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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And That is Why They Call it a Turkey

"That bird is going to kill himself."

As I remember it, Charles is leaning on a shovel, digging a trench, when he says this. I stopped raking debris long enough to glance up to see what he was talking about. The reason for the trench digging is lost to time and dead brain cells but the picture of a thirty pound turkey balancing himself on the lower half of a barn dutch door will never leave me. It was a blustery autumn day in November (which means there must have been an urgent need for a trench) and the top half of the door was swinging back and forth, barely missing "Orson Wells" as we called him. He was doing a 'duck and cover' maneuver, but would not give up his position on the door. Jane, the hen, was staring at him in a confused sort of panic, not knowing whether she was supposed to join him or just admire him from the ground.

Oh, now I remember - we were trenching out the hydrant for the barn water. It had rusted out at the bottom and in order to have water for the winter, we had to get it replaced before the ground froze solid. I remember this because we put down our rake and shovel, went around the barn to get the new hydrant out of the truck bed and carry it back.

To find Orson stone cold dead on the ground, his neck crooked at a forty five degree angle.

"Well," I said. "At least we already have a hole dug." (The search for the bright side of any situation is a knee jerk reflex. I can't help it.)

Charles said, "Are you kidding? That turkey cost us 3.50 and we poured all that food down it. We are going to butcher it!"

Eating animals we had raised was nothing new to us, but we had always taken them to the butcher in Terre Hill for processing because he was fast and efficient. He could kill and clean them in minutes, with no suffering. We had always thought it would not be fair for us to learn on a living, breathing entity. But now, Orson was certainly not breathing.

Charles bent over and looked at the huge bird, so quiet and limp. "I think he would want us to do this." I had my doubts, this sounded very convenient for us, anyway, but once Charles had a project in mind, we were on a set course. The hydrant could wait. He picked up Orson and headed for the top of the barn. My faint protest of "But we don't know what we are doing..." was lost to the banging of the barn door and the wind.

It occurred to me that I had a very very old recipe book in the kitchen. I bought it on a whim at a junk shop and I found it interesting that the recipes had directions like "select a fine hen from the yard." I had never actually used any of the recipes because I didn't think my health conscious family would actually eat anything I made with rendered beef fat or encased in clear natural jello made from pig bones, but I was pretty sure it would have some kind of directions we could follow.

I took it back to the barn. Charles had put the bird on a plank between two saw horses, under the swinging single light. He had collected a variety of tools he apparently thought might be handy - a hatchet, some pliers, hedge clippers. A dry wall saw. The shank I used to cut bailing twine. You know when you take objects out of their ordinary context they can start to look very odd. All in all, watching this was not good for my imagination.

He used the hatchet to remove the head, after some initial attempts with the hedge clippers. The feet came off next. Orson was starting to look like an object, less like the amusing lawn ornament he was when breathing. Charles hesitated. "Good! You got that book! What does it say I should do next?" In the index there WAS a chapter on butchering poultry, a step by step guide....and of course we learned too late that we had done things out of order, but we were sort of committed now.

"Okay," I say. "You need to cut him open *DOWN THERE* (pointing to the diagram) and I am going in to boil water for getting those feathers off. When you have all the guts out (holding the book in the light so Charles could see exactly what guts I was talking about) bring him in and we will finish him up."

So, I guess I could have waited and watched the gut removal, but it just seems that boiling water in the case of butchering or babies is always an excuse for the faint of heart to exit, stage right. I beat feet back to the kitchen, leaving Charles with one hand up inside that bird, and the other holding the book and squinting.

I realize that I am going to have a pretty big pot to hold Orson in all his grandeur. Even without feet and head, he was big. Real big. I mean, BIG. You don't really comprehend how large something is til you have to boil it whole. So I get my biggest canning pot, blow the shelf schmutz out of it, and start filling it with water. I do realize there is a displacement issue, so I don't fill it all the way up. I heft it on to the stove, across two burners, and turn on the flame.

A grey looking Charles arrives at this point, with off putting blood stains up his arms. "There was a LOT of blood, Rodeo. A LOT." I think he went seriously up in my esteem that night. This was a man who did not make his own peanut butter sandwiches. THIS was a man who did not know where our can opener was kept. He would cook something on a grill, but only after I had shopped for it, unwrapped it, seasoned it, placed it on a clean platter and carried it out to where he was in the yard. And by cooking I mean, placing over the heat, sipping beer and turning it while chatting. Now he was actively involved in the business end of meat.

