Amidst a riot of perennial blooms such as I have never seen in my backyard gardens, the peas are finished, the green beans are producing more than we can eat, tomatoes are ripening quickly, zucchini plants are covered with blossoms (though no fruit — not enough pollinators?), sorrel and spinach have gone to seed, carrots are long and tasty. And I have had to water; we need a good soaking rain.
Beneath this July’s clear skies and under the “Full Buck Moon” (also known as “The Thunder Moon” according to the Farmer’s Almanac), two rites of passage just took place in our house: our youngest son, Angus, turned 21 and I, for the first time, learned how to slaughter and dress chickens.
Both events required wine. The chickens received a fine French white wine diluted in their water to relax them the evening before their demise (though they didn’t seem to like it much) and Angus received congratulations and toasts with a less fine wine over a dinner of some of his favorite foods: local goat cheeses and fresh guacamole for hors d’oeuvres, a first course of pasta with pesto fresh from the garden’s basil row; pork chops marinated in lemon juice, with olive oil, cracked pepper and fresh sage; salad picked minutes before consumption; and, finally, home-made maple ice cream.
Maple ice cream for Angus
Take 2 cups of heavy cream, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and 1 vanilla bean that you have cut in half lengthwise and scraped into the cream. Bring to a boil.
Remove from heat and stir in 1/4 cup of maple syrup (Grade B). Cover and let sit for five minutes.
While cream mixture is “steeping,” separate 4 eggs. Lightly beat together 4 egg yolks. Whisk 1/4 cup of the cream mixture into the yolks, then another 1/4 cup. Then add the egg yolk mixture into the remainder of the cream.
Strain into a clean saucepan. Heat on medium-low heat, stirring, till cream mixture thickens slightly and coats a wooden spoon. Remove immediately and refrigerate until completely cold.
Then freeze in your ice cream maker. Seriously delicious!
As we reminisced over the photo album that captures Angus’ first months, the chicken connection seemed oddly apt. He and older brother, Charles, lie together on a bed wearing new T-shirts — one, sized 3 T with hens and the other, sized 3 months with tiny chicks — block printed as a big-brother present by an artist friend who had exotic chickens in her garden (chosen every spring from a catalogue for their looks, not their laying proclivities). Every afternoon, all that spring and early summer, three-year-old Charles had carefully located and collected in a basket eggs that were blue, green, pink, brown and white, natural shades of eggs neither he nor I had ever dreamed of. He relished the search, how some eggs were still warm when he reached beneath a brightly colored bird rump, while I marveled at how lucky he was to be able to look for eggs. And I dreamed about how such eggs might look in a still life painting, with their notes of color.
Born and raised in a city, I never gave a thought to chickens, or eggs, how they were grown and brought to market, or what a truly fresh egg ought to look like — not to mention taste like — ’til I studied Renaissance tempera painting techniques and happened upon a passage in a 14th-century manuscript about the difference between country eggs and city eggs … the color and sprightliness of the yokes … Indeed, the ancient craftsman postulated, the yolk of a country egg was far better suited for painting the ruddier complexion of a person who spent their time out of doors (John the Baptist, perhaps, or a peasant, or laborer), while the yolk of a city egg, much paler in color, was better suited to the pale flesh tones of a noble person.
Then, after tasting the fresh eggs that Charles had found, well, there was no going back. Hence our need to participate in Margy’s flock of laying hens in Cornwall, 21 years later, so we can have fresh eggs, share in the care of the birds, raise a couple of turkeys and enjoy watching poultry antics — all things we cannot do on our three-tenths of an acre.
But meat birds? This is a new chapter. Could be Joel Salatin’s fault. After he came through Middlebury last year and after reading his books, I found it impossible to eat any chicken whose origins I did not know. Perhaps you will remember the arrival of 25 Freedom Ranger chicks on April 30, who spent the first two weeks of their life in our family room (much to the amusement of the neighborhood children), before migrating to Cornwall in Margy’s van (Addison Independent column “Spring Firsts”). They matured quickly, as meat birds are wont to do and we processed them outside, on a clear, sunny Saturday.
The birds reached their slaughter weight in 10 and half weeks. That is, 15 of them did. We lost 10 of them to a mystery critter with a voracious appetite that broke into the chicken “tractor,” a movable cage that housed the chickens on the lawn, mid-June.
As my friend Abi said, “The anticipation of slaughtering chickens is far worse than the reality.” She is right.
We borrowed a scalder and a plucker from friends at Oliver Hill Farm (they gave us the wine, too), hung the cone, prepared vats of iced water, sharpened our knives and set up tables outside where it would be airy and bright. After processing the first chicken together, we quickly settled into the jobs where we each had the most comfort. Several hours later, the freezer was full of clean broilers, weighing between 3-1/2 and 6-1/2 pounds.
After cleaning up and long hot showers, we went out to dinner. After entering the costs on a spreadsheet, we found these birds had cost us a little over $2 a pound. We decided to time next year’s flock differently for an autumn slaughter date (cooler weather). And we strategized about how to make the chicken “tractor” predator proof. Toasting the results of our first flock, we were grateful.
No one ordered chicken.