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July 29, 2011

The Great Summer Chicken Saga

(Nancy P. here.)  Dear TLC readers, it is my great pleasure to introduce to you one of the nicest, most interesting and talented authors I know, Susan Wittig Albert. Today, she's going to take us where I suspect this blog has never gone before, and I don't mean Texas. . .

The Great Summer Chicken Saga

By Susan Wittig Albert

 It’s been hot this summer. Very hot. Very, very hot.

But you already know this, because it’s been hot where you live, too—unless you live in the Pacific Northwest, in which case we will be glad to send you some of what we have way too much of.

But the heat is not the main feature of my summer, here on the 31 acres of Texas Hill Country that Bill and I share with two cows (a longhorn and a half-horn), two dogs, a cat, coyotes, deer, armadillos, wild pigs, possums, raccoons, and skunks.

No. The main feature of my summer is chickens. Twenty-four of them. Twenty-four “Cornish roasters,” to be precise. But let us be clear from the outset. These are not chickens that will lay gorgeous brown eggs and become beloved family pets. These are chickens that become fried chicken, chicken fricassee, chicken á la king, and chicken salad. Vegetarians, avert your eyes and cover your ears. These are chickens that are destined to be eaten.

But even chickens fated for the frying pan deserve to be chronicled. So here, in brief, is their story.

 Week One

Chicks#1 Chickens that are called to be cuisine don’t start off life looking anything like company dinner. They start off looking like adorable little balls of golden fluff. Which is exactly what they were when I opened the box that arrived at our post office on the morning of June 6. “Mrs. Albert,” the plaintive voice on the phone had said, at seven on that Monday morning. “Please, pretty please, come and get your chickens. They are making a LOT of noise. They are driving us CRAZY.” And of course nobody wants to drive a postal employee crazy.


 Week Two

These adorable balls of fluff are making themselves at home in our second bathroom, right next door to my writing studio. In the bathtub. Yes, the bathtub. What better place to keep baby chicks? Handy to water, to electricity (they need light to stay warm), and to me, Chicken Mama. I can write, dash into the bathroom to check on the chicks, dash back out and write. Repeat on the hour, every hour. Of course, this naturally slows down the book (The Darling Dahlias and the Confederate Rose) so that I have to ask for an extension, which my editor generously grants. I don’t tell her why. 

Week Three


The limits of the bathtub brooder, while ideal in many respects, make themselves crystal clear when the chicks, by some miracle of nature, begin to grow. They are now able to withstand a low temperature of 70 (oh, I wish the temperature would drop that low!), so they can move out to their new chicken coop, where they may enjoy the pleasures of their chicken yard and eat to their hearts’ content. Unfortunately, the coop is an 80-yard round trip from the house, which slows down the book even further. I ask for another extension.


Week Four


Of course, because the chickens are eating so much now, they grow. Faster. And bigger.

 Weeks Five and Six

 And even bigger. Did you know that 24 chickens can eat 50 pounds of chicken food in one week? Now you do.

 Week Seven

  Chicks,last In fact, these chickens are eating so much and growing so grossly obese that by their seventh week, they have turned into Chicken Couch Potatoes, content to do nothing but sit as close to the feeder as possible. The heat may have something to do with their laziness. This week, our average daily high was 105. Lordy, lordy, it’s hot.

 Week Eight

Well. All good things come to an end, and this saga is coming to an end soon. How do I know? Because the pullets (the girl chickens) will achieve frying chicken weight this week, and the cockerels (the boy chickens) will be roaster size about a week later. At which point, they are cordially invited to a processing party. When that’s over, they will go to a place where they will be very, very cool. The freezer.

 And so ends the Great Summer Chicken Saga—but not quite. For even after the heat of summer has faded (it will, I hope!) these chickens will provide tasty, organically-grown food for our table. Yes, I know—it’s easier and cheaper to go to the grocery and buy a whole rotisserie-broiled chicken in a cute little chicken-shaped plastic box, or drive another mile to Whole Foods and fork over a week’s pay for a three-pound fryer. But I was lucky enough to grow up on a farm, where I was introduced to the pleasure of growing my own food. Chickens—whether I’m raising Rhode Island Reds for their lovely brown eggs or Cornish for their plump thighs and delectable breasts—are an important part of my life.

 The way I see it, if you’re lucky enough to be able to grow your own chickens, you’re lucky enough.