The water is just not boiling. A watched pot, as the saying goes. The book says I need that water rolling and bubbling to get these feathers off. And we are talking a lot of feathers. Some of his wing feathers are over a foot long. I am not sure how this is all gonna work. I know that water better be hot when we put in 30 or so pounds of lukewarm turkey or it will take another hour to bring it back up to temperature again. According to the book, the de-feathering thing is a dunking and stripping action. There is a line drawing over a hundred years old in the book of one hand holding a carcass by the neck, the other yanking feathers off. Charles is not concerned with any of this, and just plunks the turkey in the pot.

And of course the pot is not quite big enough. Orson is posed with his wings over the edge of the pot, his headless neck jauntily poking out of his massive feathered chest, looking oddly like he is soaking off some muscle soreness in a hot tub. I show Charles the dunking motion in the book. He grabs the neck and tries to pull of feathers. Nothing. But the smell is pretty awful. The hottish water is now forming plumes of mist that smell like the barnyard. Dirty Bird.

We have a discussion about how this is not working. The water is just not hot enough. The bird is too big. The book says this or that. To hell with the book. Book is thrown across the kitchen. The turkey (not Orson any longer) is hauled out of the water and out to the yard because we have decided to skin it.

This works pretty well, and we convince ourselves that the skin wasn't any good for us anyway. After we remove the wings and make some judicious slits, the skin comes off and hold its identity - sort of a Turkey Suit. I say I can keep that in the freezer til we decide what to do with it, but Charles looks at me sternly and tosses it in to the trash can. Too late we read about the aging WITH the skin on. We wrap him in lots and lots of plastic wrap and aluminum foil, put him out on the back porch where it is cool and let him sit over night.

We don't call friends the next night to come over and share this feast. Some stories aren't funny or even interesting til a period of time has passed. It's taken me ten years to get around to telling this. It's not that it was too gross or too emotional. It was just that for most people there is no frame of reference for blood and guts and feathers and meat and eating and respect and heroics, outside of a plane crash on a desert island and survival. It made sense at the time and was part of our history. It's one of those memories that, now that Charles is gone, I carry on alone. No one can say whether it happened that way or not, except me. You will just have to trust me on this one.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Salad Days

"I hope ya feel as good as ya look to your gal Sal" Gail and I smile at each other, because we do feel good! It's around 4:30 pm on a wintery afternoon about 1958, and Gail and I are watching The Sally Starr Show with our Patty PlayPal dolls. OUR GAL SAL is wearing a shirt with sparkles and spangles and stars, and a white cowboy hat. I know that this particular day I recall was in winter because in the summer we were not allowed to sit inside watching tv. We would be outside swinging on the swings singing Yippee Aye A Cay AYE! Yippe Eye OH! in our cowboy hats and spangly shirts, firing our cap guns into the air to add emphasis. I love Sally Starr so much that I am pleased that my initials (S.A.L.) get me half way to being almost named the same, and I love her blonde hair. (I consider remaining blonde into my mid fifties as one of my highest achievements.)

At 5:00pm, Daddy will come home, pretend that my blond Patty is me, kiss her and make a fuss. Sally will say "May the Good Lord be blessing you and your Family, Bye for now!" tv will go off, I will walk Gail and her Patty half way home, come and sit down to eat with my sisters and my parents. Afterward, we girls will do the dishes - singing all the while so we don't fight - and Mum and Daddy will walk the dog around the block. Then off to bath, bed and dreaming of riding the plains on my horse and and saving towns from bad guys in black hats.

I remember heroic dream hangovers for days, after one of these western themed sagas. A palpable threat, like say a horde of angry rustlers (I had a very vague idea what these were, from Bonanza) would be forming on the horizon (again, something I had only seen on TV because Springfield, PA's horizons were the roofline of the house next door) and I would do *SOMETHING HEROIC* (insert unexplained action) and the horde would disperse, the townsfolk would gather to cheer, there would be a parade, and I would get some kind of brain chemical infusion from this head trip that induced feelings of good will and confidence in the waking world of school and play and home.

These days my dreams have a Sisyphean theme: doing endless paperwork, car ignitions that just click and click but won't turn over, a salad making competition where I have to make a salad 'three ways' - and the only one I make is frisee with roasted walnuts and goat cheese. Why I have a dream about a salad I have never eaten or heard of is beyond me. I dare Freudian analyzers to sexify that.

