During the time of our courtship, “Rumpole” aka my husband, kept chickens on his 1/4 acre plot on the outskirts of the city. Every one of our courting activities were timed around the needs of these chickens. When we were about to depart for a romantic holiday in San Francisco, he rounded up the chickens, placed them in crates and drove them to a friend’s acreage in the neighbouring municipality. This was the beasties’ baby-sitting situation for two weeks duration.
“Rumpole’s” favourite fowl was his rooster, McTavish. McT marched around with self-important airs and mercilessly bossed anything which moved on two legs, people included. He was sneaky and nasty. He crept up on one stealthily and attacked from behind. His rabid behaviour didn’t endear him to me; I did a little dance for joy when my loved one “gifted” McT permanently to his friend. Hah! Some gift! I imagine he eventually ended up in a stock-pot. Good riddance!
Other people have varying opinions about and relationships with chickens. For many, familiarity begins and ends with cellophane-wrapped chicken, whole or in bits, posed enticingly on a styrofoam slab. For my Daughter-in-law, chicken is only tolerable if skinned and de-boned. I like to poke, perversely, at her squeamishness by regaling her with stories of my family’s habits of chicken consumption and our own “chicken lore”.
My Father and Mother raised two of us girls in post- WW II Hungary. We lived in the fourth-floor apartment of a then relatively modern 1930s style. The apartment had no central heating, but each room had a capacious tile stove with which to heat the rooms. There were two balconies, one that overlooked the street at the front, and the other which gave a view onto the back yard and “garden”. There was an empty, cracked swimming-pool on the yard, half covered over with planks. This defunct pool served as the chicken house for the apartment dwellers. In the spring and summer, the building’s housewives would foray into the open central market and purchase one or two live chickens and carry them home, hung by their feet. These chickens were then let loose in the back yard. Here they could poke around and hang out until the housewives decided it was time to butcher and make them into delicious Paprikas Csirke.
Our Mother, a born and bred city girl, really hated butchering chickens. She would bring the selected fowl upstairs and keep it on the back balcony for several days while she worked up the nerve for the butchery she had no way of avoiding. My sister and I would visit the chickens on Death Row, feed and water them, and generally treated them as temporary pets.
When it was time for “the act”, Mother would herd us girls into the back bathroom and gave us the knife and a deep bowl to have in readiness. She fetched the chicken, which would be cooing and clucking, little suspecting what fate awaited it. By the time Mother and the chicken arrived in the bathroom, Mother was almost hyper-ventilating. Sister, being the older one, was given the task to extend the chicken’s neck over the toilet bowl. My job was to hand the knife to Mother, hold the bowl under the neck to catch the blood, and to guide the knife to the area which was about to be slit. Mother kept her face and eyes averted, meanwhile desperately grasping the chicken to her side and making messy, sawing motions with the knife. Once the cut was made, the animal had to be kept firmly in hand until it finally bled out. Otherwise, there would have been a blood-bath for all three of us. And, that would have meant that sister and I could not taste our favourite treat, blood-pudding. No blood in the bowl, no blood pudding.
This telling is one with which I regale my daughter-in-law at carefully chosen moments. It so grosses her out! The one I am holding in reserve is my remembrance of chicken soup, as made and served by my Mother. Maybe I’ll hold off entertaining her with details of chicken plucking. It is particularly messy and gruesome, and as a story can be safely exaggerated and embellished with graphic details.
Back, in the mists of time, I partook of some Home Economics courses. At no time was there mentioned any unsavoury detail of whence our foods originated, and what processes they had undergone in order to arrive at our pantries, refrigerators and freezers. No mentions of the messy, but necessary, business of animal husbandry. I think it is a mistake to forget old ways of doing things, and in this urbanized culture of ours, most of us have scant idea of the origins of the many things we consume and use.
I sit and type this at a computer, with which I can express and share ideas and musings with unknown persons. The computer is a machine which cannot provide the sustenance which an animal, such as a chicken, can. Yes – the whole chicken – blood, brain, heart, gizzard, liver, skin and body. Even its bones can be converted to bone meal.
Of course, my daughter-in-law, along with thousands of other modern women, is completely disgusted at entertaining such thoughts. However, in the not too distant future they will find themselves obliged to do so!