Susan w. albert
Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles mysteries, the Cottage  Tales of Beatrix Potter, and the new Darling Dahlias series. She blogs at www.susanalbert.typepad.com/lifescapes. Her website: www.susanalbert.com.





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Those chickens are too cute. Even all grown up.

I loved my Rhode Island Reds. The fresh eggs were fantastic. Beautiful. But the processing part . . . um . . . no. Only tried that once. Not a farmer. Every couple of years our neighbors bought an old cow. They always gave her the same name - Hamburger Patty. I love hamburger. I crave aged beef. I let ranchers run their cattle all over my place. But I don't want to get to know it before I barbecue it.

Happy for you, though!

I grew up on a farm and saw many chickens (and ducks, turkeys, pigs & steers) grow up and then become tasty additions to our freezer. I have friends who just can't imagine killing an animal you've raised up from a baby. I just tell them that they aren't pets, they're just food waiting to happen.

Aw, I wanted final illness/funeral photos. Something like that infamous Sarah Palin Thanksgiving video.

I developed a healthy, life-long, dislike for live chickens the summer I worked at an historical site in Pennsylvania, and I had to feed them, take them out in the morning, and put them back in the evening. A plus--free, fresh, brown eggs--made it feel a little better.

I guess I would never be like Crackers in "Pink Flamingos."

My grandma raised chickens and I attended processing parties. Since I had strong memories of running from the ancestors of those chickens and being pecked in the legs, there was no emotional attachment. The most disconcerting part was after head removal - chickens really will run around with their heads cut off (and you don't want to have to chase down dinner), so the littlest kids held them by their feet while they flapped in the weeds. I have a cousin who looked like the most precious Holly Hobby doll come to life, and she held those chickens, laughing her head off, covered in chicken blood.

Like Josh, I was waiting for the final scenes. After all, we write about blood and mayhem all the time.

I've never raised chickens, but I have local friends who do (on a small scale), and a couple of years ago I volunteered to take part in the "processing" part. I eat them, so I should know how they end up on my plate, right? It was an interesting experience, and the thing that struck me most forcefully was how colorful the internal organs of a chicken are--all those bits the supermarkets don't let us see.

And then we all had a lovely chicken dinner that night.

I am a HUGE fan of the China Bayles series - I have them all lined up in a lovely row on the family room bookshelves!

This is a very cool thing you are doing - it's all we can do to grow our own tomatoes!

Susan, do you know that Sue Grafton raises chickens, too? So now we know that there are at least two mystery-writing, chicken-raising women in the world. Hers aren't for eating, though I think they do eat the eggs.

Hey, looks like I'm late to the party. Y'all are early birds over here! Oops. I didn't say that.

I left out the Day of the Deed (which actually happened on Wednesday, for the first batch) out of consideration for the vegetarians and the squeamish among us. But it is very nice to hear from those who appreciate the, um, parts that the supermarkets don't let us see. :)

Yesterday, I exercised my new vacuum sealer gizmo. I'm impressed.

I am laughing so hard. Lordy, Lordy. xoxo You are amazing.

Now you can say the Woody Allen line--is it: I need the eggs? Remember that?

Okay, so what color ARE those parts?

A guy that I worked with grew up on a farm and told of life with 'pets for lunch'.

I laughed so hard at your couch potato chickens. I'm surprised that they didn't keel over in the heat. I sometimes have to put a fan on them to keep that from happening. I had a hen get broody on me this summer--gave her a clutch of fertile eggs, and she's happily running around surrounded by chicks. It's much easier when mama does it!! In the 21 days she sat on them, she killed 2 snakes that got in the henhouse!

Nancy, oh, pink, purple, lavender, bilious green (that's the bile sac), irridescent blue(that's the gizzard), And then there are the yellow feet and . . . Have I spoiled your breakfast yet?

Hey, Susan-- I AM a vegetarian, but I love that your chickens, before meeting up with the Grim Reaper, apparently had lives as happy as could be. Imagine a childhood spent in Susan Wittig Albert's bathtub!

Susan, I'm impressed you were able to raise those chickens to adulthood, with all the coyotes, possums, raccoons and skunks around. All chicken thieves from way back. Does your chicken house move? I've seen amazing mobile ones that let the chickens eat bugs from different parts of the field, but without exposing them to the predators.

My husband and I would love to have layers, but we just are not around in one place enough to take care of them and make sure nothing gets to them. One of the suppliers at the farmers' market, a guy who raised organic chickens and sold them as roasters and fryers, went out of business when something got 40 of his birds. Just like that.

