“You killed that chicken? How could you kill that poor chicken?” I overheard a lady at the Nellysford, Virginia Farmers’ Market one Saturday morning.
I listened while the young farmer made his pitch. “I don’t use any hormones. All of my chickens are free range, organically fed, and I kill them myself. That’s how I know the quality of my product. I raise the chicken and kill it. That’s where food comes from.”
The lady was not convinced.
I smiled at the young man. We shared a shrug. But as I walked away, I wondered: What do I know about chickens and where food comes from?
So I made a phone call. “Hi, Mother. It’s Carole.”
“I wanted to ask you about raising chickens in Northern Maine. Grammy Duff kept hens…”
“Oh, yes. Your grandmother didn’t have much, but those were her hens, and that was her hen house. You know, she never approved of my coffee drinking, but she always offered me a cup.”
I remember Mother saying, “Yes, please,” and my grandmother putting on her thin-lipped mask and executed a slow, Kabuki-like dance: placing the step-stool next to the kitchen cabinets near the sink, climbing to the top step, reaching for a small jar of instant coffee ‘way in the back of the top shelf… but back to chickens.
“Mother, did your family keep chickens, too?”
“Oh, yes. Dad collected the eggs. He knew the good layers and who needed to go into the pot.”
“Did you ever kill a chicken, Mother?”
“No, Dad did that. When a hen stopped laying, he’d cut her head off with an axe. I plucked the feathers – it wasn’t hard, maybe a half hour – and cleaned out the guts. The gizzard and liver went into soup. We usually baked the chicken.”
“Paul shot a chicken? Well, that would be brother Paul. Paul never liked to walk the straight way for anything he did.”
Mother went on to tell me the familiar story about her older brother Paul driving the sleigh with one runner up the side of the snow bank so it might tip – and it usually did – and how cold she got. When they got home, he’d drive by the front door, jump out and let the horse pull the sleigh into the barn. Someone else had to put the horse up.
“We all knew Paul. He’d start all kinds of things – whatever was on his mind – but had trouble finishing or would make something and decide that he wanted it another way. You know, he used to drive the horse and sleigh to dances at the high school.”
A thought crossed my mind that, in my family, food came from ritual dances and occasional barnyard shootings.
“Was Uncle Paul a good dancer?”
“Oh, yes, he was full of fun and popular – very outgoing. Paul danced with all the girls and was in much demand. He’d carry his dance slippers in his back pocket and the girls would help him get his boots off and slippers on so he was ready to dance. You know, your Aunt Gertrude was in the same high school class as Paul. She was smart – class Valedictorian.”
But Aunt Gertrude was disgusted with Uncle Paul the day he made a mess of that chicken. “You shot that chicken, Paul? Aw, Pauly, Pauly, Pauly. How could you shoot that poor chicken?”