011

My Daughter and the Slaughter

Growing up on a farm made me rather callous to the butchering of animals for our winter food.  Each fall we fattened a cow that came in from pasture, open or not-in-calf.  Often it was an aged animal, but Dad always maintained that if they were thin enough to begin with, and you put the grain right to them, it was all new meat and thus a delicacy.  Well I'm not sure how accurate that all is, and I never remember having steaks or roast that you could cut with your fork.  In fact I was quite surprised when I first had a restaurant steak, how tender beef could be.

And then we usually raised a piglet or two for pork each year.  Dad would get a pair of weaner piglets, and they would live in the barn over the summer and fall until they reached the required weight.  This also meant, that although the cows were out to pasture for the summer, there were still barn chores to do each day and a pig pen to muck out.  I really hated killing the pigs, not that I ever had any great sentimental attachment to them -- I hated the smell of them being dunked in scalding water and scraping the bristles off.  It was just that 'pig' smell amplified by the heat and steam.  

Mom always made head cheese from the pig's head.  It is funny I liked head cheese as a wee lad, until I actually watched and comprehended the process of production.  You simply put the head in a huge roasting pan and boiled it for several hours until the meat fell off the bones. Then Mom would sort through, get all the fleshy parts, all the juice and put it in pans to congeal.  I think it was seeing the teeth (pigs have really horrible brown tartary teeth) and eyes etc, still intact, on the picked over skull, realizing that the juices off of them, were an integral part of homemade headcheese.  Folks raved about Mom's headcheese for miles around; I still harbour thoughts of becoming a vegetarian forty years later!

Then there were the chickens.  Usually we would buy about 50 day old meat birds at the local feed store and rear them over the summer.  Mom and I then tackled them in groups of ten or fifteen per day, scalding, picking, gutting and getting ready for the freezer.

Yours truly, looking too cherubic for words.  If you look in the box you will see a rooster's feet and tail feathers.  At the back are my brother and my aunt in front of the Christmas tree.  Obviously this rooster is about to become Christmas dinner.  I would hazard to guess the date of this photo is exactly December 24, 1963.

I do recall one summer, the local feed man had a deal for all the neighbours.  He was giving away day old cockerel chicks -- for free.  Most of us all got 50 or better and then proceeded to buy feed all summer to grow out these little freebies.  The problem is free is just that, not worth much. These were little leghorn roosters.  No matter how much feed you poured into them, they never put an ounce of meat on.  They just grew long and lanky with a couple of tiny, tough strands of meat attached to their sharp pointy little breast bones. Mom always maintained that this particular salesman, could have "sold freezers to the Eskimoes."

By that point in time I was old enough and experienced enough to butcher the chickens, solo.  And that is what I did.  Mom and Dad were away for the day, and when they returned there were 50 carcasses cleaned and ready for winter, such as they were.  I have a feeling that if my parents had been helping they might have given up after the first ten, realizing just how little meat was there for all our efforts.  But we ate leghorn rooster all winter.  I know Mom had to roast them up in pairs, to get enough meat to feed our family of four, and then it was tough and not plentiful.  It was a memorable, if not particularly good chicken year.
For a few years my wife and I raised our own meat birds, buying day old meat birds.  These creatures can hardly be called chickens.  They more resemble reptilian grain processing machines.  They basically eat and poop for eight short weeks, and then either their legs or hearts give out.  The trick is to kill them, just before either happens.  We did learn that pullets, as opposed to cockerels were a slightly better bet, longevity-wise.  We could even keep them up to ten or twelve weeks and the corresponding ten pound weight, if we were careful.

When we got into laying hens again, we had several broody ladies and we let them hatch their own babies.  Of course about half of these would end up being boys.  Unfortunately, because these were laying hens with laying hen genetics, these fellows were reminiscent of the leghorn lads of my childhood - not much meat for the food they consumed.

My eldest daughter, ever the one to tackle new ventures, volunteered to help me butcher one of these batches of roosters.  Her mother was there with the camera to capture it all for posterity.  And we've used the experience to our advantage several times.  Whenever she encounters something particularly unpleasant, we can usually goad her on, "Come on, you've gutted a chicken, you can handle anything."

And that is about all I have to say for today.

Musings and meanderings from the Musical Gardener.

A good outdoor job - not near as much clean up after.

Pretty scrawny carcass for all that effort!


  1. All that gutting and plucking and chopping could have made a vegan out of me. I used to help mom kill chickens (which was traumatic enough), and the day she was going to teach me to gut them, I knew I didn't want to be a farmer's wife!

    As far as head cheese: I loved it till I found out what it was. I haven't had it since! Kind of like when I was in Scandinavia singing. When I found out those wonderful open-faced sandwiches had horse meat in them, I couldn't eat another.

    I am certainly feeling a vegan attack coming on!

  2. Hey, good for your daughter for having taken that on! If I had to butcher my own meat, I would indeed be a vegetarian. Fortunately our friends across the road raises meat birds and we get our chicken from them.

    That pic of you with the Christmas rooster is great.

    And I have to say, head cheese has never appealed to me. It needs a new name and new branding! ;)


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