So, at 4:30 am, I am looking up FRISEE on google and wondering why my family dislikes me.

Turns out, frisee is a kind of endive, and endive is a bitter salad green related to the daisy family. Now, this is interesting because I have often been accused of being a little over cheerful, sort of Daisy like. Gerbera daisies frighten me with their aggressive cheerfulness: this is how I must appear to some people - gigantic technicolor head on a tiny body inadequate to hold it up, supported by some kind of device like a clear plastic straw or wire. I love the regular shasta daisy with white petals and yellow center. I aspire to their simplicity and geometry. And of course, I always count the petals ahead of time, so I know where to start, to guarantee the results I crave while plucking off "he loves you, he loves you not." Yes, I want to know, as long as I know ahead of time and can prepare.

I am not sure that the walnuts and the goat cheese are important at all, except that I can't imagine having a salad with less than three ingredients. And then, at 5:00 am I finally get around to thinking what this would actually taste like, the bitter daisy greens, the acrid walnuts and the tangy goat cheese. Oh.

So, this harsh, acerbic mix is the only one I make, according to my dream. Sally Starr, I hope I am feeling as good as I look to you, but probably not. When did the Star-Spangled, gun toting Rodeo Girl become an acrimonious one trick pony? Those were my salad days, and I made of them what I could, but as far as I know, the competition is not over and I still have two salads left to make.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Good Enough Mothers

My grandson Jeremy (eleven) is the chicken guy and on vacation- and I have my instructions which go something like this: "Nana, Jim Bob is very bossy so don't turn your back on him- if he goes after you, just hold your hand down flat over his head. Or you can just let him get you, it doesn't really hurt - and he gets tired of it. Party Girl is laying eggs right on top of Lulu who is broody, she only has a couple of eggs under there but she's in a bad mood. Michele and Brenda are co-parenting again, they will take care of their babies, you don't have to do anything. Just make sure they have food and water inside and outside, only feed them once and try to keep track of how many babies there are." You would be thinking right about now that it's cute that he gave all of them names, and I won't know which ones he is talking about and that is the gist of my story. And then we can laugh all afternoon about one Nana's cute chicken antics. But no. That's not it.

I DO know their names, because our whole family watches the flock like it's the Real Housewives of Honey Brook. Much of our conversation as a family revolves around the drama and pathos of the chicken yard. The chicken's names were given them because of a characteristic behavior or their social status in the flock, mostly by me.

Our chickens are free range, which sounds like we made a conscious decision based on information regarding humane needs and best practices. In actuality, it means we don't have and can't afford a fence that will contain them. Our chickens have been 'free range' for twenty five years, never once has one been hit by a car. Occasionally, a rogue hen will refuse the coop they stay in at night. She might start perching in the trees and while we are deciding what and if to do something about that, she usually disappears - owls will pluck her right off the branch as she sleeps. We have had suspicious paw prints in the snow around the coop, and we have found some chicken bodies 'cached' in holes around the farm. Bob and Nola, the bulldogs, killed a chicken together when they were puppies, but a few days with the shock collar took care of that. Since we got goats, we don't see fox foot prints at all, so Ripper thinks that the goats are like watchdogs. It's a rate of attrition we can live with considering we aren't very efficient at collecting eggs, so we have piles of babies all the time. I know this manner of chicken keeping flies in the face of all those who want to complicate the simple life, but it works for us.

This morning I can hear them crowing and bumping and rustling as the flock moves around inside the small coop. It's a little like listening to someone's stomach growl - you can't see what's causing it, but you can definitely hear it. When I open the little door they tumble out, like clowns out of a clown car.

Party Girl (small black and white Banty) is the first one out. She is named Party Girl because... well, she only dates the dominant rooster, she lays fertile eggs all the time and insists that other hens raise her children. After the really hard work of rearing the babies is done, she will hang out with her own adolescent offspring, which can be identified by their distinctive coloring. Right now she has a pure white teenage rooster and a black and white teenage rooster following her every where, but otherwise, her only socializing is with Jim-Bob. Or with Jeremy. She loves to be picked up and carried around by him. They sit together on the porch and he strokes her feathers and talks to her. She stares at him with the intention of a geisha. She knows how to work it.

