Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Chicken Pluckin' Time in Elsie's Kitchen


It was a warm afternoon in late August and my siblings had just gone back to school when my father, who was driving over to the neighbors, asked if I wanted to ride along. I don't recall our business, probably something to do with cows, horses, or hay, but he was going over to see Otto, who lived just off the highway about two miles away.

So, there we were, being neighborly, chatting in the kitchen with Elsie, Otto's wife, and a couple of womenfolk I didn't know, waiting for Otto to come in from the fields. I don't recall the conversation as I hadn't been paying any attention to it.  All my senses had been diverted to the ungodly smell invading Elsie's kitchen.

You see, it was getting near suppertime and chickens were being plucked, a job made a whole lot easier by the metal tub full of scalding hot water which sat on the table in front of Elsie. It was a warm day and, despite sitting close to the screen door, the stench of hot, wet chicken feathers, mixed with the heat in that kitchen and what was probably more than a little bit of blood, quickly became unbearable. I was sitting very close to my father, trying not to watch the process of plunging and plucking, plunging and plucking, hoping I could stave off the adverse reaction rising within me. Despite being a farm girl and having been around chickens all my young life, those might well have been the longest minutes I'd ever passed, my own little preview of hell.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, it did. Elsie asked my father if we'd like to stay for supper. My heart stopped as I waited for his answer. Possibly sensing that I was quickly reaching the point of no return, he gently nudged my leg with his as he said thanks, but no, we'd be going on home.  Perhaps he heard my exhalation of relief as I began breathing again and my heart resumed its beating.

A few minutes later, he opened the screen door and we stepped outside, leaving that kitchen far behind us. I followed him out to the barn where Otto was just coming in on the tractor. You might be thinking, 'Surely a barn can't be an improvement on a kitchen,' but you would be wrong. I was used to barns and actually enjoyed spending time there, watching the little chicks under the heat lamp every spring, building forts among the hay bales, the smell of warm milk, fresh from the cows, as it hit the metal pail. While they talked business, I passed the time playing with a mama cat and her kittens in the grassy shade of the barn door. 

Later, when we were safely ensconced in the car, he turned to me with that smile and the slightly conspiratorial tone he used when he wanted me to feel we were in something together, and said, "Were you afraid I might say yes?"  I can see myself even now, all these years later, looking down at my hands in my lap, and nodding yes. My father laughed, as I smiled and breathed deeply that sweet summer air coming through the open car window, then we turned onto the highway and headed for home.


Here's a little "Cash" for the trip home: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcGpkcOJBA0








Looking back from the vantage point of time and experience, I have deep respect for these people and their way of life. Many are returning to it. Some never left.

And no, those aren't chickens on my sweater.  They're ducks.

Top photograph by John Vachon.

58 comments:

  1. I spent months on my grandparents' farm and know the comforts of the barn. I can close my eyes and still see everyone there...

    Thankfully I was spared the plucking of the chickens, although I do have a memory of a neighbor's horribly unkempt farm and the hundreds of baby chicks in the house, covering every surface. The smell! Wheeee! The adults drank home-made wine and the children ran free...

    Pearl

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    1. I Love your last sentence: "The adults drank home-made wine and the children ran free..." Good times. Thanks, Pearl.

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  2. I only had that experience once. I could feel the nausea rising up my throat and the stench in my nostrils as I read. You never forget.

    I'm sure people get used to it, just like you can get used to the smell of a barn and fresh manure (which I agree, were much easier). I had never felt more like a city girl, though. You were much more polite. I would have crept outside and waited. ;)

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    1. Hi Rita, It wasn't so much politeness as I could be very shy and staying next to Dad seemed like safety.

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  3. Hanging out with Dad by yourself was generally a pretty good time. There aren't many places left
    where this scenario can be repeated. We did the chicken think too between several family's. Many heads are taken on those days.

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    1. Hi Tom, Looking back, those were very special times with my dad.

      I can still recall chickens on the run, minus their heads. No, not often repeated in the present, but some are choosing a small farm way of life again. It's hard work, but I can well imagine it as deeply satisfying.

      Thank you.

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  4. I read Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal Vegetable Miracle" about their year of living off the land, and learning how to do those very things. It is what you need to do when you are creating your own food. Many people are returning to the land, some out of necessity, but others to get away from Agribusiness. Glad you got to leave, Teresa, on that long ago day.

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    1. Hi DJan, I am a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver, but for some reason, I have yet to read that one. Yes, many are trying to create a more healthy food supply by gardening and putting up food. I'm thinking of expanding on my own gardening this summer.

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  5. Thanks goodness, that job was done outdoors on my parents farm. Well, actually in pump house where my mom did the laundry. I do rememer the smell!

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  6. Boy this brought back memories. One of our main commodities on my childhood homestead were chickens. We raised about 60 at a time, about 45 of them for the freezer. It was my job to do all the plucking. Although I got good at it I hated the job. Somehow my sister got out of doing it by whining a lot, something I still tease her about. But the smell of chicken feathers in boiling water is NOT one of my favorite smells. Ugh! Still this brought back a few great memories and a laugh or two.

