All right chefs, cooks and hardcore food fans: Raise your wing if you've ever plucked a freshly butchered chicken. Does the thought make your skin crawl?
I honestly didn't know if I could do it, but I somehow managed to step up during an intense culinary program at the Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts, a little slice of utopia about six hours east of Seattle in Rice, Washington.
Loads of people give the local/sustainable talk, but few make it their life mission as have Rick and Lora Lea Misterly, makers of incredible cheese for more than 20 years. They opened the school in 2002 and enrollment has been growing steadily since. In the four-day class I took, Farm Culinary 101, 16 cooks—some who had never set foot on a farm before—did chores including milking goats, feeding animals, weeding the massive garden, and helping pluck and clean those chickens.
Plucking the Chickens
The group gathered shortly after 6 a.m. to witness the birds with featherless necks—a breed called Turkens—get axed. It was done quickly and humanely, but it was still unsettling. (Yes, the wings do still flap after the head is removed.) After the bird was dunked in hot water, Rick showed us how to pluck. The feathers came off easily, revealing skin that was so golden it looked nothing like supermarket poultry—not even the so-called "free range" birds. We learned how to eviscerate the bird, cutting carefully as not to nick the intestines, then working our fingers in the cavity to loosen the innards.
Milking the Goats
As far as farm chores went, I much preferred milking the goats to butchering the chickens. Each goat in the herd of around 40 has a name and distinct personality. "Ginger would never run from me," said Rick, when he tried to collar a stubborn animal into the small milking parlor.
While Rick and Lora Lea were filling their buckets with milk, I barely got a cup from BG, who stood placidly, munching on a bucket of grain. After all the goats had been milked, there was more than 20 gallons of milk, which went to the room where Lora Lea makes curado, viejo, and other varieties of cheese. Earlier, we had helped make a feta-style cheese, a ricotta, a fresh mozzarella, and a creamy crotin.
The Fruits of Our Labors
Teams took on the task of cooking various meals for the group using ingredients produced almost exclusively on the farm. We worked hard, but we ate well. During our meals and at morning meetings, we talked about sustainability, respect and gratitude.
This program truly felt transformative. It's one thing to support farmers markets and make every effort to eat local, but being a participant on the farm is something else. Going through these processes gave me a renewed appreciation for the care small farmers take. It certainly made me more mindful when it came time for eating the meal prepared with the chickens we had plucked and cleaned. I savored every bite of the braised and pulled chicken served over lentils and fresh tomatoes.
I’m even more in awe of farmers than before. Move over celebrity chefs; farmers are going to be the new rock stars! (Well, at least they should be.) I challenge you to take a look at the beautiful book written about Chefs on the Farm and not be inspired to enroll.
About the author: Leslie Kelly is the former restaurant critic for the defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She's been cooking around the city and chronicling her journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She also blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com.