Jim-Bob is a pure white incredibly attractive nasty little s.o.b. He has cobalt blue cheeks and a black crusty comb. He is the father of almost all the babies. He and Party Girl have a very Clinton-esque relationship - she tolerates his indiscretions, she is unfailingly loyal to him. I think she thinks he has a job to do. And he does. Not only is he primarily in charge of making sure the flock increases, he watches the skies for predators during the day - like crows and red tails. He also is a caring wonderful father, often helping Michele and Brenda with their huge broods made up of their babies and Party Girl's. He teaches the babies how to find stuff in the ground, and he breaks up fights with the older kids.

Lulu, Brenda and Michele lay eggs, raise babies, and teach babies to find food. They often stumble around with a dozen or more babies pushed up under their wings, under their legs or chin. As the chicks get older, they take groups of them on trips down into the field, past the dog kennels, and to the manure piles behind the barn. Cluck cluck, they say, follow me, look at this, you can find food here. They issue warnings, confer with the other Mothers (But not Party Girl) and generally are a miniature theatre production of what goes on, on any playground anywhere. They keep track of all the babies, steal each other's babies and seem to know whose is whose. Well, that is how it appears.

As I said, the kids are on vacation and I am homesteading solo during a week of horrible thunderstorms. Almost daily, the clouds roll in from the southwest, darkness eating up the day, winds coming out of nowhere. One early evening, I get caught on the lawn, between the car and the house, as curtains of rain drench me. I am so glad to get inside, dripping water on the kitchen floor. It was hot, but now, soaking wet, I am freezing, teeth chattering. I am alone, so I strip down and grab a robe from the peg in the hallway. Then I hear it, over the banging of the shutters and the rain on the metal roof.

Hysterical, persistent chirping. Louder and Louder, more and more frantic. Where are they? They sound like they are right in the house! I can hear branches clashing, torrential sheets of rain crashing across the yard. The tree between the house and the barn is bending and twisting from powerful gusts, causing the motion detecting light to go on and off, almost at the same time as the lightening flashes. Still I hear the chirping. I go out on the porch with the flashlight and yes, I see them. A moving mass of yellow under the chicken house, on an island between coursing run off from the driveway and barn roof.

Chirping. Yelling for help. About to be swept away, out into the pasture.


Throwing a raincoat over the robe, forcing my still wet feet into my barn shoes, I grab an umbrella and head out into the storm to save the babies. This is right up my alley.

I fight my way against the wind to the chicken house and think, I can just reach down and pick them up and put them in through the little door. Except, standing there, I can't reach them. They are too far under the coop. I realize I am going to have to kneel down in the rain and mud. Well, it would be ideal if it was only mud but it is the yard surrounding a chicken house, where chickens live. Who are not known for their excremental control.

It is impossible to kneel down, reach under the chicken house and hold the umbrella, so the umbrella has to go. It's not really functioning as any sort of protection anyway: the wind is blowing the rain nearly horizontal. However, I find I can use it to kind of scoop the baby chicks toward me, and I get four or five at a time out and up to where I can reach them. I open the hatch on the nesting box side of the coop and start throwing them in. I can hear the chickens inside protesting against the rain and wind that blows inside, and I can hear Michele and Brenda chirping 'come here, get under' to the rescued babies. I repeat the process several times until there are only two babies left, huddled together and chirping.

I call them, I beckon them, I plead with them and finally curse and scream at them. They heed me not. To save them from the cold water now swirling menacingly toward them, I get down on my belly, shimmy under, grab them, and shimmy back out. I can feel their tiny hearts beating through their bony, wet, feathery breasts. They seem more scared of me than the storm. I toss them into the nesting box and slam the lid closed.

I feel good, standing on the lawn in the storm, so wet and dirty that I realize I am as wet and dirty as I ever could be. There is a freedom to this, as it is no longer necessary to protect myself from anything. I do a little hero dance in the puddles, throw back my head and laugh. It's all very enervating until a bolt of lightening slamming to the ground in the field across the street sends me tearing for the house.

I am sure that as the storm rolled in, the hens moved toward the ramp up to the chicken house like they do every day at dusk. I am sure they called to the babies, and I am sure the chicks heard them. As the thunder and rain rolled in and crashed around them, the chicks chirped so loud I could hear them in the house - and I know the hens could hear them, too. At some point, the hens decided to stick it out in the comfort and warmth of the coop and stop worrying. Later, washed and warmed by a shower, I think about what kind of mothers would take such care of their babies in the sunshine, yet leave them to drown in a storm.