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January 1, 2007
Old hen chicken soup
Tonight we had an old hen for dinner. Though in the video I recommend keeping hens for two years, this girl was four. Or maybe five. She was an egg-eater caught in the act.
The first time my sister saw her pecking at and eating an egg, I caught her and put her in isolation for 24 hours. Though I try to cull egg eaters immediately, with the Holidays it was too crazed to take that 20 minutes to kill and clean her the same day. So she got double leg banded and put back into the general population. When I went out to choose a hen for this week's Sunday dinner, I picked her up and examined her. It wasn't clear whether she was laying or not, but I knew she was an egg eater. So she went into a cage along with another hen that definitely hadn't laid an egg in a while. (The examining chickens section on the DVD talks about how to tell if a hen is laying.)
I have to admit that I am a little behind on culling my flock. Right now my hen yard has 14 chickens and none are younger than three. My oldest birds (until a neighbor's dog got through a weak spot in their fence and then broke into my hen yard) were three bantam silkies that were still laying on and off (mostly off) but were almost 12! With my birds molting, I get only one or two eggs a day from over a dozen hens. It's time for some new chicks.
Even though I've slaughtered and butchered hundreds of birds, each time I am moved deeply by the frailty of life, how fine a line there is between here -- and gone. These old girls didn't struggle much. They required repeated dunking's to get their feathers to release. Once they were being cleaned, I was dismayed to discover that my egg eater was also one of the few hens still laying. So today I only got one egg. But -- we had excellent chicken soup for dinner.

Chicken soup from an old hen
Clean bird and let rest in refrigerator for at least 24 hours. Cut the bird up and disjoint wings, section back into pieces, cut legs into drumsticks and thighs. Fillet off breast meat and reserve (even on an old hen the breast fillets are tender if cooked gently).
Preheat a heavy stainless or other non-reactive pot, and drop in the chicken pieces. Reduce heat to medium, and saute the chicken for ten or fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. You want these pieces to brown slightly and to render some of the fat out of the skin. Coarsely chop up one medium onion and add, stirring it in. Reduce the heat to low, and saute for another ten minutes. Add a quart of water, a stalk of celery, some sage and rosemary, and cover. Simmer gently (tiny bubbles just breaking the surface of the stock) for three to six hours, stirring occasionally.
Add another quart of water, stir again, then drain off broth and separate the fat. Return the de-fatted stock to the stew pot, add quartered potatoes, carrots, and any other vegetables desired. If more water is needed, add up to two additional quarts to cover the veggies. Simmer for a half-hour until the veggies are done. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use chopped fresh parsley as a garnish. This makes any other chicken soup you've ever had taste like a pale imitation.

January 2,2007
More about stewing hens
When commercial egg factories use hens, at about one year old the birds begin to molt and then they are discarded as "spent hens.". My first experience with those birds was when a roommate bought 50 of them for 25 cents apiece. We put them in our hen house with the rest of our flock. The new hens crowded together so tightly that three hens were smothered that first night. Then the next morning they had to be shushed out into the hen yard and they crowded together again in a corner and two more birds were suffocated in the crush.
But in a few days they were scratching the ground, going in and out of the house on their own, and looking a lot more like chickens than terrified factory workers. In a month their new feathers had grown in and they began laying again. For a year they lived in our hen yard and I always thought they were grateful for the chance to see what chicken life could be like.
Back in those days, spent layers would be sold for chicken soup or animal feed. An article I just read (zombie chickens link here) says that market is no longer viable and now the birds are just killed and composted. Sometimes the birds don't die when they are gassed, and die in the pile. That makes me just infuriated. Something in me hates waste and I think of the millions of people who never taste chicken because they are too poor to buy meat, and those thousands of birds who go into compost piles because it isn't cost effective to cut them up. Sure seems like something is wrong here.