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    1. Hi Bill, I sometimes feel it's the smells that so often come back strongly (I don't think that pun was intended) and with them a slew of memories. I'm glad it stirred some for you.

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  7. I grew up in the city, but my mom came from a farming family in the Ozarks of Missouri. All us city cousins at one time or another spent a summer at the farm. I remember the smell of chickens, going out to get the eggs, milking the cow, working in the garden, and of course, picking the ticks off ourselves every evening! I don't remember ever seeing a chicken killed or plucked, but my sister did, and she is scared of birds decades later! She won't get near anything with feathers.

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    1. This is so familiar to me...this fear of anything with feathers. My grandparents used to raise chickens too and I can remember the roosters running toward me with their talons aiming at my legs (or so it seemed as a child). I, to this day, hate being around anything that flies. I love birds but just outside or in a cage. Not flying around in my house or anywhere near my face.

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    2. So, I suppose you aren't too enamored of Hitchcock's "The Birds" then? :)
      I have a sister who remains scarred by headless chickens on the run. I wouldn't be surprised if this incident didn't create my own less than enthusiastic response to chicken and eggs. I eat them very seldom.

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    3. Galen, It sounds like you have many memories surrounding your grandparent's farm. I know of several people who spent at last one summer in this way. Another aspect to life that seems to have gone by the wayside.

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  8. I can still see my Grandma and her sisters, setting under a shade tree and plucking chickens. They didn't use hot water, but those ol' gals had those birds plucked nekkid in nothing flat. I also remember fresh watermelon and swimming in front of the irrigation pump Ahh.......

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    1. HI Michael, We often ran through the garden hose. Cold, but so nice on those hot summer days when we couldn't get to the lake.

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  9. Very nicely told. I'm struck by the way your father smiled at you...he probably didn't enjoy the smell any more than you did, and his response made it a warm memory for you.

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    1. Nancy, He had a way of making us feel included in some little secret known only to us and it does create warm memories. He had a great sense of humor. I'm sure he as as anxious as I to get out of that kitchen.

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  10. You know, I have the same kind of memory but about rabbits. My grandparents raised rabbits and we used to play with them as children. Then one afternoon, my grandfather was hitting their heads against a nail on the back of the garage wall. When it came time for dinner, I realized that the rabbits that I used to play with were being BBQ'd out on the back porch. I did not eat that night. And I really don't think that I have eaten rabbit since. Isn't it incredible the things that stick with us all these years later? It seems that you have that ability to recall even just the very moment of something, like I do. I can see what I was wearing, I can picture where we were standing, what time of the day it was, etc. Some things never fade. Thanks for you visit today. I, too, have been laying low. It must be that time of the year. Actually, I have been exhausted at the end of my days and watching Baby Mae. It's rewarding but exhausting at the same time. I wish there was a better compromise.

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    1. Teri, Making those connections as small children can have a long term impact. I can't possibly eat rabbit and the same goes for lamb. Absolutely no way! I am very much like you in being able to remember things very clearly. I can see them so easily, remember smells, what I was wearing, how the day felt. Yes, vivid images yet, all these years later, as though they are ingrained there, waiting to be called up.

      I have no grandchildren, so can only imagine how exhausting it would be. And, yes, rewarding. :)

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  11. So far, I've yet to witness the plucking of chickens. Although raised in Oklahoma, I guess I was a city girl with country parents who wanted something more for their kids than the abject poverty they grew up with. I don't remember any chicken stories, only the cotton picking ones.

    What an experience Teresa and told so beautifully from your memories as a young girl with an understanding father. You're lucky he had time for you and it's my guess that being raised in a country family made more time for family and the real things in life. This is truly a beautiful post.

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  12. Hi Rubye Jack, We were in poverty when I was young, but my parents also found it to be a difficult way to live with little chance for "improvement" and so went on to buy/create three businesses and life changed a great deal. I remember those younger days with great happiness, but I know it was not easy for my parents. I was just talking today with a friend about that way of life and how it created a seamless whole in that work and home were one and the same, it was a way of life and family was there at the center.

    Thank you.

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  13. Your Father Was Sensitive To The Situation & To You.I Love That.A Gentle Understanding.....

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    1. Yes, Tony. That is what created some very nice memories for me, that sensitivity, and yes, a gentle understanding. Thank you so much.

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  14. Dear Teresa,
    Your posting today seems to me to be a tribute to your father. I so liked what you said in your response to Nancy's comment. This posting, although like you I don't like the smell of chicken feathers that have encountered hot water, seems so tender to me. Filled with memories that have formed a firm foundation within you so that you see Oneness everywhere. Thank you for sharing this memory, which was lyrically written.

    Peace.

