The big trucks had pulled in and out of the lane at Shady Acres for most of Wednesday night. The big, fat, stinky chickens had been caught, put into the cages and hauled away to the processing plant. Certain Man, short on sleep and long on labor, had finally come into the house and collapsed on his beloved chair and fell fast asleep.
The day was full with much coming and going, but somewhere along the line, Certain Man said, “The chicken catchers left one chicken — one big one! Do you want to butcher it or shall I just put it into the composter?”
“I want to butcher it!” I said. “I will probably not get to it, though, until tomorrow.”
“That’s fine,” he said. “I will catch it and put it into my coop and you can get it whenever you want to do it.”
And so the day passed. Thursday, I got a note from a cousin asking about some chicken soup for one of my neighbors, and I was reminded about that chicken, waiting for me.
“Sweetheart, did you catch that chicken for me?” I asked in one of my conversations with him during the day.
“Oh, no!” He said. “I didn’t get around to it.”
“Do you think the fox got it?” I asked, reminiscent of the last chicken I had planned for a pot of soup.
“Shouldn’t have,” he said, “because it was in the chicken house and the doors were closed.”
Thursday nights are “Grammy Night” with Charis, and I decided that, unless her Daddy and Mommy objected, or unless she thought it was too gross, Charis and I were going to butcher a chicken for Grammy night. I called her Mommy and told her my plan, and she and Jesse talked it over and decided to ask her what she wanted to do. After school, when her Daddy was bringing her down he broached the subject.
“Grammy thought maybe she and you would butcher a chicken tonight,” he told her carefully, explaining some of the possibilities of the evening. “Would you like that?”
“I wouldn’t like that,” she said, all excited. “I would love it!” And so, it was decided.
She came into the house, all fired up to get busy, but I had something to get in to the post office before it closed, and she occupied her time with other things until finally, I was ready.
“I’m not so sure about this,” I said to her as we started out. “Grandpa didn’t get this chicken caught, so I’m going to have to chase it down. I’m getting a little old for this sort of thing.”
“Oh,” she said, confidently. “You have me! I’ll catch it for you!”
“I’ll be glad for your help, Charis,” I said, “but this is a big chicken. It isn’t very easy to hold and it might hurt you.”
“Will it bite?” She asked a bit anxiously.
“It probably won’t peck you, but it has spurs on the side of its legs that can scratch pretty hard. I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
“Oh.” She said.
“Maybe you can chase it towards me and I can catch it,” I said. “We’ll just see what works out. Do you know which chicken house it is in?” (She had been conversing with Aunt Lena who had helped Grandpa with some of the chores in the chicken houses that follow the movement of a flock.)
“Yup!” she said proudly. “House three!” So we headed out towards house three. I was on the golf card and she was on her bike. We stopped at the barn and the shed, also at the ante rooms of both house two and three, looking for the hook that makes catching a chicken a whole lot easier, but alas! None was to be found. I was wondering how in the world all of this was going to work out. Chasing a chicken in a newly emptied house is precarious business for a woman of my age and weight and athletic ability. The litter is uneven, with ruts and often wet places. Chickens are crazy birds, with the ability to turn on a dime and run in the opposite direction. They squawk and flutter and they are often the bearers of chicken poop on their feathers and always on their appendages that you are most like to grab when you are trying to catch them. And without a hook? I was most certainly in for some trouble. But there was Bright Eyes beside me, chattering cheerfully and so very excited about our upcoming adventure.
We pulled up at the end of the chicken house and I opened the end doors. It was dark and reeking of ammonia and the foul smell of a chicken house. Charis nearly gagged at the heavy wave of barely breathable air. We peered down the long expanse towards the other end, and in the darkness, somewhere near the middle door, I saw — well, something! It didn’t really look like a chicken, but it was some sort of interruption in the emptiness, so I said to Charis, “We are going to go down to the middle door. Grammy thinks she sees that chicken down there.”
We both got on the golf cart this time, as Charis decided to leave her bike and come back for it later. Away we went, down to the main side door. I opened it wide and stepped inside. Charis stayed on the outside, undecided as to what she wanted to do. She let the door swing shut. I couldn’t see a thing. I opened it back up.
“Charis, can you hold this door open so that I can see?”
She half-heartedly held it a bit, then stepped inside, then stepped back out, then held it open about a foot. I still could barely see, but I could make out our intended victim. He was a big old duber, and when I stepped in his direction, he started getting away as fast as his little legs could carry him.
“Charis, can you come and help to chase him towards me?” I was of the opinion that she could at least stand guard while I snuck up on him. I caught on really fast that wasn’t a happening thing.
