Long Ago, When Chickens had Teeth …*

Free-ranging (Photo credit; C. Bertelsen)

I’ve never had to kill for my dinner, unless you count the time I mangled a lobster at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, crying silently as I tried to plunge the knife in the right place but failing to quickly put the creature out of its misery.

I doubt I would have known how to kill a chicken, either, although my mother used to hint at what to do by exclaiming, “You’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Needless to say, that image disturbed me considerably. But I got the picture.

I recently spent a morning hanging around a local organic farm. An ewe and a lamb shared close quarters with a small flock of chickens. Seeing those animals there, knowing they were headed toward slaughter, I thought once again about how detached we are from the actual processing of meat other than cooking it from the raw state.

Even though my father’s parents raised chickens, rabbits, and turkeys on their small half acre in Southern California, I never saw any killing. A born and bred Texan, the daughter of ranchers, and a staunch Southern Baptist who disapproved of dancing and drinking, my grandmother cooked a pretty tasty skillet-fried chicken. We ate chicken several times during our annual pilgrimages to the homeplace. Back then you could walk all the way from Point Loma to Ocean Beach and not suck in lungs-full of air pollution. It was a time when the air smelled of salt and morning mists rolled inland to sweeten the day.

My grandmother got up early in the morning to pick out the hen destined for the day’s cook-pot, I think. I regret that she shielded me from the reality of how death gives life.

Instead, most mornings there in that magical place, I would lie all snuggled down in the four-poster bed in the front bedroom of the tiny adobe-style house, happy to day dream, watching the sheer lacy curtains moving like benevolent ghosts in the ocean-fed breezes.

No doubt a lot of other children lived my story, too, or a version of it.

Parents and grandparents slowly gave up their rural ways and turned over food production to farmers and companies who could produce food more efficiently. After all, my grandmother worked as a nurse, often on the night shift. My grandfather taught math and chemistry and coached the local high school football team. Raising chickens and rabbits kept them in food during the Great Depression, putting my grandparents outside the cash economy, but as they grew older, they stopped these earth-based, but time-intensive, tasks. The race of time claimed their energies and they moved on to other things, like driving all over the West, doing their own gentler version of Easy Rider. The rabbit hutches and the hen-pecked earth ended up being all that was left to show they’d raised animals in their backyard.

But – even if I couldn’t kill a chicken if my life depended on it – I did learn how to make fried chicken from my grandmother. I could barely lift the heavy cast-iron skillet, so she or my grandfather would help me get it settled on the stove, turning on the burner, and all I needed to do was spoon in some shortening, or lard, if Grandma kept enough around. About an inch of grease was what we looked for and when it started smoking slightly, I took the chicken pieces, soaked in buttermilk, and rolled them in flour tarted up with a little salt and black pepper. Using a make of tongs that I never see for sale any more, I turned those pieces of chicken over and over, cooking them until they turned golden brown. My grandfather hovered behind me, worried I’d burn myself, which of course I sometimes did.

My father taught me how to cut up a chicken, just the way he learned from Grandma, so I have to say that there’s something rather mystical for me about fried chicken. About two years ago, I taught my son to do the same.

I’d like to think that someday he will teach his children that very method.

And maybe even tell them the story of how Grandma grew up on a Texas ranch, knowing how to survive in a way that seems romantic and lost, but utterly crucial for survival.

Store-bought (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

*”Long Ago, When Chickens had Teeth …” means “Once upon a time.”

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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4 comments

  1. Jeremiah Tower

    And that night at Chez Panisse when I had decided to kill trout to order for Truite au Bleu. After on rolled its eyes at me and croaked out a message, I turned them over to the dishwasher.

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