Have you heard the news?
You know all the great names. Tyson, Truett Cathy, Colonel Sanders. The three may be the Great Triumvirate of the chicken business.
I’m thinking the name Watkins would look good among them. That’s right. We’re getting in the chicken business in Round Bottom Valley.
My friend, Mike Freeze, predicts we’ll never make a go of it “down by the river.” Too many varmints and critters, he says. “What are you gonna do the first time a hawk swoops down and takes one right in front of your eyes?” Mike asks, laughing.
“Or a mink,” he says, “I bet you’ve got minks down there. Big, black hungry ones, too.”
“Minks eat chickens?” I ask out loud.
(More laughing by Mike.) He frequently has a good time at my expense, exploiting my limited knowledge of life in parts unknown, also known as the suburbs of Herpel.
I turn to a quick internet search. In the search field I type: “Do minks eat chickens?” The first six words of the result: MINKS ARE VICIOUS PREDATORS TO CHICKENS ...
It reminds me of a story about my sweet grandmother. They say she could clean a chicken for dinner in about two minutes. Here’s a quick story from one of my old writings:
She was the sweetest old lady you ever met in your life, but on this day she created a scene so grisly, so grim not even Stephen King would imagine it.
The preacher was coming for Sunday supper. There wasn’t much time to get the meal together. The answer was just outside toward an old sand blow – a significant area cordoned off to hold a couple of dozen pullets and two mean roosters.
If there had been a world championship for dressing chickens, Eunitha Hout would have been the grand champion several years running. She had a technique where the deceased chicken was immersed in a #10 washtub full of scalding hot water for a few moments to make the feathers more pliable. She then pulled them out with ease. The perfectly clean chicken, who just moments earlier didn’t have a care in the world, was then gutted and cut into traditional pieces with an old butcher knife that held an edge sharp as a razor. And it would be off to the cast-iron skillet, ready to go with sizzling lard.
She’d want to send leftovers home with Pastor McBride, so this would be a two-chicken ordeal. But a big problem: my granddad was out working the field.
See, while she dressed those chickens with master skill, my grandmother was a tenderhearted woman. She developed a relationship with the birds at feeding time. She could dress them and fry them up to crispy perfection without much thought, but she couldn’t kill them. Granny just couldn’t take a life. My grandad carried the responsibility for that deed.
But when word of the preacher’s visit came, granddad was chopping cotton in a gumbo field just off the St. Francis River. By default, granny became both executioner and fry cook this day. She was a nervous wreck.
Rural Arkansas farm life is not for everyone. The circle of life was known here long before The Lion King. Both vegetable gardens and livestock are raised to feed the family. In the end, it means animals are sacrificed. It may seem inhumane, yet farm families abide a deep respect for the life cycle in a way different from most.
To cook a fresh chicken it must first be caught. And chickens have a sixth sense when supper’s about to go on the table. They will dodge and dart and flutter until the pursuit becomes exhausting. But a skilled country person will corner a chicken just so.
Traditionally, farm chickens are killed by wringing their necks. The chicken’s weight is used against it to snap the vertebrae and death is immediate. My grandmother, unskilled and nervous, captured her first chicken and with a reluctant twist only half snapped its neck. As it ran about the feed yard clucking like a demon, its head dangled. Granny’s tender heart sank to new depths.
Looking to end the misery, she found a nearby hatchet and with a single whack, chopped off the bird’s head. Now the headless body ran about, blood spewing like a geyser.
The bloody scene remained in my grandmother’s memory for years. I can still see her heartbroken grimace as she told the tale, almost curled up in a ball.
“I never killed another one after that,” she said. “It was the worst scene of my life.”
But that night, preacher McBride had a tasty meal of fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, green beans and fresh yeast rolls. And he got that take-home box, too.
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a reporter/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org)