Thursday, June 18, 2009

Chicken Women

Mrs Peckins and her first hatched

I love Mrs. Peckins. She is a tiny little hen with a tiny little chicken brain but she is kind and gentle and simply wants to be a hen, leading her babies about in their busy chicken pursuits each day.

She knows what her purpose in life is, and as long as she can shepherd her little flock of peeps, all is right in her universe.

These little chickens have taught me a lot. If I do not interfere with them, they can manage their lives quite well, thank you. Mrs. Peckins sedately leads her chicks into the coop each night, well ahead of the other chickens. Because I know she loves to eat milo, last night I called her out so she could have some I brought home. She and all the babies poured out of the coop and excitedly pecked up as much of the milo as they could stuff into their already bulging crops. This unusual event caused a huge uproar in their orderly chicken society.

The other hens entered the coop while Mrs Peckins and the peeps were having a late snack, then there was much hen growling and clucking and alarm and unrest when she tried to return to bed with her brood. I finally took the alpha hen entirely out of the coop and held her snugly under my arm to allow Mrs Peckins to get settled for the night. The babies, who still only weigh an ounce or two and have tiny little wings, can fly up to the nest boxes! They bail into the nest with their mother and soon tiny little yellow heads with bright black eyes pop up amid the soft feathers.

Now I know why Mrs Peckins takes her peeps in early. Humans are SO stupid.

The sight and sound of chickens reminds me of my dear grandmother, Mattie Fern. She was a farm wife who tended and raised chickens for all but that last dozen or so years of her long life. Gathering eggs was an important task that I so wanted to do for my grandma that I braved blindly putting my hands into nests, knowing there was a chance a snake could be in there.

Grandma and I both loved the tiny yellow peeps that arrived every spring through the US mail. When she placed them under the warm lights in the brooder house, she would deftly scoop one into her loving old hands and place it into mine. Gram taught me how to whistle softly to still its frightened peeping.

Chickens were always around, scratching and clucking. They are a comforting melody in the music of a farm. Chickens meant a ready source of good meat, and Grandma's fried chicken was the best in the universe. (God Himself likely requested one of Gram's fried chicken dinners when she arrived in Heaven.) Chickens and eggs were a source of income for a farm wife - a very modest income, but farm wives can make a lot from nothing.

At least once a year, Grandpa built a big fire beneath a huge cast iron vat. Grandma filled it with well water while Grandpa gathered young chickens into several gunny sacks. One by one, he would take a chicken out of the sack by its feet. He deftly slung the chicken onto the chopping block, and with the axe in his other hand, he expertly chopped off the head, tossing the body a few feet away. The poor headless body ran about, flapping its wings and spurting blood from its neck.

Soon all the still carcasses were hung neck down to allow for the rest of the blood to drain away. My grandparents then each took a chicken body by the feet, dipping it into the boiling water so they could pluck the feathers. They stripped and pulled the wet feathers into big heaps on newspapers that were later folded up and tossed into a trash fire.

The plucked chickens were then eviscerated, rinsed and laid into cold, fresh water. A final scraping of the skin and the lower legs were cut off. All were rinsed in cold water one more time, then wrapped in white butcher paper and promptly taken to town to the locker. Later on, each chicken became one of Gram's delicious fried chicken dinners.

None of my little bantam chickens will end up on my dinner plate. Not even Evil Rooster, though I think most of Grandma's young roosters ended up in a big kettle of homemade noodles. (Even chicken and noodles is too good an end for Evil!) The way I see it, Mrs. Peckins' ancestors generously nourished my ancestors with eggs and meat and an income. I return the favor by generously tending to Mrs Peckins and her kin.

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