“Grammy, see, I can hold a little chicken,” she said from the safety of just outside the door, “but I don’t know how to hold a big one!” She watched as I traversed the litter and got him over to the other side of the house. Then, “Grammy, I’m gonna’ be down here,” she hollered as the door slammed shut and I heard no more.
I had a little more light at the far side of the house and it occurred to me that darkness might be in my favor in this situation, and so I eased myself slowly in the direction of the chicken. He watched me with his beady eye. I was almost ready to reach out and catch him by his wings when he suddenly took off towards the other end of the house. About then I heard Charis at the end of the house where she had gone to retrieve her bike.
“Grammy, I’m down here, if you need me,” she hollered. It was only 175 feet away. I was pretty sure that she wasn’t going to be much help.
“Okay,” I yelled back. “That’s good!” At least she wouldn’t be getting hurt by a frantic rooster.
The things I had been concerned about were reality as I went over the ridges and rolls of the litter in the empty chicken house. It was loose and I slipped and skittered around, trying to keep my balance. Oops! There was a very wet spot. I hurriedly dislodged my foot from there, wishing with all my heart that I hadn’t worn my sandals for this job. It already felt like there was at least a half a cup of litter between my sandal and my foot and now there was dampness. Oh, yuk! But I was intent on my prey, and he was stepping closer and closer to the wall. I very slowly narrowed the distance between us and suddenly made a grab! Caught him squarely! He squawked and protested mightily with his strong wings, but I quickly subdued him. Charis, noting that he was safely in hand, disappeared again from the back doors of the chicken house and with amazing speed, met me at the side door as I exited with him.
I had procured some baler twine from the side wall of the barn when I had been in there looking for the hook, and I wrapped it around his legs while Charis made comments about his soon demise. I put him into the back basket of the golf cart where my unreliable efforts to incapacitate him would not allow him to escape. He looked questioningly at me through the wires.
Charis fancies herself an animal whisperer. She got up close to him and started to talk to him.
“Hey, little guy,” she crooned. “Do you know you are going to get butchered?” She didn’t seem sorry at all, and there was no pity or compassion or even regret in her voice. She said something about it being her relative, but when I asked for clarification, she changed the subject.
“Come on, Charis-girlie. We need to get this fellow up to the house and find a place to hang him.”
“Are you going to cut off his head?”
“I am, but I’m going to hang him first. That’s the way my Daddy taught me.”
“Aren’t you going to lay him down and chop off his head?” (There was entirely too much enthusiasm for carnage in this little person. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea after all.)
“No, Charis, I’m going to hang it from the baler twine, then while it is hanging, I am going to go in and get some water started to scald him with. While the water is heating, I will come back out and cut off his head. But I don’t think you want to watch that part of it.”
“Yes, I do!”
“Well, we shall see. But for right now, we need to find a place to hang it up.” When we tore down the old shed, I lost my row of chicken hanging ropes. I needed to fashion something to hang this chicken where it could bleed and flap about. Charis and I checked out several possibilities while the chicken watched from his spot.
I was feeling sorry for him about now, but my companion in crime was going full speed ahead. “Why are we hanging him upside down, Grammy? Why don’t you hang him on your onion rack? Why are you doing that? What are we going to do next? Are you going to cut off his head with your knife? Are you going to get your knife? When are you going to get your knife? Why do you need to get water?” I answered questions and did my best to downplay any violence either intended or implied, but her thirst for gore was unabated.
I finally hooked the blue baler twine over the railing for the sliding door to the woodshed and secured the poor chicken into its restraint. It was beyond much protest.
But, wowser! That fellow was really heavy. Certain Man had said that he didn’t think I would have any trouble catching him because he was too fat to run too far, but for as heavy as he was, I thought he had run pretty fast! Now, hanging him up, I wondered if my baler twine would hold him. I didn’t think it would break, but it kept slipping down and the piece of wood that I had gotten to serve as an anchor wasn’t proving reliable. I finally twisted and wrapped and wrapped again and decided that it would hold. Charis wanted to touch him, but was worried.
“Do you think he will bite me, Grammy?”
“No, Charis. I’m pretty sure he won’t.”
And then we left him dangling in the evening sun, and we went into the house, started the water in a big kettle on a power burner, and sharpened my favorite butcher knife. I tried to talk her into staying in the house with Auntie Beebs while I took the head off, but she insisted on accompanying me back outside. The chicken was quiet. I explained that hanging upside down like that made all the blood run to his head, and it kinda made him unconscious. I told her that the knife was really, really sharp, and it only took a second to cut off his head. I told her that her Mommy and Auntie Beebs and Auntie Rach and even the neighbor children and Grandpa didn’t watch while Grammy cut off a chicken’s head. I told her that Grammy didn’t even watch while she cut it off. She found the place on the neck that the knife needed to go and turned her head away so she wouldn’t have to watch. I told her, again, that I didn’t want her to watch. I told her that she had to stand back because the chicken would flop around up there on the rope and she could get blood on her.
