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Three score and ten or more

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Yummm!! Chicken.

I was wandering through MSN today and found five chicken recipes which looked interesting so I printed them up for Janet (and probably for me). Most of them used boneless thighs which are usually fairly economical and, for those of us who are concerned with waistline expansion, provide relatively small portions. We were nearing a supermarket and talked about picking up some boneless thighs, then, somehow the conversation shifted (probably for the benefit of second son who was riding with us) to buying, or getting chicken when Jan and I were kids.

Janet talked about her uncle (who was very close to her age) who would go out to the chicken yard, select a chicken, put its head between two fingers and with a quick movement of the hand, snap the head off, leaving the remaining dead (or deadish) chicken on the ground for the girls (my wife and her sister) to take over near the pump and clean, first stripping the feathers off, then singeing (with fire, not with the voice) the pin feathers off and then gutting the chicken, sorting out the giblets and disposing of the remainder of the innards. (How? Not part of the story.)

This brought to mind my experience with chicken procurement and preparation as a young boy. We didn't have a chicken yard. When we got fresh chicken (we did also get some from the butcher) we frequently got it from Frazier's hatchery which was about four blocks up the street and which also sometimes served as a source of very fresh eggs. Sometimes mom would get in the car and drive up to get chicken, but it was not unusual to send my brother or myself up to get it either on bicycle or on foot. I remember one occasion when mom decided that she wanted five fresh chickens (I believe she ordered spring chickens, which were smaller and younger, but I am not sure. At any rate five chickens was more than our family would eat in several days.) I do remember that she called ahead and told the people at the hatchery that I was on my way to pick them up.

I am not sure why I didn't take the bicycle that had a basket, but this time I walked, and when I got to the hatchery they had five freshly killed chickens ready for me. I don't remember paying for them so they may have been charged on account, but they were fresh and they were ready. Each chicken had a bunch of tissue or cotton wrapped around the neck and secured with rubber bands. They secured three of the chicken by their feet, which I could carry in one hand and two which I could carry in the other. I took the chickens and trudged on home. I have a vivid memory that one of the birds began to "leak" before I got home. I also remember thinking that five chickens were darned heavy, and I was really tired by the time I got home.

I don't remember the preparation of those particular chickens, but preparation was similar whenever we got fresh chickens complete with feathers and feet. Sometimes mom would just put the chicken in a dish pan full of hot water and just strip the feathers off (or have one of her "enthusiastic" sons do so.) Other times she would bring a large stock pot full of water to a boil, then dunk the chicken into boiling water. She (or we) would then, after the chicken had been in the water for the appropriate time, ( I truly don't remember what was the appropriate time, but there are a lot of things I don't remember), remove it and place it in a dishpan full of cooler water. I preferred the latter method because the feathers, more or less, slid off and out easily and didn't make much of a mess. When the feathers were all removed the singeing process would begin. Mom would wrap the tines of a fork with Kleenex or toilet tissue, soak the tissue in rubbing alcohol, light the alcohol on fire, then, having one of the boys hold the chicken and turn it on command, she would touch the flame to all parts to remove pin feathers and any little hairy things. She would then gut the chicken, (or have us do it, reminding us many times not to let the knife penetrate the digestive tract to spread nasty stuff around), remove the giblets for tasty use, and remove the feet for disposal with the remainder of the entrails. When this was complete, she would take a dish of soap or detergent, a heavy but small brush and scrub the thing down. I remember her saying, many times, that "A chicken only gets one bath in its life and I intend to make sure it is a good one." Even chickens purchased from the butcher shop, sans feathers etc., got the singeing and bathing process. She was serious about that one bath being thorough.

This general process was regular enough that I never thought much about it. I just carried chickens when told to do so, stripped the feathers when told to do so, tossed the garbage into the "burn can" when told to do so, and ate chicken whenever possible whether told to do so, or not.

When Jan and I were in graduate school in Illinois, we were poor. I had a doctoral stipend and for a year or so Jan had a graduate assistantship as well, but we had four kids and little enough money that we qualified for receipt of government surplus foods occasionally. (If I haven't already written about that, I will have to do so later). At any rate we were living from hand to mouth. Our big splurge at the time was, once a week, to buy one Vernor's Ginger Ale, cool it in the freezing compartment of the refrigerator till it was almost frozen, then split the bottle between two refrigerated glasses and sip. (I can still taste it in my imagination.) Our most common experience with chicken was chicken backs and necks which could be had for about fifteen cents a pound and made good soup. (I have already told you about our unfortunate attempt to provide protein with a raccoon feast.)

About this time we found a man who lived near the graduate student housing (Our apartment was in a former military barracks about ten miles from campus) who raised chickens and who put up a sign that he would sell them for a dollar apiece. Jan and I had both done the chicken preparation thing so we decided to buy some (four, if I remember correctly, though for a while it seemed like twenty). We brought the chickens into our miniscule kitchen and proceeded to try to get the chickens ready for their last bath and first fry pan. It was a disaster. The kitchen, and soon the house, was filled almost equally with chicken feathers and crying children (Probably because the children had never been in a chicken feather snow storm before.) I think we finally got the damn things naked and into the refrigerator, but I may have thrown them out the window (probably not, we lived on the second floor and falling chickens might have created even more problems).

I know that for weeks we found small chicken feathers in the most unusual places (in bed, in diapers, in all the drawers of the kitchen, in the typewriter-- everywhere.) I remember deciding to be good humored about it, and, out of the blue, quoted my mother's mantra about making the chicken's first and last bath a good one. This earned me a wet dish sponge in the ear, thrown with surprising accuracy from one room to the other.

Fresh chicken. Yumm.


At 4:50 PM, Blogger Gayle said...

LOL! You are a terrific and extremely skilled writer! I can just see that tiny kitchen filled with flying feathers!

I felt like your kids when I saw my first chicken killed by my sweet old grandma at the age of 7. I'd never seen anyone grab a chicken, flip their wrist, and break a chicken's neck before. That was her method. Then the bloodthirsty old battleax actually picked up an ax, put the chicken on the chopping block (a tree stump) and chopped off it's head! I couldn't eat chicken for a long time after watching this bloodthirsty, mean, hatefully cruel madwoman murderying chickens. LOL! She really was a sweet old lady... I was simply traumatized.

Bless you... you brought all that back. It's okay. I'll still eat chicken. Promise! :)

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Gayle said...

BTW, why is this excellent story untitled. "Chicken Feathers" would be a good name for it.

At 5:24 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

I'm just catching up with ALL your posts. :) Goodness knows how he snapped the chickens' heads off with a twist of the fingers. I always gut mine while they're hanging from the washing line dripping from the neck before plucking. You must have been a good gutter to not pierce the gall bladder and make the meat inedible.


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