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Prime Time | Marilyn Heltzer: Rooster slaughter was valuable learning experience

Roosters unwittingly await their fate before being slaughtered, plucked and dressed.

My youngest daughter Becky, who was conceived, born and has lived her entire 49 years in the city, spent the Saturday before Labor Day participating in the slaughter, plucking, and dressing of fat roosters.

She worked with her pals under the trees on a place north of Bemidji. I was invited to come to visit and observe the chicken killers at work. I went.

Witnessing the practiced routine was enough to make a vegetarian out of a person: the quick stroke of the hatchet, severing the head from the fat bird. The flap of wings as the creature lived its last moments. The dripping blood stained the ground.

It did get better after that: the boiling kettle that made the chicken plucking possible, the skillful slicing, and the careful wrapping. It was all done through a learned routine, with excellent equipment, some improvised, some cheap, some pricey, but all organized and accomplished with constant attention to cleanliness. “Wash your hands,” one of the moms advised the 4-year-old who came late in the afternoon to watch and yes, to participate.

The plump white roosters began their lives in a hatchery in Bancroft, Iowa. The order was for cockerels, roosters only with a 95 percent guarantee that they are correctly sexed. The little roosters – balls of yellow feathers, arrived at the post office in Bemidji, several weeks after they were ordered. While the order was for 40 chicks, 43 were in the shipment. Maybe it’s the hatchery’s version of “a baker’s dozen.”

You can tell when chicks arrive at the post office because you can hear their peep-peeps as you walk in the door. Until a few weeks ago, when I witnessed the slaughter, that distinctive noise was the closest I’d gotten to knowing anything about those chicks.

We got a post office box when we first moved here, and despite the mailbox out on the township road where the rural delivery guy stops daily, we maintained the post office box. Maybe it was the springtime chicks that made us hang on, despite the yearly fee. That, and the conversations I overhear, the guys in big jackets in the wintertime and the slim young women chatting into cell phones in the summertime. All the folks hold the doors open for me, an older person. I love the post office.

I can’t say I loved the chicken slaughter, but I surely admire it, from that first quick short chop to the meat wrapped in white paper ready for the freezer. I admire folks who know what each step in the process is. And what a sense of accomplishment they have when, on a winter evening, they dig into a chicken dinner with green beans that were frozen from the summer garden, baked potatoes stored in a cool place, dill pickles canned in July or August, and fruit canned or frozen in the warm days of summer.

The chicken killing was, despite its difficult moments, a new experience for me. It’s never too late to learn and I’m glad that, at my advanced age, I learned about killing chickens. Lots of people my age (guys mostly) participated in this rite years ago. Most left the farm to take up another line of work. I now understand why.