The Animal at the Table: Better living through whole-bird butchery

Photos by Wing Ta, Gif made by Aaron Job

Photos by Wing Ta, Gif made by Aaron Job

The first thing you should do is hold the chicken in your hands. Consider the weight of its body as you wipe it dry with a paper towel, tracing its flesh and bone, dabbing each crevice on its gangly mass. Feel the stippling on the skin, notice the joints and the muscles. It was an animal, and that’s important.

I’ve been told stories about how my grandmother’s family would can the meat from an entire cow to prepare for winter. They didn’t do it because it was trendy, much less tasty. They did it because that was the natural conclusion of raising animals and that’s how they would survive until spring.

At the beginning of this winter, I wanted to simplify my diet. To break the cycle of garbage “comfort” food justified by the conditions outdoors. To eat more like my ancestors. To have an animal—and to deal with it for my own sake.

Because in America, your meat is mostly being dealt with by someone else. It’s being extruded, mechanically separated, modified, stretched, and made convenient. This is especially true of chicken. It’s America’s most popular meat—24 million chickens are consumed every day, but the majority in a form that doesn’t resemble its avian origins. It’s pattied, stickified, nuggetized.

I wondered what would happen if I forced myself to take custody of whole animals, to put my own knife to their bodies, repeatedly, and dismember scores of them with my own two hands. So began a winter-long experiment, an exercise in mindful meat eating. I would buy a whole chicken every Sunday, butcher it, find a way to eat it all, and do it again the next week.

It presented me with multiple challenges—the butchery itself, sure, but mostly planning and follow-through. In turn, it provided me with stability, flexibility, and even comfort. It made me think about animals again. It made me think about life.

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Once the chicken is dry, you take it apart. This involves a sharp knife and just a few well-placed slices. There are thousands of tutorial videos online, and it’s not that daunting. There are actually lines on the chicken that tell you where to cut—like the line of fat between the drumstick and the thigh, and the line bisecting the white meat above the breastbone.

You’ll be left with eight pieces of raw chicken (10, if you remember to harvest the oysters,) a carcass, and a mound of skin and fat. What’s a person to do?

Well the first thing to do is wash your hands. Wipe down your sink, and counter, and the handle of your fridge with a mild bleach solution. Various groups report different numbers on the prevalence, but it’s a good idea to act as if your raw chicken is swimming in Salmonella and Campylobacter. Be careful what it touches, and what you touch while you’re handling it. (And for goodness sake, don’t store your raw chicken on the fridge shelf directly above your fresh produce.)

Now wash your hands again, and get to planning.

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Americans have always hated how much work it takes to eat a chicken. No one wanted to hack through an entire bird when they could just toss a steak in a hot pan. We kept chickens on our farms mainly to peck through manure and lay eggs. As meat, we considered them only fit for dainty women and convalescents.

But as the 20th century dawned, our eating habits changed. We started counting calories. We learned about cholesterol and discovered its link to heart disease. We rationed red meat during two World Wars. Our population boomed. We needed lots of healthy calories, at a low price, fast.

We transformed nearly everything about raising chickens, engineering them to grow juicy thighs and prurient breasts in a fraction of the time. We pumped them full of antibiotics, vertically integrated farms, and industrialized meat production. The birds grew large, our larders filled with white meat, and the price of chicken plummeted. So producers took to finding ways to wring a few extra cents out of each bird, and got wise to the value of transformation.

The “convenience” product came to define chicken in America.

 

The “convenience” product came to define chicken in America. Finally unshackled from the Salmonella-ridden labor and blood and viscera of the fowl, Americans gorged on chicken sausages, patties, forcemeat, sticks, strips, “boneless wings,” and of course, the McNugget, which debuted in 1983 to thundering acclaim. McDonald’s became the second-largest purveyor of chicken in the world, only to KFC, almost overnight.

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The antidote to convenience is a plan. The way out of “processed” is preparation.

I often hear people remark that the reason they don’t plan their meals in advance is that they “don’t know where to start.” I agree. It can be debilitating. Twenty-one meals in a week, multiplied by the number of mouths in your household. And how the hell do I know what I want to eat six days from now?

But once I began my week with a whole chicken, the schedule started to build itself. Maybe the legs got roasted for Sunday night dinner. The breast meat sequestered for a few chicken salad lunches. The wings dipped in buttermilk and fried for a snack on Saturday. The carcass sits in the freezer until it’s time to make stock—which becomes soup for two lunches next week.

Once I scheduled meals around these chicken parts, the birds magically stretched themselves over three, four, five meals, even more. And that whole, three-and-a-half-pound, air-chilled, top-of-the-line Kadejan chicken costs the same as a single order of takeout General Tso’s.

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Good chicken is not just good meat. It’s also good fat and good bones. A three-for-one. Don’t waste that opportunity.

