Peeling Chicken Feet - a homesteading adventure story

I am a first generation homesteader. Well, in a way.  The skills I am learning are not new skills.  This knowledge I am soaking up about learning to grow vegetables, save seed, preserve my harvest - and raise animals for meat - are all skills my grandparents and great-grandparents definitely had.

They knew the basics of how to store root vegetables in a cellar, of how to make their own bread, and probably ...

...how to peel chicken feet.  

But me?  Well, let me tell you my story.

chicken

We've been raising chickens since our firstborn was tiny.  Both  my husband and I had chickens growing up, so raising them for eggs was natural.  But neither of us had much chicken farming experience beyond egg production.


Once we made the decision to try and grow as much food as possible - we began to see the chickens as more than a hobby.  We wanted them to be put to use in every way.  As we learned more about soil health and composting, they became even more crucial to our homesteading success.  

Learning how to butcher our own chickens was another way to make sure we were valuing these animals.  You can read more about that process HERE.

So that is where we were last year.  We had spent a couple of years learning to butcher, process and prepare our own chicken and rabbit which we had raised.  It felt good knowing we weren't wasting anything. 

But were we?

We are big believers in home made bone broth.  We use our vegetable scraps and any leftover bones regularly.  (Here's a simple way to do it) One of the reasons bone broth is so beneficial, is because of the vitamins, minerals and gelatin that releases from the bones.  They are extremely healing to the immune system. (Read more details HERE.)

One secret to a really nutritious bone broth, I'd read, was CHICKEN FEET.

Chicken FEET?  Really?

Now .. it only takes a little observation to realize that chicken feet are... really......

NASTY.

They are the hen's best tool to scratch, dig and fling all sorts of things around in the compost pile.  And no matter how clean you keep your coop - those claws are going to be downright dirty.

Now, not having a relative to pass down this knowledge to me - I was truly mystified. How ON EARTH would I be able to clean those feet well enough to get them anywhere near our food? After burying many feet into the compost pile along with the feathers and innards (from butchering)  ... I finally got the courage up to save some for the pot.   The girls used a brush and we scrubbed them outside as best we could.

Once I got them into the kitchen sink, though - the problem became apparent.  These feet have scales, and the scales get dirt and junk under them - kinda like fingernails. (are you gagging yet?)  No matter how much I scrubbed, I coudn't get them clean enough.   

I'd seen chicken feet for sale in Asian markets and even at Natural Food meat counters before - but they didn't look like these.  They were clean.  What was I missing?

I picked up the phone and called my friend Will.   I'm grateful to have a few friends with some of this rare homesteading knowledge to share.  He tried not to chuckle while I told him I was nearly gagging trying to get these feet clean. What should I do?

BOIL THEM for a few minutes.  He said.  And the outer layer of the feet will peel off like a glove. 

 Well I wouldn't have thought of that.

We did as he said, and sure enough - the outer scaley skin layer peeled off - very reptile-like.  WEIRD.  What came next, Will forgot to mention.  The chicken's toenail popped off revealing a totally clean, new one underneath.   WHAT?!  

So here I am at my kitchen sink doing this bizarre thing  - calling for the girls to come look.  First it was 'EEW!' but it then turned to 'LET ME TRY!'.  The peeling and popping off toenails was strangely fun.  And true enough - we had some beautifully, without-a-doubt CLEAN chicken feet at the end of it:


I had to take a quick video.  Here we are peeling chicken feet for the first time - still in our GROSSED OUT/SHOCKED state:


Learning this new skill somehow warms my heart.  It makes me feel connected to the generations that went before me.  Sadly, we have about a 100 year knowledge gap in our society.  Since the rise of convenience foods, grocery stores, mass produced meat and factory farms, we have all but lost much of this important food knowledge.

 We did add them to our next batch of soup stock.  Gia helped me:

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chicken feet in soup stock


In case you were wondering, the feet did not add any new or different flavor to our stock.  It tasted as delicious as always.

I'm wondering if this bizarre sight will become a bit more normal to us with time.  Not sure, really.

What I am sure of though, is that little by little - the homesteading skills and knowledge that generations past took for granted - are becoming important to many of us again.

The important role of animals on our Urban Homestead

Every year on our little micro-farm brings new knowledge.  Most of the things we've learned have come from making mistakes, and trying again. We added animals to our homestead even before we dug up the lawn and began growing our own food.  Since my husband and I both had grown up raising chickens, we started our first flock early.

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It was only later that we realized how very beneficial it is to incorporate animals into any food growing operation.  Here are the reasons why we love having animals on our homestead:

  • They provide us with a constant supply of fertilizer for the garden (by turning food scraps and yard waste into food for your garden).

