Holding the chicken by its wings, Riley Starks lifts the Rhode Island Red from its crate, confidently inverts the hen, places it between his thighs and slits its jugular with a thin blade. Not a feather ruffles; the bird never makes a peep.
On this early fall day, free-ranging chickens cluck and crow at Nettles Farm, just down the hill from the famed Willows Inn on Lummi Island. In rubberized bib pants and boots, Starks, 62, is a fisherman and former owner of the inn, best known for recruiting star chef Blaine Wetzel. He also leads these “Butchering Your Own Stewing Hen” workshops. For my part, I figured that any food writer worth his salt should know how to ease a bird into the next life with a minimum of trauma. My first lesson: Starks makes the process look very, very easy.
“Be firm with the bird. If you’re firm, it’ll be fine,” Starks explains as he eases the hen he’s just killed head down into a metal “killing cone” and uses a cord to secure its feet. (Though the bird is dead at this point, the nervous system continues to react.) “You’ve got 30 seconds to get ’em into the cones; otherwise, all hell breaks loose.”
A few moments of quiet follow his statement before the bird convulses in the cone for what feels like a very long time.
Everyone freezes and stares, first at the cone, then at each other. One student looks longingly at the garden and says, “I think I want to go pick some kale,” before wandering off toward the raised beds. Another follows her, adding, “I love beans.”
We are all here by choice, however, and everyone in the class will eventually take his or her turn killing several of the birds—Rhode Island Red, barred Plymouth Rock and Araucana chickens.
Some of the workshop participants (a maximum of eight can attend) come to forge a better connection to the source of their food; some are chefs looking to expand their knowledge and skill sets. Others—those with their own flocks—are here for more practical reasons.
A growing number of Seattleites keep chickens in their backyards, and for them, knowing how to dispatch “retired layers”—chickens about a year and a half old whose egg production is in decline—and turn them into stewing hens is not only a sleeper trend, it’s an essential skill.
“People are reclaiming their backyards—they want sustenance out of them,” Starks says. “There’s not any infrastructure yet, but there’s demand.”
Along with the butchering, Starks hopes to fill some of that void and plans to offer a program in which people slaughter their birds with him, and along with those stewing hens, they can return home with pullets—young hens that are just about ready to lay. He’s also begun to devote significantly more time to farming chickens at Nettles. Along with a small flock of the revered Sulmtaler breed, Starks has co-launched a campaign to bring a flock of the Blue Foot breed, an independently developed, genetic near-twin of the hallowed French poulet de Bresse—the discerning French chef’s bird of choice—into the United States.
First, however, we have some birds to dispatch. Starks makes sure everyone is wearing a smock and rubber boots, and then puts a knife in my hand.
I’m awful at it. It’s hard to control the bird, hard to get it to stop squirming and hard to know exactly what to do with the “bleeding knife,” aka “the sticker”—essentially a paring knife with a skinny blade made for the sole purpose of killing chickens. I incorrectly stab, then drop my second bird, leaving Starks to pounce on it and finish the job before we have a chicken running around with its head cut off.
What surprises me while I am doing it is the lack of room that I have in my head for the moral debate about taking an animal’s life. I thought about it beforehand; I will be glad I did it afterward (especially in light of the way most industrial birds are treated), but in the moment, it’s all I can do to get the mechanics right.
“The minute you do something, it’s not cerebral,” Starks says. “You’re controlling it.”
I do not control it very well, particularly at first, but I eventually start to get the hang of it.
Four at a time (two in each hand), Starks then dunks the freshly killed birds into a metal tank filled with hot water.
“You could even scald them in a crab cooker—it just has to be 150 Fahrenheit,” he says, explaining the minimum temperature needed so that the feathers can be removed easily.
He runs the scalded birds through a machine known as “the plucker,” which has spinning, rubberized fingers that remove the feathers, and then brings us over to a tent to show us how to gut them.
“Here, could you clean these tubs?” he asks, handing me a pair of bus-bucket-size bins. “We’ll need a place to store the gizzards. Have you ever peeled gizzards?”
Starks demonstrates how to remove the birds’ innards, heads and feet, a process we students approach with trepidation and curiosity, but one that leaves us with birds a butcher would be proud to hang in his cooler. During the process, I also get a better sense of the quality of life for these birds—which were raised 250 feet away, roaming a quarter-acre pen and eating organic grain, clippings from the farm and Willows kitchen scraps—as opposed to most store-bought chickens.
Stewing hens are older birds that need a little extra time and attention at the stove, but they have a nice yellow fat that’s practically liquid at room temperature. Cooked with the proper TLC, they have what Starks refers to as “flavor times 100.” But, obviously, it’s about more than just a good-tasting bird. Butchering your own hen creates a connection.
“It’s bigger than just killing a couple of retired layers,” Starks says. “I’m seeing the relationship in people’s lives and an awareness of a deeper level of eating. It’s everywhere.”
I rate my first chicken-butchering experience a success and while I’m not quite ready to build my own coop, I’ll be back to Starks’ workshop soon. He still needs to show me what to do with the gizzards.
Riley Starks' "Butchering Your Own Stewing Hen" workshops are offered two Saturdays a month, run for about five hours each and cost $150. Each participant is invited to bring his or her own birds and can take home one hen. For more information, visit nettlesfarm.com.