As I watched the blood drip from the tip of my old carbon steel knife onto the toe of my rubber boot, I questioned the path that had brought me here. Without fail, the same deeply ambivalent thoughts reverberate through my mind each time I pull a trigger, reel in a fishing line, or wring a neck.
Arriving into gray Seattle showers, we drove northwards, through the monotony of Washington State’s urban sprawl and straight into its autumnal grandeur. The steel skies parted, and were now painted the whitish pink of a Chinook salmon belly. The many hues of nature lined the road, the botanicals flapping euphorically as we sped by; their vivid colors reflecting off the wet streets.
In the northwestern corner of the state, not far from the Canadian border, I nervously edged onto the tiny car ferry for the short trip to Lummi Island, part of the San Juan Islands’ archipelago. The rough waters and high winds of the Hale Passage in North Puget Sound made the only passing sailboat heel hard, bowing low to the spray off the whitecaps.
With Seattle band Shelby Earl blasting from the speakers and a shabbily rolled joint of decent Northwest green bud burning too quickly in the ashtray, we drove around the island, only nine miles in length with nary a soul in sight. The coastline, set against dramatically lit skies, was littered with piles of driftwood, colorful buoys, and crab traps. We passed deep greens of the wet, interior forests and the low-slung homes of the island’s 822 year-round residents. Lummi was off-season quiet; the only sounds the wind whistling through the evergreens, shaking loose tiny pinecones and droplets of water from intermittent showers. The air was crisp, spiced with aromas of salt brine, pine resin, and smoke from the burning piles of damp autumn leaves. One general store, closed for the winter, and a US Post office, now for sale, were the only nods to modern conveniences.
But we didn’t come to shop.
We came to slaughter a special flock of fattened chickens before Lummi Island’s winter set in; learning the process hands-on while stocking our freezers.
Riley Stark owns Nettle Farm, situated on a large lot surrounded by evergreens, only a stone’s throw from Puget Sound. Lummi being a small island, he had once owned the inn where we slept and the restaurant where we would later dine; now a gastronomic mecca located in this unspoiled part of the world.
Despite his foray into the hospitality game, Riley was now, and probably always has been, a farmer and fisherman first. He wore unusual wire-framed eyeglasses and a full silver beard that hung long on his thin face. He anxiously explained the winds and rain from the prior evening’s storm had wreaked havoc on his little operation and he struggled to put everything in order before our arrival.
Clomping behind him through the garden, now bedraggled and spent from its summer offering, I was outfitted in gigantic, green rubber boots, my toes balled up to keep them from slipping off. The straps of the ill-fitting yellow waders continually fell off my shoulders, like a lock of hair not quite long enough to tuck behind an ear.
Behind his small workshop-cum-barn were two large baskets packed with chickens, the birds quietly nestled together. Riley reached into the basket and gently pulled out a large male marked with brilliant red and gold plumage, tinged with an unusual copper hue. He had long black and cream-colored tail feathers, a fiery red comb with evenly spaced indentations, and a whitish feathery crest atop his large head, reminiscent of an Isabella Blow hat on race day. He squawked madly, wings flapping wildly, making me immediately rethink the whole bloody exercise.
This exotic and ancient breed of chicken, the Sulmtaler, is named after the Sulm Valley in southwestern Austria, (taler means valley in Austrian). First mentioned in the early 1400s, Sulmtalers were raised in the forests and vineyards of Austria’s bountiful Styrian region.
Legendary for their beauty and strong muscular bodies, the Sulmtaler was once the royal breed of the poultry world, often referred to as the ‘imperial chicken.’ Crossed and bred by the House of Hapsburgs, one of the most important royal houses of Europe during the Early Modern Period (1450-1750), the birds were prized not only for their majestic comeliness, but also for the fine flavors of their meat. Sulmtalers have long been considered a delicacy on the elaborately set tables of both the Austrian and French aristocracy. In December of 1804, the coronation of Napoleon was celebrated with hundreds of Sulmtaler capons and hens ordered especially for the occasion.
Rescued from near extinction after the wars of the last century, the birds are once again sought after; the males growing to 8.5 pounds and the hens, prolific egg-layers all, often reaching 7.5 pounds. The revered capons (reared without testicles to improve the quality of their meat) often weigh in at a hefty 11.5 pounds. There is even a public square in the Austrian town of Graz, oddly and wonderfully dedicated to the Sulmtaler capon, honoring both the bird’s economic and gastronomic contributions.
