I’d have to go back four generations in my family before I could find someone who knew what to do with chickens.
A distressed clucking woke me in the early morning of my 40th birthday. Instantly alert, I said, “But I closed the coop,” clearly remembering doing so the night before. In my haste, I almost forgot to put on a robe, which, other than being somewhat risqué, is not a good option in 20ºF weather. (Hey, that’s cold for Cali!)
I rushed to the backyard. Our coop was closed. When I peeked inside, my chickens gave me a look like, “What’s your problem, lady? Turn out that light!” With a sinking feeling, I stood at the gate to my neighbor’s yard. Since my girls were okay, it must have been her chickens that I’d heard. Sure enough, my neighbor’s coop was open with Hilda the hen inside – alone. Chickens being what they are, Hilda looked at me as if to say, “Yeah, I think it’s always been just me, but it feels like there’s something missing.” After assessing that Hilda was fine, I closed the coop and walked around my neighbor’s house. There was Butter the Buff Orpington chicken in the clutches of two very fat raccoons just about to drag her over the fence. I hissed at the raccoons and chased them away. When they kept peeking around the fence, with a plaintive, “Oh please, just a morsel when you’re finished, ma’am” face, I had to hiss and growl to really scare them.
Butter lay in a sorry heap, her neck ripped out and looking quite dead. Sadly, I rang my neighbor’s doorbell to wake her up. I took her to the fence to show her, only to notice the hen was breathing. She was far too wounded to do anything other than put her out of her misery as quickly as possible. I went to get my axe – the only sharp thing I could think of as I wasn’t about to use my good kitchen knives – when my neighbor picked up Butter and swung her around by her head. “I saw this on YouTube. It’s how they slaughter chickens on the farm. You’re a farmer, don’t you know that?”
That did the trick. My neighbor tossed the bird to the ground, where in its death throes, it hopped, flapped and jumped. As it flew up three feet into the air, its head fell off.
Happy birthday to me, I thought.
I eyed the dead bird and thought briefly of learning how to pluck and dress it. After all, she was basically undamaged, beyond what the raccoons had done to her neck. But learning how to de-feather a chicken seemed a rather messy endeavor for my birthday. Plus, who would teach me? I’ve never slaughtered a chicken before – in fact, I’ve never slaughtered, never mind dressed, anything in my life. The irony of my urban neighbor learning what to do from a YouTube video was not lost on me. Nor that she assumed I would know – but, like a good majority of us, I grew up in the ’burbs. My family hasn’t raised livestock for generations. Meat comes from the butcher, pre-wrapped and definitely plucked. And while I work in a vineyard, I own a small home in town. I bring my work home with me, though, with raised beds and fruit trees on my little lot and a couple of the aforementioned chickens. I’m a living example of the urban/ag divide.
But when I think about it, there are more and more folks bringing the farm to their backyards, posting videos on YouTube, and creating a new farming community out in the cyberverse. Most of what I’ve learned as an urban farmer is from the Internet. When my chickens were flying out of my yard, I watched YouTube videos on how to trim their wings. It’s not like anyone else on the block where I live would know.
So here we are, my neighbor and I, like a few other intrepid souls, keeping chickens and trying to find our roots. Living in microcosm the life and death dramas of farming, the tragedy of an early night and the coop left open. Perhaps the next time, I’ll take the plunge and pluck and cook up that chicken. And post it on YouTube.
Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.