Count Your Chickens

Converting your backyard layer to a culinary delight.

NUVO Magazine: Count your Chickens

Illustration by Andrew Holder.

In a calm, fluid movement, Riley Starks scoops up a Rhode Island Red chicken, holds it between his legs, and, almost imperceptibly, ends the bird’s life. Moments later, he hands a bird and a knife to me and says, “Your turn.”

A farmer and fisherman, Starks runs the Butcher Your Own Stewing Hen workshop at Nettles Farm on Washington State’s Lummi Island. His course—which began in 2005 and runs a few times a year in August and September—caters to chefs and diners seeking a truer connection with what they eat, along with large numbers of backyard chicken farmers. Starks and a growing number of chicken aficionados believe that knowing how to butcher a bird is about to become one of the food world’s next big conversations.

The problem for the backyard chicken contingent is that after two or three years of productivity, the hens—which have a lifespan of about seven years—stop laying. If you don’t know what to do at that point, the birds in the backyard can quickly transform from a flock to a problem.

That’s where Starks picks up the slack.

While foodie-centric stories about home-raised birds focus on self-sufficiency and delicious eggs, they gloss over what happens once the birds become “retired layers”—industry parlance for hens that no longer produce eggs.

“There’s a huge backyard chicken movement, but nowhere to safely learn how to turn the birds into stewing hens,” says Starks. “I teach that their retired layers still have a function. They’ve had a good life, but have a little bit more to give.” Starks uses Barred Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, and Araucana chickens to demonstrate how to kill, feather, and butcher.

“I like the idea of being self-sufficient and having the skills you need for every part of the process,” says 17-year-old workshop student Viava Palunas, a Seattle high-school student and aspiring large-animal veterinarian. “I knew where meat came from, but this cements it. I like that.”

“It’s bigger than just killing a few retired layers,” Starks says. “I’m seeing an awareness of a deeper level of eating, and it’s not just me thinking about it. It’s like watching the rise of the espresso movement of the 1970s.

“Industry creates an astronomical amount of chicken, and if you bring up chickens in conversation, people start listening. It’s like Occupy Wall Street. People are reclaiming their backyards—they want sustenance out of them. They want to be closer to their food.”

During my turn to dispatch a bird, there is so much going on between its fidgeting and my wanting to get it right that there isn’t time to think of bigger issues. Later that evening, Starks and I eat one of the birds, but I’m not hung up on the morality of what I am eating. I do, however, appreciate it that much more.