I don't think my heart could take it. But they are good eatin'!

I have a cousin who raises chickens. A visit usually means about 2 dozen eggs about 6 hours from the chicken. He may be coming in town in a few weeks, I'd better get the omlette pan ready.

Looking my dinner in the eye has never been a problem. I'm teaching the carnivorous princesses that animals become food the same as plants.

When I was in Israel, the turkey pens had recently become off limits to volunteers. Apparently the combination of 110 degree heat, a stuffy feather and dust environment, and the noise of a 1,000 turkeys led to an "inventory reduction" that affected profitability.

RIP little birds

Harley, my heart goes out to the farmer who lost 40. I've lost a few in the past, but none of this batch. We (Bill & I & a helper) built a top on the pen, so the coons can't climb up and over (they're the worst). A "chicken tractor" is great for a few birds, but I started w/24 (25 actually, but one was DOA), which is way too many for a device that is small/light enough to pull around. And we'd still need a coop, to be secure at night, when the coyotes are out hunting.

And yes, you do have to hang around. I once last 5 when my chicken-minder forgot to latch a gate while I was off book-talking. *sigh*

It's interesting that nature would do that--color the organs so vividly. I wonder if it alerts predators somehow--don't eat the bilous green bile sac or the bright blue gizzard; stick to these nice pink parts. I guess that would depend, at least partly, on whether or not the predators can see colors.

I'm putting way too much thought into this.

A friend with an old-fashioned farm says he gives his animals "a very good life, and one not-so-good day." I'm afraid I'd get too attached, though my daddy raised rabbits when I was little and I had no problem with that. He was raised on a farm and understood about growing food.

My CSA friend, Jessica of Terripin Farms, feeds her family only natural foods -- and her children never get sick. I'm grateful for her veggies.
Meanwhile, here in St. Peters, a proposal to allow a young man to raise a few chickens for a 4H project was soundly defeated . . . so foolish! I think it would be rather fun to have some suburban chickens.

Jessica brought us some eggs from an Amish farmer -- yum!

My chicken adventure began when my grandfather gave my cousin and me baby chicks for Easter (fortunately this practice has stopped). We lived in town at the time but my Dad built a small pen in the backyard.

A few years later we moved to the country (had about 3 1/2 acres) and raised them on a larger scale for eggs, frying and roasting. When they were tiny we had little brooder devices with lights to keep them warm. Later they were moved to the large pen behind our small patch of woods.We also had long tailed ring necked pheasants and chukars (game birds). Fortunately I didn't have to do the final deed but I can also say I've witnessed the origan of the saying "running around like a chicken with its head cut off". I learned early on not to name them.

We also lost 20 or 30 one time to some predator. My dad covered most of the top of the large pen after that.

I love the China Bayles series and have read them all. I will have to check out the Darling Dahlia's series.

Forgot to mention I still have the scar on my hand from trying to retrieve an egg under a "setting hen". Loved those large eggs with double and sometimes triple yolks.

oops I do know how to spell origin

My dad always had chickens and I remember many a good meal from them. I tried it when I first moved on my 30 acres here in the mountains, but it appears as though mountain lions, coyotes and bobcats all really like chicken also.

Every few mornings I'd find a pile of feathers somewhere, so I gave up finally. I had them in a coop at night, but if anyone got too close to the wire, something would just reach right through and grab it.

Enjoy your fricassee!

Nancy, in my experience, predators inhale chickens w/o stopping to admire their insides. But maybe there are a few Van Gogh coyotes around...

I have mixed feelings about suburban chickens, Mary. In principle, yes. In practice, well, there are smells. And flies. And not everyone is good about managing litter.

Diana, having done the Deadly Deed, we drop the de-headed bird into a bucket, where the flapping is confined. The cone serves the same purpose. And yes, you're right! No names for food animals. But I love the one that Reine mentioned: Hamburger Patty. Inspired! (Somebody ought to put that in a book.)

Susan, lol! Yes, I can see that perhaps a coyote might not stop to appreciate the aesthetics. "Wile E., my boy, do you see how the crimson brings out the yellow?" To which Wile E. Coyote says, "urmpphh," with a mouth full of feathers.

Diana, same here. No scar on my hand, but my psyche was definitely scarred. Hens can be possessive about those eggs, some more than others. Grandma had one old hen that was a holy terror. Grandma would wear one of Grandpa's work gloves when she went to steal those eggs.

