Yesterday I had the opportunity to help process chickens for consumption and sale. I volunteer at a farm in my community, generally helping to construct buildings and structures that would be useful for the farm. I also help plant and harvest vegetables. Yesterday a different kind of harvest was required.
Aside from the use of a washing machine-like device called a plucker made by the Featherman Equipment out of Missouri, the process is as manual as it can get and probably hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. The chickens are hung upside down and their throats cut to sever the jugular vein. Within a couple of minutes, the animals have bled out completely and are dead. At that point, they are hung from a lever and dipped into scalding—but not boiling—water to loosen the feathers. Then, up to four chickens are placed in the Featherman plucker, which is a washing machine-like tub with rubber nobs extending towards the center. Water is sprayed on the chickens and the floor of the tub spins. The rubber nobs pull the feathers out of the skin, and the water washes the feathers down a shoot. Within a couple of minutes, the chickens are naked and ready for the final process, called evisceration, where the insides are removed and the inedible parts separated from the edible ones.
This is a process most of us are completely removed from today. Chickens are already processed by the time we go to the poultry section of our local grocery store and pick out a bird. Or, if we are looking for a healthier option, we just buy a couple of deboned chicken breasts which look nothing like the animals I processed yesterday. I would hazard a guess that aside from holiday traditions like carving a turkey at Thanksgiving or Christmas, most of us never see even a prepared whole bird. It is so much easier to buy just a few of the parts and not worry about the bones, or the gizzards, or the neck. What do you do with those parts, anyway?
The process I saw yesterday brought to mind my work on book two of the Mesabi Trilogy. One hundred years ago, on the northern Minnesota frontier that became known as the Mesabi Range, families lived closer to the land. There were markets where they purchased some hard goods, like coffee or tea, spices like salt and pepper, cardamom or saltpeter, maybe canned beans. Mostly, though, they survived by living off the land they had. They planted gardens, not grass, in their yards and grew crops all summer long. In Minnesota the growing season is relatively short, as the ground begins to frost by November and stays pretty much frozen until April or May. If a miner wanted chicken for dinner, he didn’t just stop in the market on the way home and buy a couple of chicken breasts. His wife probably went out in the afternoon and picked one of the hens for dinner, then performed a manual version of the process I went through yesterday: killing the animal, scalding and de-feathering it, then eviscerating it. For men and women of that time, every part of the animal was eaten: gizzards and livers might have been fried, the heart was probably a delicacy saved perhaps for the head of the house, the neck boiled in a stew. Even the feet were eaten.
As I learned about this process I talked with the man who had all the equipment, the Chicken Processor, if you will. It struck me that the world is a much different place now than it was a hundred years ago, and not just for the fact that we don’t process our own chickens anymore. As a society, we no longer understand where our food comes from, what it looks like as it grows in the ground, what it looks like before it reaches our table. We used to be a more agrarian based society in which the most cost effective way to live was one in which we lived closer to the land, closer to the production of our own food. Sometime in the last sixty years or so, that changed. After World War II, we transitioned from a society of producers who consume to a society of consumers. Corporations produce the food we eat, the clothes we wear. Do you know where the shirt on your back came from, for example? Not the store you bought it from, but the factory where it was actually made, all the way back to the field where the cotton came from, or the factory where chemistry came together to form the polyester blend that wicks the sweat from you while you run?
What has excited me about the Mesabi Project is the idea of looking at the way society has changed in the last hundred years, at examining the way people lived not that long ago, the way people have lived for centuries, versus the way we live now. Mesabi Pioneers is about the early days of that change. The men and women in Mesabi Pioneers live hard lives off the land, building their homes from the trees they chop down, growing and catching their own food. As the communities on the range grow, as the towns get larger, their lives move slowly further and further from that agrarian life. Yet they are still vitally connected to the land. They must be. In Mountain Iron, for example, even well into the 1930s, each house had a fence around the front yard. Not to protect their property, or to keep out the annoying neighbors, but to keep the cow inside. If they wanted fresh milk, then they had a cow, and every morning someone went out into the yard and milked the cow.
That is a story that, to me, is fascinating both to research, and to write. I’m enjoying bringing this story to the world.
If you want to learn more about the early days on the Mesabi Range, you can pick up a copy of my book, Mesabi Pioneers, available now. The second novel in the series will be available soon.