There’s been a lot in the news lately about chefs and consumers getting involved in processing their own meat. While there are lots of chefs hosting nose-to-tail fabrication demonstrations in their restaurants, there are still few opportunities for chefs and consumers to get hands-on experience in the slaughtering process. I’m fortunate enough to live 30 minutes away from a farm that does just that.
This past Saturday morning (Halloween day oddly enough), I woke up at 6 AM to join farmers Pete Lowy and Jen Hashley of Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds in Concord, Mass., for the last “Processing Day” of the season. Pete & Jen’s birds are famous in and around Boston and there is a long waiting list of customers (including chefs) hoping to get one of their pasture-raised birds.
You’d be surprised how many people are willing to wake up early on a Saturday morning to help slaughter and eviscerate chickens. I was joined by 15 other volunteers, some who purchase birds from Pete & Jen on a regular basis, others who have a general interest in animal husbandry, and people like myself who are curious to learn more about the whole process. It was great to see a few familiar faces like member chef Jason Bond, who regularly volunteers his time and butchering expertise on processing day.
Pete and Jen process few enough birds a year that they’re able to do so on their farm using a rented Mobile Poultry Processing Unit (MPPU) which is fully equipped with killing cones, scalder, plucker, sink, and evisceration area. Pete and Jen would like to see more MPPU’s available to small farmers in Massachusetts in the hopes that it will strengthen the regions’ local food system and are working to raise $35,000 to build a second unit in Eastern Massachusetts.
I spent most of the morning eviscerating Capons and retired egg-layers with the other rookie processors. After the intial “eww” factor, I began to find the process really interesting and well… kind of fun. Later in the morning Pete came over and asked if anyone was interested in killing a chicken. I was second in line and was, to my surprise, not that nervous cutting the throat of the 2 lb layer chicken. The birds were remarkably calm and I could tell they’d had quite the life on this beautiful farm.
We spent the next hour or so packing and labeling the chickens. Nothing is wasted. Heads, necks, gizzards, livers, hearts, and feet are packed, labeled, and sold. Even the fat is saved and sold to a local artisan who makes soap. Blood, feathers, and inedible organs are added to the compost pile.
There were a lot of things that struck me about this experience, but most of all I was impressed by the strong community Pete and Jen have built around their farm. After we finished packing all the chickens, we changed out of our work clothes, and Pete and Jen served us a delicious lunch of sandwiches, pickles and cookies from the Verrill Farm farmstand to thank us for a hard day’s work. They really couldn’t do it without us, and I think we all felt good about being a small part of their success.