“Okay, Grammy,” she said cheerfully. “I’ll stand clear over her and I’ll do this.” She backed about ten feet away and covered her face with her hands. I checked to make sure she wasn’t peeking through her fingers.
“That’s good, Charis. I think it’s better if you don’t watch. I’ll tell you when you can look.”
“Okay, Grammy.” Still cheerful, still not looking.
I grabbed the head of the big old rooster in my left hand. He had a really thick neck. I felt for an indention where I could put my knife, and put it there. I turned my head while I made a quick, clean slash with my razor sharp knife, then dropped the head on to the grass. And turned my head far enough to see two brown eyes peeking through conveniently spread fingers.
“Grammy! I saw it! I saw it! I saw you cut it off!” There didn’t appear to be any trauma connected with it, and I decided that I wasn’t going to make anything big of it. In years gone by, many were the seven year old children who had to help with the family butchering, and seemed none the worse for it.
I gathered up my knife and said, “Come on, Girlie. We need to go get the boiling water.”
“What are you going to do with the water?” She asked.
“We will put the chicken into it and scald it a little and then the feathers will come off.” We procured the water, got it into a big pail, and came back out to where our now very dead chicken hung. I dipped the chicken into the water and checked to see if the feathers were pluckable. They were, and I hung it back up and started pulling feathers off in great quantities. This seemed to bother Charis more than anything else. She had donned latex gloves with the intent of helping, and I explained what she could do.
She helped for a while and then, “Grammy, I didn’t know that I would have to do this. I don’t like it.”
“It isn’t the most pleasant, but it is something that we need to do before we finish butchering it. We have to get all the feathers off. That’s first!”
“When are you going to take the guts out?”
“That will be next,” I told her. “But first we need to get as many feathers as possible off.”
She manned the hose when I wanted the chicken rinsed off, and then we carried it over to the outside sink that her Grandpa had installed by the garden. I scraped the skin and cut off the legs. She watched in great interest as I made the first cut to loosen and remove the crop and windpipe. She was unabashedly curious about every part that I removed.
“This windpipe feels like a tube!” she said as she fingered it. And then, “Grammy is there any ‘chicken’ on the wings?” I must have looked surprised, because she motioned towards the wings and asked again, “Is there any ‘chicken’ on the wings?”
I realized then that she meant “meat” and I said, “Oh, yes, there is. You know, when Daddy goes to get hot wings, that’s what he’s eating. Chicken wings! Lots of people really like them.”
She looked thoughtful. Then puzzled. “Grammy,” she said, “do buffalo have wings?”
I had to laugh. “No, Charis, buffalo do not have wings. When the wings are called ‘buffalo wings’ it is talking about a certain spice that they put on chicken wings. It’s still chicken wings, but it’s called by the name of the spices that are used.”
“Oh,” she said.
By then I had made a cut into the abdomen to draw out the innards from the bottom. (I seldom cut up a chicken into pieces because I mostly use them to cook whole for soup or to stuff and roast whole or to soak in Tenderquick to put a different taste-twist on it.) It was here that I expected some gagging or some serious revulsion and a hasty departure. There was nothing of the kind. The gizzard, the heart, the liver, the lungs, the intestines and even the gonads were duly noted, examined and discussed. And when all was cleaned up, a little girlie carried the heart, the liver and the gizzard to the house while Grammy carried the big old bird. Inside, we put him into a big container and Charis added a cup of salt. We filled the container with water until the chicken was covered, added ice, snapped on the lid and left it for the night. I got a little pan and fresh cooked up the giblets. Charis wasn’t much interested in partaking of any of them, so Grammy got the liver and Grandpa gladly speared the heart and gizzard for himself.
Then her Daddy and Mommy came and fetched her home, and her Mommy reported that she slept almost as soon as her head hit the pillow. Another “Grammy Night” was history.
After the chicken had spent the night in salt water, I took it out and put it into a big Ziplock bag to take to the fridge in the garage. On the way out the door, I stopped at the scales in the laundry room and plopped it on. A full 8 pounds, all dressed. He was big!
Then I cooked him up and today I made him into a big pot of chicken corn noodle soup with a generous portion of Delaware lima beans in it. It made over two gallons.
That’s enough to give away, share with friends and feed my family (who just might be getting tired of Chicken Corn Noodle Soup!) for a few days.
And that’s the news from Shady Acres, where Certain Man is always glad to let the butchering of chickens up to his wife, where none of The Offspringin’s are interested in learning this particular skill, and where Only Granddaughter has some stories to tell about her latest Grammy night.