Monday, August 16, 2010

Chicken for dinner? Part 3

Three-and-a-half month old Barred Rock rooster
We reached the end of my little experiment last month when the barred rock roosters reached three and a half months of age. It was time to butcher them. We've been eating heritage chickens for eight years, so we knew what we were in for -- a delicious chicken dinner.

If you missed the posts about my chicken experiment, where I raised barred Plymouth Rock and modern Cornish cross chickens side-by-side, you might want to read Part I and Part II before continuing.

I learned a lot during my little experiment, and it wasn't all about the chickens. I haven't eaten a commercial chicken since 1989, so I truly did not know what people were talking about when they said that heritage chickens taste better. It was in the 1980s when modern agriculture decided to start changing and rearranging chickens to make them reach slaughter weight 2.5 times faster than nature intended, as well as to give them bigger breasts, since that's what Americans like best. In little more than a decade, the commercial meat chicken changed from a bird that could fly and mate naturally to one that could not. It changed from being a bird with long legs and wings to one with short legs and wings. Its breast no longer looked like a bird with a breastbone, but instead like a fowl version of Marilyn Monroe.

This is what a chicken looked like in 1986.
Legs were starting to get shorter,
but it was still a long-bodied bird.
While you could still see the breast bone,
the amount of breast meat was increasing.

When we butchered the first Cornish cross, we cooked the whole thing and were sadly disappointed in the mushy-spongy texture and lack of flavor. When we butchered the others, we cut them up and froze them in one to two-pound packages of various pieces. A single Cornish cross is too much meat for a single meal for only three meat eaters. Since then, we've tried a variety of recipes, relying heavily on marinades and sauces to get some flavor into the meat. The first thing we learned is that the breast is too thick for marinade to penetrate, so it needs to be cubed. Ultimately, however, we discovered that it isn't the marinade or the spices that make the meal -- it's the meat. The only thing that really improved the flavor was real chicken broth from one of our heritage stew hens. And that just struck me as terribly sad. If you're relying on spices, marinades, and broth to bring flavor to meat, then what's the point? Why not just use tofu? It's a lot cheaper and absorbs flavor really well.

As I said only a month into our experiment, I won't be growing the Cornish cross again. Even though the taste is sad, there are several other reasons I won't raise them. There is just something creepy about eating an animal that will literally eat itself to death. Given unlimited access to food, they will give themselves a fatty liver, gall bladder disease, heart disease, and hypertension. They're sick. I'm growing my own food because I want healthy food. And yes, I know that if you restrict their food, they can reach slaughter weight without succumbing to a heart attack first.

However, I can't bring myself to put babies on a diet. Others have laughed as they told me how much the CC like to eat and how they act like crazed vultures when you feed them. When we restricted the feed for the chickens -- after one died at a week of age -- I found it sad how desperate they seemed when you brought them feed after 12 hours. The other thing I noticed was that when they didn't have food, they spent their time in front of the waterer drinking. If I had not been raising the heritage side-by-side with the CC, I would not have noticed the increased water consumption.

When we moved out here eight years ago, we wanted to raise heritage animals because they've been largely unchanged for centuries. They've been ignored by modern agriculture, but they're still alive because they're naturally healthy and possess good instincts. I didn't want to raise animals that required coddling, scheduling, and dieting. We wanted to create a sustainable system where we could raise our meat for generations. With the Cornish cross, you have to buy babies from the hatcheries every year -- or artificially inseminate the hens. And I find it just a little bit scary that one of the hatcheries tells customers on their website that if they try to raise replacement meat birds, the next generation won't gain weight as fast as the parents.

Sustainability and self-sufficiency is at the heart of what we're doing out here. I have enough diversity within my goat herd that I would never have to buy another goat ever, and we could have our milk and dairy needs met for the rest of our lives. We can do the same thing with our green beans -- save the seeds and plant more next year. And we can do that with our heritage chickens.


LindaG said...

I fully believe that the way our food is raised - this rush to maturity - is responsible for our children maturing before they should; and with so many Americans being overweight, too. Not a good thing.

I really enjoyed your post. Thank you so much. That just reinforces my belief that when we retire, we need all our livestock to be heritage breeds. :)

Kara said...

We have only raised the cornish rock crosses, this being the second year. The meat is so much better than the store bought meat. I did raise heritage turkeys as well as BB Whites and the taste was significantly better with the heritage birds. But all were better than anything store bought. Now I am curious to try the heritage chickens after reading your post. Do you have a favorite breed? It takes 3 1/2 months, correct? We did get heritage pigs (Tamworths) this year and I like them SO much more to care for than the Durocs and Yorks we have had before.

Deborah @ Antiquity Oaks said...

The barred rocks always seem to be a good choice. I would not recommend the salmon faverolle for anyone who likes breast meat, because they have the tiniest breast I've ever seen. I had read that they were the favorite meat bird in France 100 years ago, which was why we wanted to try them. As they were growing, I read something that said they even had a dish named after them -- petit-something, and the something was the French word for breast. LOL! When we butchered them, I discovered that they weren't kidding when they said the breast was petit! And stew hens of any heritage breed really are delicious. I should write a post about stew hens some day. I like them as much as any young chicken, because they're so good for salads, casseroles, and soups.

rachel whetzel said...

Interesting that when left to their own devices, even in one generation, they start to revert back to the way they SHOULD mature...

debhammel said...

My husband and I moved to a rural area 5 years ago and I started buying our produce, meat, and dairy from local farmers who practice organic, sustainable farming methods. I did this because I wanted healthier food for my family and, as a meat-eater, I wanted to know that the animals that fed us were raised humanely. I haven't bought commercially raised meat or poultry in four years and for sure won't buy any after reading this post!

Kara said...

Hi again,

Check out Freedom Ranger processor said he is seeing more and more of them as people are dissatisfied with the Cornish Crosses. I am going try a batch next time.

Kimberly said...

Thanks for this. We are so new to all of this and are getting ready to order our second set of meat birds. My hubby bought the cornish cross the first time, but I have asked him not to by them again. I am researching what to buy this go round, so it is nice to read about what others have discovered. As they were our first non-commercial chickens we thought they tasted better than store bought. I will be curious to see what happens this time!

LindaG said...

Enjoyed looking back over this article. All three parts.

Are they included in any of your books?

Was Katherine able to do her Honors Project on chicken?
Just curious. I hadn't discovered your blog then.

Thanks again. Hope you're having a wonderful Sunday. ♥

Deborah Niemann said...

Hi LindaG,
Katherine did not do the honors project on the chickens, and I'm kind of glad because I was not looking forward to having any more of them. We have not raised them again. I do talk about the different types of chickens in Homegrown & Handmade but don't include all of the details on our experiment.


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