Every week,(ideally) the chicken coop is raked out, and the chicken manure and bedding is dumped into the compost pile. Chicken manure is 'hot' and cannot be used added directly to the garden until it has composted sufficiently.  Having our chickens in with the compost pile is an ideal situation - as the chicken manure heats up the pile, adding extra beneficial bacteria to break down the yard and food scraps.  The chickens scratch through the pile, eating the bugs and worms that are attracted to the decomposing material.  The chickens benefit from eating the fresh yard and kitchen scraps, as well as the protein-rich bugs for added nutrition.  The compost gets turned or aerated every month or so, and after about 4-6 months, we are able to add the rich, dark crumbly compost to our garden for the boost that keeps our plants thriving.

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Rabbits are another excellent source of manure.  Unlike chickens, their waste can be added directly to the garden, so there is no waiting on the poop to compost before you can add it to your gardens. (read more here on why rabbit manure is the best.) Adding a worm composting bin directly below the rabbit hutch is another wonderful way to reap benefits from animals.  Worm castings (vermicompost) is a highly desirable form of fertilizer that works especially well for seedlings.  I am hoping to master this in time for next Spring's seed starts.  Right now our worms are composting kitchen and yard scraps in a rubbermaid bin, but soon we will also have some underneath one of the rabbit hutches.

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  • They do an excellent job of scratching and tilling a garden bed after one crop is removed.

Although I don't let our chickens out to scratch in my garden during the growing season, I like to let them get in and scratch for bugs after I remove a row of vegetables.

  • They provide us with a steady supply of fresh, healthy eggs & meat.

Eggs are - of course - one of the main benefits of keeping chickens.  There is no comparison to the pale yellow grocery store eggs from hens that never see the light of day (or any green or living thing to munch).  Hens that scratch for bugs, eat green things and have fresh air produce healthy eggs with dark yellow/orange yolks full of omega 3 fatty acids, which are essential to good health.  Most hens (during the warmer months) will lay about one egg per day - sometimes every other day.  We have a flock of 19 hens and get about 12-14 eggs per day.  (My daughter is now selling some to the neighbors!)  If you are looking to save money on eggs by keeping chickens, the math just doesn't add up.  Look at them as being partners with you in a sustainable garden & home.  They do their job to keep everything going.

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Once our hens are past laying age (they only lay consistently for about 2 years), we butcher them.  We also raise our rabbits for meat.   We are still learning about how to keep our rabbits producing throughout the year.  So far, we've only had litters of bunnies in the summer months.  Rabbit is one of the most sustainable forms of meat you can raise.  The amount of space to raise them is small, they are quiet, eat lots of common greens found in many yards (though caution must be taken - some things are toxic to rabbits), and they reproduce quickly - often with large litters.  One of our does just had a litter of 6 - and in 4-5 months they will be at full weight, ready to head off to 'freezer camp'.  The meat is delicious and mild tasting, very low in fat - and one full sized rabbit will feed our family for one meal.

The best thing as far as the girls are concerned is - we will always have a steady supply of baby bunnies to play with.  Once they are full-grown  (and not so easy to cuddle) they become our dinner and the excitement builds for the next litter of bunnies to be born.  I could write a whole post about how healthy it is for people to become more connected to the meat they eat... but I will say that our girls are learning to respect the lives of animals, where their food comes from, and the value of the process.  For me, it's taught me to value the time and care it takes to raise an animal for food.  It should never be normal to pay $.99/pound for meat.  If we get used to paying so little for our meat, we will only continue to encourage the disastrous way that animals are raised (in CAFO operations) which is devastating our planet, making the animals (and humans who eat them) sick, as well as treating these beautiful creatures like objects, instead of valuing them and treating them with care.  Here's a link to the place we purchase our meat from locally, and a site that will direct you to local sustainably raised meat in your area.

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  • They teach our children about responsibility & hard work.

I wish I could say that our girls skip with delight when it's time to clean out cages or coops... but I would be lying.  We definitely get the whining and dragging of feet when these routine chores are to be done.  They are used to the daily routines of watering and feeding, collecting eggs - counting, recording amounts and washing them.   Selling eggs and taking their animals to fair are all experiences that are preparing them for the responsibilities of life.  Losing hens to a fox because the coop wasn't locked up tight - or waking up at night to screaming rabbits from a cage left unlocked (yes, they do scream when in danger) is no fun at all - but important to learn from, nonetheless.  Helping to pluck chickens, placing the doe into the buck's cage to mate, researching ways to use the beautiful rabbit fur pelts... these are all adventures that may not be the average American child's normal... but in these ways - we are glad to be a bit abnormal!

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