The Chicken Slaughter

Taught by Heather Marold Thomason at Eat Retreat 2012

Listen to an audio version of this article

"Pause. Take a deep breath... Then push the blade forward while slicing across with your arm. Don't think about how hard you're moving it, don't think about anything else. Just concentrate on the idea of moving the knife in the right direction... it should happen pretty smoothly for you."

Just a minute before, Heather Marold Thomason demonstrated this move for a group of 20 people. In a single movement, she quickly and purposefully sliced the head off a chicken. While the chicken bled out, she repeated the mechanics of the movement slowly and in detail, emphasizing the importance of remaining calm, yet forceful. We learned the worst thing you could do when killing a chicken was to hesitate or move slowly, as that only increased the animal's suffering.

Next it was our turn.

I've never killed a chicken before. I've made sausage, I've de-boned a pig's head, I've killed and butchered fish, I’ve helped butcher a pig, I've boiled live lobsters, and I‘ve watched on as others killed, gutted and skinned rabbits. But I've never picked up a live chicken, placed it upside down into an inverted steel cone, pulled its head down with one hand and sliced off its head with the other.

Take a moment. Deep breath. Pause. Resolve. Cut. It happened quickly and smoothly, and the head dropped into the hay below.

Once the bird has bled out for a minute, grab it by the feet and dunk it into a hot bath of 140˚F / 60˚C water. Use a stick to make sure the bird is completely submerged. After a minute, the feathers should be loose and you can take the whole thing out of the hot bath.

To pluck the bird by hand, you have to sit and spend a few minutes pulling the feathers out clump by clump. It's a messy job and the feathers stick everywhere. We were fortunate to have a plucking machine do the work for us. Plucking machines are large plastic tubs lined with hundreds of firm, finger-sized rubber protrusions. The bottom of the tub spins around and bounces one to three chickens off the rubber fingers. Sounds complicated, but when you combine that with a good spray from a hose, then you get a cleanly plucked bird in just a few seconds.

Once plucked, the last step is to gut and clean the birds. First, reach down the neck of the bird and free up the membranes around the bird's crop. On the other end of the bird, pinch the skin just above the anus and use your sharp knife to make a small incision. You want to cut the skin and the fat layer below it, but you must take every precaution not to cut too deep and slice the bird's digestive tract. If you cut the intestine, then not only will you have a nasty smell to deal with, but it can also potentially contaminate the meat. We tried to make the incisions as small as possible, then used our hands to tear open the hole to reduce our chances of cutting the intestine.

Once the opening is there, reach into the bird running your hand around the inside to break all the connective membranes around the guts. The bird will still be warm inside, so be prepared. Once the guts have loosened up some, move your hand along the top of the inside of the bird, grab the hard gizzard, and pull firmly to bring all the guts out of the bird. You'll need to be forceful here, but at the same time be careful as you don’t want to rip open the intestines.

Once the guts are on the outside of the body, you'll want to separate the good parts -- liver, hearts, and gizzards. Be sure to separate the dark green gall bladder from the liver and throw it away. Once the good parts are separated, cut another U-shape around the chicken's anus in order to separate the digestive track from the body. Compost or throw away the guts. Finally, reach back up inside the chicken and run your fingers along the cavity to remove the lungs. They're soft and hard to feel, so the best rule of thumb is just to make sure there's as little left in the cavity as possible (this includes the crop in the neck).

The chicken is gutted at this point, so rinse the chicken well, and place it in an ice bath to chill.

You can also view an entire video of the chicken slaughter on YouTube.