I love this story! I am, actually, a vegetarian, but the reason is factory farming, so I love that you have grown your food for the winter. I'd love to be able to do that, but I suspect I'd get to the day of doom and chicken out (sorry, couldn't resist) so I don't. I haven't eaten cows in years because of their eyes...and I have to actually look at cows kind of a lot, so it started to bug me.

I'm all for having a cow for the milk for the family, and some chickens for the eggs, everybody living happily in their worlds until the end. Bravo to you.

Mostly, I'd love to have chicken for the fresh eggs.

Ah, Harley--you, too.

Nancy, or maybe Wile E. says, "Hold that flashlight over here, so I can better appreciate that irridescent gizzard before I scarf it down."

Actually, our big problem here are the dogs people let out at night. A few years ago, we went to Tulsa for that great book festival and when we came back, we had only one Barbado sheep (out of six). Our coyotes here are mostly solitary, so we figured it had to be a pack of dogs. I hate it that thoughtless people don't manage their animals properly so that they're free to be destructive. (More the owners' fault than the dogs'!)

Barbara, I'd have chickens for eggs, too--but my neighbor has a dozen hens and I can buy plenty from her (and hear her rooster crowing every morning!). Also, I'd want my hens to be free-range, and I don't dare, now that we have Molly the Mad Chicken Killer living with us (a blue heeler who would just love to mangle those birds).

When my brother and I were kids, my parents used to get us each a chick at Easter from a farmer friend. This inspired me to write my first short story, when I was in first grade, about a family of chickens leaving the farm to live in the city.

When the Easter chicks were a month old, Dad took them back to the farm where I'm sure they lived a long, healthy life. Long and healthy were relative terms I'm sure. They lived healthy until that Processing Day.

My Dad and grandfather hunted so I grew up eating quail, pheasant, duck and, occasionally venison. (I know, I know. Venison is deer but I prefer not to think of Bambi.)

I'm a confirmed carnivore, and I'm sure my mindset would be different if I'd grown up on a farm or ranch, but I know I would have had a difficult time sending off an animal I'd raised to be processed into food.

Except for that snapping turtle Dad brought home one day. It lived in our garage for a couple of months and the damn thing was a Shelled Houdini, always escaping its home. Then it would try to get us when we went in to feed it. I wasn't all that upset when he became soup.

Killing our own food is a definite modern disconnect, Susan. I admire you for giving your birds a good, albeit short, life. You didn't talk about misting them daily to cool them off. Come over to my house and do that - it's 100 degrees as I type this. Bring over some of that good chicken poop, too. Thanks for the entertaining read. I'm sure you'll gain a few new readers who will have a taste of your writing style in the novels! 5-star recommendation from me.

Ah Susan, as always you make me smile! I can remember my dad, during a summer "processing time" bringing me into the kitchen and showing me a whole set of eggs inside a hen, in various stages, right up to one that would have been laid a day or two later (if she hadn't become a meal before then!) It fascinated me, and I have raised chickens off and on since then. We had turkeys named Thanksgiving and Christmas, and a rabbit named Hasenpfeffer, so we HAVE named animals meant for consumption, but I have always preferred to keep my layers and "eaters" separate to avoid the angst of eating friends! Thanks for a great post - I feel the need to pluck chicken feathers coming on!

My stepfather used to tie the chickens legs together before using the hatchet. Then he'd tie them up to the clothes line. Saved having to chase them.

Neatest thing I remember about cleaning them was the procession of eggs not quite ready to be laid. You could see their full evolution in some of the chickens.

I grew up on a farm too. To prevent the headless chicken run, we tied our chickens by their feet from the clothesline, thwacked off the head and jumped back to let 'em drain out, then dunked them in a 55 gallon drum of steaming water to loosen the feathers. Mom had a fit the first time she caught my stepfather using her clothesline, but it honestly cleaned up nicely afterward.

Chickens were just food, but taking out the turkeys was almost joyous for me, since they were, to a bird, uniformly bad tempered and peck happy. And loud in a way chickens never were.

I can't imagine having geese.

But now, Susan, more than ever I want to get away from suburbia and back to the farm, hard work and all. Thanks for a great post and great books!

Mary Stella, about that snapping turtle--one of them caught me by the toe when I was swimming in a Missouri pond as a kid. I've never forgiven the species and would gladly have had Houdini for supper.

