Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Meat the Frankenbirds

This summer I finally read The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Ethics of What We Eat. I was temporarily put off my feed. Yes, I know I read these books long after everyone else. I kept shelving them because, I guess, I knew how they would end — the girl is put off the corn chips and is totally denied the cow. There could be no happy ending unless a state of pure vegetarianism was achieved. Talk about off-putting.

Seriously, I get it. The way our food is produced is atrocious and I understand that most Americans don't have a clue. It's sad. When our children's friends come over and they look at a fresh egg as if it were poison I begin to wonder about where they are coming from. Anyway, both Andrew and I read these books and then spent a weekend on a farm that is part of an international agritourism business (we were invited—read free—guests of the company owner). This particular farm was located in upstate NY. It's a cool place and we were totally into what the couple were doing—farming and raising kids sustainably. It was a lovely organic picture that I am most certain did not include Tyson chicken fingers in the freezer or Ho-Hos in the cupboard. Don't get me wrong, our kitchen contains neither as well. Hey, do Snickers count?

Anyway, aside from their grass-fed, free-range cattle, sheep, and pigs, they also had an assortment of fowl. After reading the two books mentioned earlier, raising our own meat birds was high on our list. So we (Andrew) asked about the butchering of the chickens and was then taken step-by-step through the process. Fascinating. Yeah. I'm a total hypocrite when it gets right down to it. I will raise the animals, cook them, and talk up a storm about the importance of eating locally and if possible, organically, but really have no desire to ever butcher an animal. This is up to Andrew, who proclaimed seven years ago that if he couldn't kill it, he didn't deserve to eat it. This is why I love the man.

When we got back to our own small farm I started to investigate meat birds and called my favorite chicken place: Murray McMurray Hatchery. Turns out I was looking for the Jumbo Cornish X Rocks. So I placed an order for 10 (combining it with some Rhode Island Reds to help boost the kids' egg business). Before hanging up, I asked the operator if there was anything special I needed to know about the Jumbos. Her instructions were straightforward: separate them from the other chicks after two weeks because they are mean. Start them on a finishing feed, and then, very nonchalantly, she slips in that I should place their water at one end of the pen and their food at the other, so, you know, they would be forced to get up and move. She wrapped it up with: They'll be ready to butcher in about eight or nine weeks. WTF?

Over the last six years we've raised a number of egg layers, none of whom would have been finger lickin' good at eight weeks. Even after a year our egg layers were not something you'd plan a meal around. It suddenly dawned on me: I had ordered Frankenbirds! My summer reading horror list mentioned these birds, and now here I was, buying them. What had I done? I wanted to call Murray back and cancel my order, but a little voice in me clucked, "Oh c'mon, don't be chicken. It's not like you're going to pump them up with hormones and antibiotics. Let 'em ride..."

The day the chicks arrived we compared them with the reds. Aside from their color, they looked just like any other day-old bird. The first sign we had that they were different was about four days into the project when they started feathering—it was as if they hit puberty at age 6. By a week, the Frankenbirds were remarkably bigger. By two weeks they were easily double the size of the reds. Six weeks later, they are plump and round making the reds look undernourished. We tried separating them with straw bales but they hopped over powered by their big legs. When it's cold, the reds nestle under the Frankenbirds' wings. It's kind of creepy but they all seem quite happy. It's nearly time for the reds to move outside and be with their sisters. When we do this I'll start the Frankenbirds on the finishing feed (a high-protein, all vegetarian pellet). Yes, I know I haven't followed Murray's instructions but they're looking good. Stay tuned, butchering day is in two weeks (Andrew bought a knife from the local bait shop): Will the Frankenbirds be tender to the bone or just another rubber chicken?

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