Sunday, July 3, 2011


My grandmother raised chickens and turkeys. The former deposited their pyramids of  leavings under her house, which rested on brick pedestals. It was an old farm house, surrounded on one side by cornfields, on the other a dirt road  and sandy yards. Now that I remember those aromatic pyramids, I'm amazed at their construction!  And frightened, too.  I used to have nightmares about being trapped under the house!

Her sandy yard was home to grasshoppers and bees who couldn't resist her lantana, petunias, and other assorted flowers. She would go out to the chicken yard, grab a chicken, and well---wring its neck. She was good at it. Then she plucked and singed it, brought it inside to her kitchen counter, and turned it into a fryer, its assorted parts ready to be dipped into seasoned (highly salted and peppered1) flour and fried.
Yesterday I found a bargain at Ingles! Organic hens reduced by nearly 75% so that they could be sold by the 4th of July. I couldn't resist, so I bought two. This morning I got to work quartering, sawing through joints, doing the old-fashioned work that women no longer do, buying their chickens already boned, skinned, turned into portions ready to fry, grill, and bake.

 What my grandmother did every single day, I did this morning, as if learning a new skill. A revelation, really, when I think of the time it took.  Preparing a chicken would have taken time my grandmother could have spent on facebook or twitter. Or checking email if she lived today!   Left over bones and giblets I boiled to make stock.

My poor grandmother. Standing in her kitchen cutting and dredging chicken parts when she could have been surfing the internet!

She made jelly and jam this time of year too, sweating into her pot of plum or mayhaw or blackberry juice. I'm not going to sweat over the plums I bought yesterday.  I'm making freezer jam.  No stirring and stirring until the syrup spins a thread.  We like freezer jam, and as long as we have electricity, I'll keep making it, but what would happen if we no longer had the electrical grid to depend upon?  Would I know how to can?  I would know, I think, how to put away preserves and jellies, but as much as I love them,  how could one survive on jam alone?

I marvel at how much my grandmother knew how to do, how much I once knew how to do but now no longer have the energy or the facility with which to do it.  I sit here typing text into a blog whose workings of which I have not the slightest understanding.  So much of my world seems beyond me, a technological mystery.  My grandmother's world remains that richest of mysteries, one to which I can return in memory, marveling at how the the window light transformed  the ancient linoleum, how the door still opens onto ways we can survive and beyond that, live within our means in a landscape in which we are no longer strangers.


  1. Wonderful post, Kay. We finally became so appalled at the quality of cheap chicken and the high price of organic chicken that we now raise our own. We put fifty in the freezer last year and will do even more this year.

    It's really not that bad -- it took three of us one morning to deal with 15 chickens (thanks to a wonderful device called the whizz bang chicken plucker. And I know that our chickens (pasture -raised) had a good, healthful life and a quick, humane end. And being that intimately involved with our own food makes me careful to use it all -- boiling the carcasses for broth, etc.

  2. I like this, I remember my Mom cutting the chicken up after daddy had killed it for Sunday dinner. We only got chicken for Sunday dinner. Things have really changed. I like your blog and will follow it regularly..Susie

  3. Susie, yes, things have really changed, but I wonder how much longer we can continue to live the way we do, without going back to some of the old skills our folks knew. I hope you will follow my blog, and I hope I can keep it going. I'll let you know how the chicken turns out. I've several new recipes to try!

  4. Vicki, 50 in the freezer, oh my. (sounds like the title of a short story!). But yes, once you've gotten the hang of things, it wouldn't take that long. I remember spending a day putting away the hog that we butchered out by the barn. Hog killing, and the women worked all morning, thought nothing of it, were just glad to have the pork.
    Whizz bang chicken plucker! Now, that really is a detail you should use in a story, if I don't steal it first!

  5. The computer techs @ JCPL refer to my as of yet not arrived laptop as a whiz bang. What would happen if we combined a whiz bang chicken plucker with a whiz bang laptop? Could we send virtual feathers floating to all our friends?

  6. The thought makes my brain short-circuit....or should I say "crash"?

  7. My grandmother would not so much wring the chicken’s neck as cut its throat nearly through so that the chicken would run all around the kitchen yard “like a chicken with its head cut off” till the blood stopped spurting and the chicken was done in. At hogkilling time, according to my mother, Grandma was so busy taking care of the sausage and so on that she never had time to clean or decorate for Christmas (usually it would be almost Christmas before it was cold enough to kill hogs). My mother always ended up doing it, washing the windows and curtains and so on to brighten up the house, being the helpful teen she always hoped I would be.

  8. Even growing up in Manhattan, I remember my mother had to draw the chickens she bought, and singe them over the gas burners to remove the pin feathers. Then we had the best soup because she had to remove the feet, and they went into the pot. Maybe those birds weren't "organic," but they were a different beast from what we get today. Making really good soup is an honest challenge!

  9. I just love this post. It makes me shed healing tears.

  10. Elizabeth, your comment would make a wonderful post! I remember the sausage-making. I think our weather allowed us to do our hog-killing a little earlier.
    Joan, I remember those chickent feet. And pig's feet. And the smell of those pin feathers being singed. ly job was to gather eggs, both at my grandmother's and at home.
    Alice, thank you for visiting. I visit my grandmother's kitchen often in my memory.

  11. I love the chicken stories; although reared in the city, (upstate SC), my father was a hunter (until he grew a conscience, then he hated house-cats for killing the quail and ground-roosting birds), but I remember sitting on the back-lattice, plucking birds as a child. I loved it, as every woman, my mother, grandmother, great aunt, the cook, the maid and me -- all sat circled around, plucking, dressing those little birds. That smell of blood some find so offensive was nothing to a child who, part of the party, got to watch/listen as those women became equals -- the cook, the maid, my grandmother, et al, at last were doing equal work, they almost talked like friends, and they gossiped. The maid and cook had stories from other servants, and my mother, her mother and aunt, had the other side. I asked a question once, alarmed to see every head in unison, turn to me, my mother saying, "Sistah, best learn early to keep quiet around adults, they'll forget you're there, and say what they want." I never thought that "children should be seen, never heard" an insult, but a simple warning, an offering that, should you take the job, proffered so much more. Have only cleaned one bird as an adult, my own young rooster, and I was astounded at the shape of my little skinny rooster compared to those pumped up birds we purchase today -- and it was the first time in probably 40 years that I'd had that real taste of chicken. (Because I couldn't forget the "death dance", I've not killed another -- but if one of you want the job, I'll clean & share.)