“I followed your advice and called Chef Mike at Huntington Prime and he will take ten chickens!”
You know your world has taken an interesting turn when a late night phone call like that is great news. I had gotten involved with The Wild Ramp Market, a local food market in Huntington, West Virginia. One of the ways I participated was to write a daily blog to inform the consumers (i.e., people who eat food, hey! That’s you!) that there is a wonderful selection of food produced within 150 miles of our small city now.
Part of my responsibility was to make farm visits. This not only permitted me to see that the food the farmer was selling at the market was actually being raised there but also ended up providing a lot of publicity to that farm for free. Often, after a blog posting, the market would sell out of a product that had been described.
A few weeks before that phone call I had visited Avalon Farm, 30-some acres on a small flat patch and mostly hilly land, in other words, a typical small farm in West Virginia near the Ohio River. Roy Ramey, similar to many other farmers I met while writing the blog, had grown up on a farm and sworn he would never be a farmer. He had a full time job with the ROTC at Marshall University, but to his wife’s chagrin, he had searched out a place to call his own. The land had called him back.
When I visited he showed me something that was new to me. Called a chicken tractor, it was basically a bottomless cage with a partially solid roof to give shade that was of sufficient size to hold about thirty chickens. Each day Roy would move the tractor about 12 feet, exposing new ground to the chickens. They had fun finding bugs and by moving the pen daily, their waste had time to filter into the soil without burning the grass. In the course of a month or so he could move them all over a small flat piece of land he had and then start back at the beginning, permitting the grass a chance to regrow.
He had commented that the birds would be ready for processing before the Wild Ramp Market, slated to open in a month, could receive them for sale. Like the neophyte that I was I suggested he go ahead and process them when it was time.
“And then do what with them?” he patiently asked.
“Well, stick them in the freezer!” It made perfect sense to me.
“What freezer?” he retorted.
“You need to buy a freezer, Roy.” Oh yeah, I have all the answers.
“I need money to buy a freezer, Beth.” Roy, very polite, spoke only a tad sarcastically.
And that is when I finally had something useful to suggest, “Roy, Chef Mike Bowe of Huntington Prime uses local ingredients as much as possible. Call him; tell him I told you to call. That may or may not help but he knows us well since we supply herbs to the restaurant. See if he will buy them.”
And so it came to pass, and shortly before 10 on a Saturday night Roy was sharing his excitement. And of course, opened another interesting conversation.
“So, when do you need to deliver the chickens?”
“He wants them on Monday.”
“Wow! So when will you process them?”
“Figured it had to be tomorrow.” Yup, he had to take it to the basics for me.
And then I asked, “So did you get your chicken plucker built?”
When I had visited he had told me he had the plans and was going to save half the cost of a commercial plucker by making one. Having this machine to remove the feathers saves a lot of time, so many farmers use them. About the size of a clothes washing machine tub, the plucker has small rubber fingers sticking out in the many places a washing machine tub would have drain holes. First dipping the chicken carcass in very hot water to loosen the feathers, up to 6 birds can be placed in the tub. Once it was turned on to spin, using a water hose helps wash the loosened feather off and out of the machine. By hand, Roy said, it could take him 20 minutes but with the machine, the process to remove feathers takes less than 3 minutes.
“Planning to do it as soon as we get off the phone,” he assured me.
I could see he was going to have a long night.
And then I put my foot in my mouth. “So, you have help?”
“Oh sure,” he was confident. Several of his neighbors would be there.
“Great! I’ll come over after church to take photos for the blog.” Oh yeah, I had NO idea what chicken processing entailed. I mean, I knew the beginning and I knew the ending, but photos for public viewing?
He didn’t say anything but he chuckled and said I was welcome any time.
My husband Graham was game so we brought a change of clothes to church and headed over to Roy’s. No one else was there yet. “They’ll be here, Roy spoke confidently.”
He had finished building the chicken plucker about 4 in the morning and had gotten a couple of hours of sleep. He gave us instructions and we helped set up the work area to provide plenty of space for the various steps that were needed.
An hour had passed and no one was there yet. “They’ll be here”, Roy spoke a bit more hesitantly. He and Graham took a 4-wheeler and loaded up about 8 of the largest chickens into a couple of cages on the back and brought them over. We put them in the shade.
One of the nearby farmers showed up then. Since it was time to start, Roy assigned duties. He would start the process, and the neighbor would remove the head and feet. Graham, because he had a cut on his hand, was in charge of the plucker. I was to finish the birds, make the cavity was clean, tie the legs, and place them in bags and then into the ice water in the coolers.
We processed the first bird slowly. Roy had helped his dad as a teenager, but it had been about 15 years. The neighbor confidently did his part. The plucker worked fine but we realized the water temperature for the dunking had to be adjusted. I carefully watched Roy as he removed the guts (did you know chicken lungs are bright orange?), clipped off one small doohickie (see how well I learned?) and then tucked the legs in a position that a yoga student would have admired.
“Got it?” Roy asked.
“I’ll be right here,” he promised, and then he walked off to start the next one.
Let’s just say I was the slow spot of the process. Of course, remembering on bird 7 that I had forgotten to clip off the doohickie from the last four birds and had to retrieve them from the ice water in the coolers, untuck the legs, clip, retuck the legs until I was sure all birds were REALLY ready didn’t help. Also causing the liver or spleen or something else to squirt greenish stuff all over one bird didn’t help.
Roy and the neighbor went to get three more birds, two to make up the ten needed and one extra to replace the bird whose skin I had stained green. (Roy planned to remove the skin and eat that one himself.) That break in the process helped me to get caught up but it started again. I kept telling myself…only three more….only two more…and then Roy was there.
“Okay, I’ll watch you finish the last one.”
“Ha ha, you have got to be joking!” I laughed as I stepped away. He finished the last bird.
As we helped clean up the work area I asked Roy to call me after he delivered the chickens to Chef Mike. I was concerned that the chef might refuse them because I had not cleaned them well enough or the leg tuck position was wrong or some other aspect of what I did would mess up Roy’s livelihood.
He called Monday afternoon, “I just left the restaurant.”
“Well? Did he take them?”
“Nope, not all of them,” Roy sounded very serious.
My heart sank. This wasn’t about me trying to help. This was about a small farmer trying to earn some income. “What happened?”
He laughed. “They were too big to fit in his freezer. He took six and will call when I can bring the other four.”
I got even. “Helping process chickens has NEVER been on my bucket list, Roy, but I am glad for the experience. Just don’t call me for the next batch!”
Huntington Prime roasted several of the huge birds for their Father’s Day brunch and both Graham and I and Roy and his family went there to eat. Chicken had never tasted that good before.
Be open to new experiences.
There are amazing worlds out there that you may never get to explore unless
you grab opportunities when they are offered.