Riley held the bird firmly by the wings, then gently inverted him and held him between his legs. With a learned authority, he stretched the bird’s neck long with one hand, searching for a windpipe and then the jugular. The chicken relaxed as Riley spoke quietly to him; giving thanks and a farewell before inserting the knife across its neck, and then back, and then up, ‘like a smile.’
A quick and clean kill is the most humane act a carnivore can provide to his dinner. I studied Riley’s movements, wanting desperately to duplicate his skill and speed. The hens, with their creamy brown wheat coloring, were smaller and less frantic. With care and trepidation, I pulled a diminutive female from the basket. Sensing my unease, she decided to make a break for it, flying out of my feeble grasp and running for her life. Rolling his eyes, Riley went around the corner and retrieved a huge net. He chased her down and scooped her up like a giant, flailing butterfly and patiently handed her back to me. With shaking hands, I inverted her small body, cradling it between my legs. Speaking quietly to calm both of us, I gently pulled her neck long. Her body went slack as her reddish brown eyes studied me, my heart pounding as fast as hers. Feeling for her small windpipe and finding her jugular, I inserted the knife across her throat and dragged it back and then up.
There was no smile.
With sweating palms, I tied her unmoving legs to a nail with an old piece of rope and placed the bird, head down, into one of the inverted metal cones to bleed out, a red the color of a cardinal’s robe. My legs wobbly and my thoughts racing, I stumbled back towards the still-full baskets to help Riley slaughter the remaining chickens.
Now still and bloodless, the carcasses were splashed around a large metal tub with water at precisely 149 degrees for exactly one and a half minutes on one side to loosen the feathers. The feet were dunked in this fowl-smelling cauldron for an additional thirty seconds, allowing their hard casings to be easily peeled away. The birds were then tucked into an old metal plucker from the 1940’s, which Riley purchased years ago from another Lummi farmer. As it whirled round, the rubber fingers pulled at the wet feathers. The birds were extracted naked, their flesh a surprisingly whitish color. As feathers floated in the air, we hung each chicken from a metal hanger. Sharpening our knives on a well-used stone, we cut the birds at their base, using great care not cut into the liver’s bile ducts or the colons, which would irretrievably taint the meat. With stiff, frozen fingers, we dug around inside each bird’s cavity, removing the entrails and separating intestines, lungs and hearts from the tastier livers and gizzards. With heavy butcher’s cleavers, we removed the heads, which were added to the compost pile to decompose, eventually feeding next spring’s garden. We cut the prized chickens’ feet off at the joints and tossed them into a macabre pile. Their goodness will add depth and a gelatinous richness to our winter soups and stocks.
My parting vision from that long, cold and exhausting day was of the kindhearted Riley; rolling an industrial laundry cart piled high with plucked chickens through his greying garden to be hung to age in his walk-in refrigerator.
After a long, hot shower, and having confirmed chicken would play no part in our dinner menu, we drove to the restaurant. Appreciatively, our oversized sweaters and boots qualified as dinner dress at Willows Inn. The outdoor smoke house and large wood-fired grill pit set the tone as we climbed the front porch for supper. Situated directly on Puget Sound, the inn’s casual interior was bathed in the warm glow of a sunset the colors of a large Turner landscape.
We drank cocktails made with small-batch bourbon floating with sage leaves in the candlelit bar; the arts and crafts chairs, dark wood interior and roaring fireplace warming us almost as much as the liquor.
With another two-dozen souls, we were shown to our tables with a gracious and genuine hospitality, which would be on display for the entire length of our stay. We started with hard apple cider pressed on a nearby farm, served with a smoked mussel set before us in a simple, covered wood box, which, when opened, emanated a dark, earthy cedar smoke. Pulled from the waters just beyond us, the mussel was silky sweet and dense with ocean and charred wood. The men and women who prepared the dinner also served and described each of the procession of dishes, some merely a bite; the ingredients of which were all grown on local gardens and farms, and gathered from the island’s forests and ocean.
With the remaining dregs of a young, plummy Oregon Pinot Noir in our glasses and the crumbs of dessert still on our plates, we couldn’t help but discuss our next meals: how best to prepare our winter’s feast; cooking a proper homage to the majestic Sulmtaler, and to the bounty of the Pacific Northwest.