Off With Their Heads!

When I was young (which wasn’t that long ago), we would butcher and clean chickens every summer at my grandparents’ farm near Alexandria, S.D. I was not a big fan of the bloody, smelly process. But I had to be tough and do my part. I could usually be found at the be-heading station, although I don’t remember if I actually wielded the ax. I may have just been a catcher after that lethal task had been completed.

I can definitely sympathize with the cousin in this piece who wasn’t crazy about eating chicken after watching the process. I had the same ambivalent feelings myself as a child. Now, I have the luxury of not thinking about how that chicken ends up on my table. I don’t know that it’s a good thing to be so alienated from the process, but I guess it’s a fact of life. I’m not going to start raising my own chickens anytime soon.

Here is the recollection about farm life in Nebraska that spurred the trip down memory lane:

By Michael Babcock

A story in one of the Tribune’s recent Life sections
about rural myths reminded me of my own
experiences with headless chickens and whether or
not they walk around.

It also got me to thinking about what several
generations have probably missed when it comes to
life on a farm or ranch.

I have participated in the capture,slaughter,
cleaning, cooking and eating of chickens on my
grandparents’ farm in Nebraska, where I stayed part
of each summer as I grew up. It was a wonderfully
bloody and fascinating practice for a young boy to
witness and participate in.

When a special meal was planned — maybe all the
cousins and aunts and uncles coming for a weekend
get together, I would be sent out to catch however
many chickens my grandmother thought we would
need.

I used a straightened wire, a little heavier than a
clothes hanger, with a corncob handle and a bent
“hook” on the other end to chase chickens around
the yard and then snag them by the ankle.

Then it was off to the wood pile and off with their
heads: We used an ax. Sometimes the headless
chickens would fly away a dozen yards or so and I
would have to chase them down, grab them by the
legs and hold them away from my body so I didn’t
get blood on my clothes. Sometimes they would just
flop around on the ground but I never recall any of
them walking around.

Next step was to dip them in scalding water to help
loosen their feathers so we could pluck them. We
finished off by singing the tiny “hairs” that remained
on them.

The smell of wet feathers and then wet burned
feathers was the worst part of it all. I re-create that
smell every once in awhile when I use a feather
burner to shape the fletching on my cedar arrows.

Butchering chickens was not for the weak. The quick
trip from yard to table bothered some. For a long
time my cousin Bill was not interested in eating chicken after watching the whole process.

Read the rest here.

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