Butchering or Dressing Out the Chickens

Butchering (or Dressing Out) the Chickens

by Shirley McJunkin of Red Lodge, MT

Saturday morning at the breakfast table my husband, Keith, announced to our three children eating cereal, “today we are going to butcher the chickens!” Their spoons froze in the air; they stared at him with mouths opened. He quickly added in a much softer tone. “I mean dress out the chickens.”

They resumed eating, not knowing what “dress out” meant, but as long as it wasn’t butcher, it was OK.

We had recently moved to a forty-acre farm, so our three children would learn the basic values that my husband and I were raised with. The first thing on our list was raising chickens for eggs and food. I ordered the baby chickens from the Gurney’s garden catalog, they were very reasonable, but mostly cockerels.

Now they were, (on my mother’s advise), old enough to butcher. I was very happy to hear this, but when I picked up my last sack of feed, and told the man at the elevator we would be butchering the chickens they looked upset because my feed bill was huge and they hated to lose the business.

We quickly assembled all the tools that we could remember that were used in this onus task in our childhood. We got: wire clothes hanger, bent it straight with a long narrow hook at the end; ax; sharpened butcher knife and put two large kettles of water on the stove to heat.

Keith remembered from his youth the chickens’ head anchored between two large nails on a tree stump. His father, with one swipe of the ax, severed the head and the chicken tossed aside and the next one put in its place.

I remembered: my mother with the chicken’s legs held under her shoe, detaching the neck with a knife, that resembled a machete, (it was probably a beet knife with the hook filed off.)

After some discussion we opted for the ax. Neither of us had the stomach for the other method.

As the five of us headed for the brooder, my husband emerged from the tool shed, adding casually, the only ax he could find had a curved blade, but when I looked at him in alarm, he added with false bravado, “I sharpened it and it will work fine.”

We entered the chicken’s abode. It was very noisy, chickens clucking to each other, some gossiping at the water fountain, they seemed a very contented group, but when we closed the door, there was a dead silence, it may have been because we were standing stiffly at the door looking very menacing.

Keith whispered, “Give me the wire hook,” and when the group eyed the hook being passed, the chicken house was in chaos; loud squawking was followed by airborne chickens all trying to fly up on the roost or anywhere safe. I had to bar the door to keep the three children from fleeing.

Finally amid flying feathers and chicken dust, we eventually had four chickens firmly held by the feet, my husband said, in a choked voice, I think four is enough to start with. Once the chicken was turned upside down, held by it’s feet, it became totally silent, looking up at you in curiosity. At once, as if they understood my husband’s words, everything became calm again, chickens clucking again and returning to the water fountain.

Once outside, my husband placed the chicken on the stump he had prepared, sliding the head of the, still silent, chicken between the two nails, down came the ax, the chicken started squawking, it’s head only partially detached, due to the curved blade of the ax. Then chaos broke loose, the children ran screaming from the scene, the chicken gotten loose form the nails and was running around, with it’s head dangling, with Keith chasing it. I stood frozen holding the other three. Expecting them to rise up in rebellion, but they remained quiet.

He retrieved the wounded chicken and finished the job with the knife. The other three he decapitated with the center of the ax blade. Then things started going a little smoother, but when the headless chickens started flopping around, the three children who had been peeking around the edge of the chicken house, ran screaming toward the house. This was very puzzling, all three had enjoyed, “Nightmare on Elm Street” which left me sleepless for two nights. We had lived on an Elm Street for a short while.

Now for the finale! We had moved the hot water outside to the garage, placed it on a small electric burner. We retrieved all three children from the house, handed each a scalded chicken to pluck on the garage bench which was covered with newspaper. Our daughter tried to hold her nose and pluck with her free hand, which wasn’t very successful. Finally, the chickens naked enough, we returned to the house to pick pinfeathers.

This part everyone liked, they were fighting over the turkey plucker I brought from my mothers to pluck my eyebrows. It was a round tweezers type that worked on eyebrows better than pinfeathers.

But when I started laying out clean newspaper for the butchering part, even my husband disappeared. It was a good thing we decided to start with only four. Dressing or gutting out a chicken, I was good at. I had been helping with this chore since I was ten. But for some reason, without my mother close by it was a little more difficult. The gizzard she sliced and pulled the lining off so easy. My clumsy attempt had gravel all over everything.

The next weekend, when we were supposed to butcher more, everyone disappeared-even my husband. With almost 60 chickens to go, (we would keep five for layers), I called in the expert – my mother! She made short work of the rest.

When she entered the chicken house, the chickens kept on clucking and gossiping, she was so quick with the wire hook, the chicken wasn’t even missed. I watched in awe as she used the machete or butcher knife as she called it. One clean swipe and it was over.

She added some soap flakes to the scalding water, when she got through, they were not only scalded but also cleaned and looked great, there was very little prep work.

After this was done, one morning my husband suggested, maybe it would be better for the kids, if we raised a large garden.

The chickens, wrapped neatly in white paper, lay in rows in the freezer. I was going to give them as gifts to people, when finally the event faded to a blur and I cut one up and fried it. It was the most delicious chicken I ever ate.

Devouring the almost gourmet poultry, my husband suggested maybe I was a little hasty on not raising more chickens. So I quickly put the ledger in front of him. I had neatly penned under the “Chicken Expense” column, along with original cost of purchasing the chickens; every bag of feed, oyster shells, chicken wire and miscellaneous. This was totaled and divided by 70 chickens that were left. The chickens cost us about $1.00 more each than the supermarket price. Much to everyone’s relief, the garden idea became popular again.