Remove all the skin and fat from the chicken that you can, and slice it into the smallest pieces you can. Cover the fat with cold water and simmer on low heat. The fat will render, the water will evaporate, and soon you’ll be left with bits of chicken skin browning in chicken fat. Strain out the oil, and salt the crispy skin bits on a paper towel. Put them on a salad, if you don’t gobble them up right then and there.

Now you have chicken fat too. Google “how to use schmaltz.” Live that life.

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I realized shortly into the winter what this chicken regimen was adding to my life: a ritual. Every Sunday I had to arrange my tools, a plastic cutting board, a sharp knife, various Tupperware to hold each part, and perform a ceremony of sorts. It was almost like meditation. Each slice of flesh and pop of bone made me respect what this animal was giving me. I tried to return that respect by making sure none of it was wasted.

After the butchery, a second Sunday ritual emerged at the stove—making broth. Nothing evokes the feeling of “home” like a bubbling pot on the fire, wafting its savory scent of love around every corner. I found psychological satisfaction in a pot of scraps and bones, slowly transforming into something amazing, and in the fact that I was making that happen.

These weekly chickens illustrated to me the joys of simplicity and the freedom of straightforwardness.

 

These weekly chickens illustrated to me the joys of simplicity and the freedom of straightforwardness. Nowhere was this more evident than in the broths. Ivan Orkin, who slings world-class ramen in both New York and Tokyo, has a recipe for chicken broth that has two ingredients: water and chickens. Heed the master’s experience, here. Chicken stock should taste like chicken. This should be self-explanatory, but it’s not. I had to re-learn that.

You’re going to be tempted to throw a CSA’s worth of vegetables in the pot with the chicken bones for “more flavor.” Resist this impulse. The more things you put in, the less it tastes like any one thing, namely, chicken. Instead, think minimal. Try a half onion, one carrot, and one rib of celery. If you have an Asian soup in mind, try one garlic clove, one scallion, and a little knob of ginger. Add a couple peppercorns and a pinch of salt.

Let it gurgle at a bare simmer, not a boil, on the stove for a few hours—I think anything more than four is overkill, but if you want to simmer it all day, go nuts. Skim off some of the nasty globs every now and then, but don’t fret too much about it. Strain it through a cheesecloth, let it chill overnight, and skim the fat off the top in the morning.

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I don’t feel sad for the animals on my cutting board.

I had a suspicion that I would develop a debilitating sympathy for these fowls—that repeatedly knifing them would make me want to eat less of them, and it would make me dream of a day when all chickens roamed free on the range, and were given a name, and had friends and a first-grade education.

Instead, and how to phrase this to not sound like a sociopath, I feel empowered.

I don’t, and never will, believe that eating meat is unethical, though I don’t fault the reasoning of anyone who does. To me, the more important question is how we can be responsible and respectful within the practice of carnivorism. What do we owe to these animals? What’s the least we can do? What’s the most we can do? And can we find personal solace at a place in between?

I paid a premium for a good chicken—money that went toward quality of life for both the chicken and the farmer who raised it. I planned a use for every chunk of its flesh, all the fat off its skin, and every drop of marrow in its bones. Short of actually hand-raising the chicken myself, I feel as good about it as I can.

And with every homemade chicken sandwich I ate and every nugget I passed up, I felt like I was taking ownership of my complicity in a system that rewards mindlessness. I felt like I was taking something back.

My meals became simple. Gone were the multi-step, convoluted recipes that look so precious on blogs, replaced by roasted legs, poached breasts, and simple sautéed vegetables on the side.

 

My meals became simple. Gone were the multi-step, convoluted recipes that look so precious on blogs, replaced by roasted legs, poached breasts, and simple sautéed vegetables on the side. I rediscovered the joy of regular old chicken soup. I mastered the simple stir-fry. My fried chicken is on-point. My grocery shopping shifted far more heavily to the produce and dairy cases. I needed more herbs and alliums, cheeses and creams, and far less of anything from the center aisles.

I could rationalize eating garbage food so easily—I’m a busy urban professional who doesn’t have a lot of time to cook. This experiment made me realize something we all probably know deep down: we have more time to cook than we think. It’s a matter of wanting to.

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This experiment was hardly revolutionary. Buying a whole chicken on the weekend used to be the most pedestrian activity. We once had a chicken in every pot, at every barbecue, and on every Sabbath table. We thought it was nothing special. We were wrong.

Because at some point, we looked away. We cheered the convenience of being removed from the animals we eat. We choose not to care about little chicks being debeaked with a hot knife shortly after hatching so they could live in closer quarters. We wouldn’t consider the cruel biology of an animal that can barely walk (if it has room to walk at all.) We refused to think about the living thing behind the McNugget.

But isn’t that precisely the mindset that has begat every one of our modern dietary problems? What is the sense of out-of-sight, out-of-mind, yet in-our-bodies?

My argument is this: involve yourself and notice the difference. Buy a whole chicken, a good chicken, cut it up, and figure out how to eat it all. It might seem gruesome at first. But waiting for you, on the other side of the butcher knife, is a whole other world of satisfaction.

John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Senior Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in real life at various bar patios in South Minneapolis.