This past Wednesday we hosted our first Chicken Processing Workshop in collaboration with Brock Phillips and Mary Beth Miller at Coon Rock Farm. Currently at the Campus Farm we don’t have any livestock, but this workshop is at the heart of what we want to teach the Duke community. Even if we aren’t raising our own chickens for use in the dining halls, without a doubt students are eating chicken every day without knowledge of how the animal became the grilled chicken breast on their plate. We aim to be a “learning laboratory” at the Duke Campus Farm, and this workshop is a prime example of that.
By far this has been our most “controversial,” relevant, and popular workshop offered. When publicizing the event to all my friends and classmates, one student responded “Am I a better person if I want to or don’t want to do this?.” My answer: both. One of the unique qualities of this workshop was the option to be either a participant or an observer. As an avid vegetarian, mainly because I think I am incapable of killing an animal, killing a chicken was not an appealing thought. But I have to recognize that chicken eating is a stable in American food, and because of that knowing the practice of processing a chicken makes me a more informed foodie, so I chose to be an observer. If you are a meat eater, this workshop showed you how to process sustainable, ethically raised chickens.
Brock Phillips and Mary Beth Miller, local farmers at Coon Rock, led the workshop at their location in Hillsborough. We were unable to host the event at the Duke Farm in part because our lack of equipment, but also in North Carolina all chickens must be processed at the farm at which they are raised. Duke undergrads, Nicholas School students, Duke nurses, professors, and Durham community members were amongst the mix of twenty people who came to the event. The participants broke into seven pairs, leaving six observers. First each pair killed their chicken, a Rhode Island Red, by placing it upside down in an inverted steel cone, exposing their head.
While holding the chicken’s head just above the neck, the participant used a knife to saw through the neck. This was a relatively quick cut, taking no more than a minute. The chicken was left in the cone to drain for about ten minutes. We then took the bird and dipped it in almost boiling water for two minutes to loosen the feathers.
Phillips gave us the option of plucking by hand, but we opted for the “mother plucker” a large steel bin with plastic fingers all around the bottom and sides. While cold water is sprayed inside the bottom rotates, kicking the chicken all around so the plastic fingers can remove the feathers. In just a minute the entire bird was featherless, a normally tedious job by hand. All these feathers are saved and turned into feather meal, an important fertilizer we use at the Campus Farm to add nitrogen to the soil. Similar to other animal byproducts like manure, feather meal is an easy way to get nitrogen is essential for crop growth.
Now we were ready to clean the chicken for cooking. First to go are the feet, the neck, and a small oil sac located right above the tail (this is full of fat and is not tasty). Then we opened up the bird from the bottom, grabbing all the insides and pulling them out (the intestines, heart, kidneys, testes, and stomach).
Once the inside cavity was mostly clean we scraped the back wall for the lungs, small pink spongy organs that stick right to the flesh. We checked for the esophagus and trachea in the neck area, strong skinny tubes and removed them as well. Each pair left with the full chicken along with any organs they wanted to keep: kidney for pâté, hearts for skewering and grilling, and feet and neck for flavoring broths. All the other organs were composted.
Melissa Chieffe, Trinity 2015, says she took this workshop “because she wanted to know where her food came from. But further, if you can’t kill it, you shouldn’t eat it.” Not only were we taught an ecologically sound and humane to kill chickens, but we also learned about the importance of community-based produce. Even though we encounter meat on a multi-daily basis, our day out at Coon Rock Farm was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity for most. You can see the disconnect. We hope to continue hosting workshops like this one to teach about and invite discussion around food and the current food system. Special thanks to everyone at Coon Rock for facilitating this workshop!
Watch this video of one of the kills!