Cleaning the Bird
What with ‘Turkey Day’ on the way, my thoughts turns to that wonderful annual family meal with all the trimmings. Inasmuch as I had little to do in terms of preparing the feast, it was a time I specialized in consuming all I could cram into my mouth. My growing body sent me signals that there was always room for one more deviled egg and maybe a little more turkey and dressing. When I think about it, that time was very good but also a bit painful. I had been told during my youth that one had to be careful when putting away feed into storage. If carelessly left unlocked and out where horses could access the grain, those sweet animals didn’t know when to stop eating. They could literally eat themselves to death. This meal was one of those times when I thought I had something in common with horses.
In those days it was possible to buy fresh poultry from the corner grocery store already fully ‘dressed.’ Still, there were times when to get a fresh bird one may have had to assassinate a feathered friend. This was a dreaded duty for most people. In those earliest days we were left to do in the fowl on our own. At my house it was my great grandmother that did the nasty job. I remember that at least once I ran around the corner of the house out of sight of the deed. Of course I peeked back with one eye covered to see the horrible event. Granny had a bucket of hot water put to use to dip the carcass into. This made the plucking an easier and less messy task.
The job became easier if we didn’t have a personal relationship with the bird. The grownups told me that adopting foul meant for the table was forbidden. Giving them personal names tended to make them seem as pets. Anyway, after the war, with more refrigeration and freezers, it became possible to buy chickens, ducks, or turkeys already dressed, and nearly ready for the oven. It was just a little later when shopping in much larger stores that frozen turkeys became the norm. Pictures in my mind of meat markets with hanging fowl everywhere grew out of fashion. We didn’t have a meat market, or butcher, anyway, in our little town. We had many small groceries, each with a meat counter, but the supermarket soon enough ran the corner stores out of business.
We had no grown men in our household when I was growing up. We did little, to no hunting, fishing, or butchering. Consequently I wasn’t trained to deal with the cleaning of fish, squirrels, or big game. Oh, I did learn from friends to take care of the bluegills or catfish we had caught, but unlike Daniel Boone, I didn’t kill any bear or even deer. I could shoot as good as my friends, but hunting wasn’t a normal activity. Also, unlike my friends from the country, I wasn’t involved in the killing of the hog, or butchering a culled cow. If that made me a sissy, then I’d have to find other ways to express my manhood.
There were times in my adult life when I did keep rabbits and bees. I learned to put up meat from litters of bunnies. I cleaned processed several bunnies each month. I robbed my bee hives a couple of times a year. I remember once having a fellow expert beekeeper come by when I was planning to rob several hives. I was hoping he could teach me better ways, but alas, when I took the lid off and smoked the hive I saw that my expert friend was running for his life. Well, so much for lessons, eh?
Life has taken me places where I have had to kill and dress chickens. I’ve learned to fillet a great northern pike, along with trout taken from a cold trout stream, but that didn’t happen during my formative years. It was granny that did the work and granny that baked that turkey, too. The other ladies made rolls, pies, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, deviled eggs, macaroni and cheese, and other side dishes. I’m grateful to them all, which, after all is the reason for Thanksgiving.
I may have told the story on myself some time ago, but it fits in this article. It was a cold fall day when my wife had some ladies from the church over to do some quilting. As ‘Murphy’ would have it the heating system went out so all the ladies had to sit at the quilting frame still wearing their winter coats. It was a day I had set aside to process six hens that the egg dealer had given us because they were beyond their prime in laying eggs. I had a neighbor lady, who was some years my senior, to meet me in the back yard to dress the doomed hens. She had grown up in the country and had experience I deemed might be valuable.
I chose to use an ax for the dirty work. I laid out the first bird with outstretched neck and chopped off its head. It was only then that I remembered the lesson granny had taught me many years prior. The body of the decapitated chicken flopped out and flipped all about the back yard throwing blood and feathers everywhere! My wife ran out to see what was going on. The women had just witnessed a flying chicken acting in a most peculiar way. I slew the next five by wringing their necks. My neighbor instead of helping just stood by and laughed.
When I think of this season, it’s the eating I remember. I have found out in life that often it takes a lot of work in the background to make the big meal possible. I give thanks for all the hands in the kitchen, and especially those in the backyard slaying, cleaning and plucking. This year, I’m looking forward to a great Thanksgiving. How about you?