By LYNNE IRONS
Due to the subject matter, reader discretion is advised. This column is written solely for non-vegetarians.
I have not eaten a store-bought chicken in over thirty years. In 1975, my friend Sharlee had a one-eyed, rather deformed rooster. We were just beginning to grow our own food in earnest — that is, for more than just the summer. We had begun canning tomatoes, making pickles, and searching the neighborhood for old fruit trees.
The old rooster’s fate began coming up in conversation. We finally decided that we would, in fact, eat him.
The only information we had concerning home poultry processing was the expression, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
When the fateful day arrived, we dressed as if we were about to perform surgery, sharpened knives, ran into each other, turned pale, felt sick and were generally baffled. After a few false starts, the gruesome act was done. As we began plucking out the feathers, my then-five-year-old son Jeremiah remarked, “Oh! It’s just a chicken under there.” I cannot explain the comic relief in that innocent statement. Truly: “Alas, poor Yorick — I knew him well.”
That afternoon changed our meat-eating habits for a lifetime. He was tough and stringy but incredibly flavorful. Sharlee and I have shared over a hundred meat-birds a year since then, including batches of turkeys and ducks. Each of us take 25: we get them in batches of 50 twice a year. We’ve been doing three-ways with Zack Weisner of late.
We finally settled on Cornish Game Hens after trying many different varieties. That day-olds arrive at the Vineyard Haven post office and always create a stir. Everyone in line needs a look-see.
They spend a week or two in the house under a light. They like to be quite warm: more than 90 degrees. Once they go outside, I do keep them penned. I have had too many mishaps with roving unleashed dogs and the ever-despised raccoon. They would actually be ready to eat in four weeks. That is the age of those double packages of Cornish Hens in the market. I usually wait until they are about eight weeks and, in my perfect world, have them all in the freezer by 12. They are 4 to 6 pounds at that stage. The time investment is minimal compared to the larger livestock.
I start them on Day One with an organic, non-medicated feed. It is more expensive than the other feed, but the time is short and I am doing this for the best food possible for my family. Believe me, this has never been a money-saving endeavor.
This past Saturday, my daughter Naomi and I dispatched eight of our birds who hatched on Oct. 7. They averaged 5 pounds finished. It was very cold out and not an entirely pleasant task, but needed to be done. It is only going to get colder.
I tossed one finished bird directly into the oven. Let me say, humbly, there are few foods more enjoyable. It was beyond delicious.
I tend to think of gardening as a total relationship with my world. I grew and then harvested that meat. It is very satisfying on many levels.
Many thanks to Tom Chakis for the big box of Garden Design magazines he sent me through the Gazette office. I am thoroughly enjoying them and am searching for articles to plagiarize.
Since I am about to settle in for a long winter’s nap, so to speak, I want plenty of reading material. I remember reading the obituary of Dionis Coffin Riggs some time ago in the Gazette. They commented about the books found on her bed stand. One was a copy of the King James version of the Bible held together with duct tape.
I loved that so much I thought I would mention the pile on my night stand: Al Gore, The Assault on Reason; Joel Salatin, Family Friendly Farming; Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope; Alexander McCall Smith, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive; C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters; Joseph Volpe, The Toughest Show on Earth; Simon Winchester, Krakatoa; a pile of seed catalogues; and the Nation magazine. I will do my best to refrain from boring you with book reviews all winter.
The solstice is upon us. Merry Christmas. The Light is about to come again!