Dani, ah, that mister. I owe that idea to a couple of FB friends, since I'd never even seen one! But I just went outside (101 here) and turned it on. I could almost hear the sigh of "It's about time, Mama Chick" from The Gang. Highly recommended. Got it off Amazon for $17. I'm sure it's saved chickie lives here this summer.

Laura, love that embodied egg story. How lucky can a kid get? And yes, I agree--separate mental compartments (if that can be managed) for those we eat, those we keep.

Welcome, Susan. You've brought back such memories. I can't do the dirty deed myself, but if someone hands me freshly-killed chicken, I can get it on the table by suppertime. As a child, I enjoyed the art of disemboweling a chicken without cutting into the bowel itself. My mother always made it a biology lesson and I loved seeing the egg mass from tiny pinheads to large yolks. Wish our groceries still sold "stewing hens." They made the best chicken salad.

Fran, I never had a problem with seeing the turkeys get whacked either. Foul tempered and mean, they were. Also dumb as hell.

Ditto on the turkeys. But I loved our geese: Mama Superior and Papa Macho. Gray Toulese geese that had the run of the place until Papa died and Mama got bored and flew up to the lake to live with Admiral Gander. There for a while, we had a dozen geese here. Fun, but way too much poop on the porch, where they loved to hang out.

Margaret, you'll have to find a local neighbor who sells eggs and put in your order for a stewing hen. They are truly wonderful.

Brilliant, Susan! I never once thought of that and we do buy eggs laid by free-range chickens from a local farmer.

Don't forget ducks - great for pest control in the garden, as well as eggs. Wish I had a few for my invasion of grasshoppers right now.

Dani, Carol Deppe has a whole chapter on raising ducks for eggs in her (very good) book, The Resilient Gardener. My experience with them in the garden is not very positive. They ate seedlings. eek.

There's no end to what one can read about and learn on TLC. Fascinating discussion today. I'm a carnivore too, but I haven't had to experience the "processing" thus far. I'm good with that.

How great to see you here, Susan! I love the Beatrix Potter and China Bayles series. I'll definitely be checking out the new one.

We once kept an armadillo in our bathtub (I don't recommend it--he got a free ride out pretty quickly by virtue of having done some serious damage to the enamel through his efforts to climb out), but never chickens, to my knowledge.

I don't like to take the life of any creature, but if I do happen to be in the position of having to clean the freshly-caught or freshly-slaughtered critter carcass, I do so without much fuss: the critter's gone, and left its protein for us. But, I would especially prefer not to 'process' any chicken/duck/turkey/fish (etc.) whom I had previously named.

My husband has never met a stray he didn't rescue, so it was no surprise when he opened the door announced a new arrival. A chicken was, however, a surprise--Ophelia, a survivor of a leap to safety from the truck on the way to a processing plant. Even our vet blinked. Then on to the farm store, where the clerk wanted to know how many TONS of feed I needed and, past that query, every intimate detail--size, weight, height, sex etc.

Eventually our flock relocated to a farm, after assurances to my husband that each could live out his/her life.

Loved the saga. I bought a bunch of sheep at auction once. Hubby insisted most of them would end up as food. So the first one we picked out to fatten up, we put him in a pen and the kids called him dinner. We the snot would not eat any of the grain we fed him. The pile would would get higher every day. He would nibble on the hay a little. So after 2 weeks we gave up and they all became pets.

How did I ever get out of the habit of watching for, buying and reading China Bayles stories. After reading this blog I've put Holly Blues on my list. And your blog on my RSS feed.
I raised chickens most of the years I lived on a farm in Florida, but the only one I ate was a tough, mean old rooster who jumped off his roost and grabbed my forehead with his claws. I ran into the house, blood streaming into my eye, grabbed my 22 and shot him. Boiled him for an hour and hoped he felt every minute of it.

When I was a kid, friends of ours would have a day when everybody in the church would come over to the chicken farm. They basically had possession of thousands of the Campbell's Soup chickens until they reached the proper age. So, they would sell the eggs. However, on that one day, we would all be running from the trucks to the building carrying the chickens...hoping not to get pecked.

Sadly, I am still one of those who cant raise an animal for food....it would become a pet before the first day was over. :)

Nice to be taken back to my grandparents' farm with your post! I live in a medium-sized town now, and we have lots of urban chickens here, too. The big challenge for chicken keepers in my area is keeping the raccoons away. Those masked bandits are expert burglars and serial killers.

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