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    1. You're so very welcome, Dee, and thank you. I have been thinking about this for several days. I wanted to do justice to the day and to my father. You know, it's these memories of my childhood that do speak so clearly to that Oneness. Yes, a firm foundation. I was very blessed.

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  15. What a fun story...well most of it, anyway. The part with you and your dad was just special. Good story, Teresa...

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    1. He provided for his family in so many ways and worked so hard to bring good things into our lives, but it's his sense of humor and his sensitivity, as I mentioned previously, that I have taken with me most of all. Thank you, Lynn.

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  16. Hearing stories is all I remember about chicken harvest. One friends mother put them up whole in huge canning jars.When invited for lunch it was ask what was offered in fear of eating this unusual item.

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    1. Well, I must confess that I once bought a canned chicken when I was in college de-boned it and made a gravy, served it over pretty much everything and it sustained me for a week. Ah, confession is good for the soul. :)

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  17. Great story! I never did like the plucking of chickens either; or ducks. Now, grouse...

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    1. I haven't had grouse for years, but my ex hunted them and did the cleaning. In those years, the meat I ate was almost always wild game. Perhaps that's true for you as well, given your location.

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  18. Hello Teresa:
    What a marvellous photograph at the head of this post. It really does capture a time and place very much as you describe in your story of Elsie's kitchen. And, as you say,for some, time has never moved on whilst for others, there is probably little left in 2012 that resembles anything from just a few years ago.

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    1. Many changes have been wrought in fifty short years. I am all for "progress," but I'm also happy to see so many returning to self-sustainable living. You are blessed with having markets with fresh produce and such. Winter in Minnesota leaves much to be desired in this matter. :)

      Thank you for your response.

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  19. The awful smell that I remember was after they plucked the chickens. Then they singed them over the burner on the gas stove to get the tiny hairs off. As they said in those days, "Pee-yew!"

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  20. Teresa, I had forgotten that smell and I want to THANK YOU for reminding me... Dang near threw up. This is really good and I will borrow your genius and put it up for Creative Sunday.

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    1. Thank you, Cletis. I am very grateful for your encouragement.

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  21. Hello Teresa1 I know that smell! I think your father was a wise man.

    The top photo tells a good story about that time.

    Grethe ´)

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    1. Oh, yes, a very wise man. The Vachon photo fit perfectly. I always Love hearing from you!

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  22. You really do tell a great story - love the words and the pictures

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    1. Thank you, Avril! It's nice to hear from you.

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  23. How many chickens was she plucking at one time? I wouldn't have been able to take any of it, not the smell, the naked chickens, the hot kitchen.

    Your Dad sounds nice.

    It's a lovely story, you tell it well.

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    1. Well, it was a few. They may have been putting up a few for the future. Everything else about that day has stayed with me for a good long time.

      He was a good man.

      Thank you, Friko.

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  24. Talk about bringing back memories! I can see my grandmother's fingers plucking away. I have somewhat of a squeamish stomach and think it may be related to the stuff one sees on a farm. BTW, lots of farmers put a bit of lye in the first batch of water, retrieved after a dunk, rinsed, then plucked. Did the same with peaches. I try not to think about some of that.

    Hey, thanks for the lovely comment you left, Soul Sister. Love you, too.

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    1. HI Kittie, M mom made soap with lye in a metal tub on the porch. I do know that smell. I don't recall that being in the mix but it may have been. Funny how smells can still be recalled so many years later.

      You're welcome. :)

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  25. Such scenarios that you weave with your words were a familiar tradition among my grandparents. Plucking chickens -- I found a good hiding place away from it all. Your post was a touching account of you and your father. Nice. -- barbara

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  26. Reminds me of plucking chickens in Moldova. Great post. I'm a new bloger/writer and just added myself to your folowers to support you, maybe you'd like to come follow me? Thanks!

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    1. I'll be by to visit your site. Welcome! And, thank you.

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  27. "Teresa Evangeline" has been included in this weeks Sites To See. I hope this helps to attract many new visitors here.

    http://asthecrackerheadcrumbles.blogspot.com/2012/02/sites-to-see_10.html

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  28. Well m'blog lied again... here you are. I had to skim through though because I remember the chicken plucking days... gross

    I grew up on a farm until I was 8 and that smell... and the horror of killing the chickens still remain with me...

    Nice sweater ;)

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  29. Thanks, Carolyn. We eased out of the farm life, too, when I was 10 or 11, until all that was left of the animals were a dog, several cats and a few horses, but they were good years for me. Very good.

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  30. Been there, didn't do that, but witnessed it - and the executions, too. Oh, my. And my grandparents weren't even really on the farm - but they might as well have been.

    I love your dad's sensitivity, and his gentle humor with you. He sounds very much like my own dad - conspiratorial, for sure. I suspect he and mom laughed together at some of the "secrets" my dad and I shared, but I never knew, in those days.

    What a wonderful tale, beautifully told.

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    1. shoreacres, Those are good memories, aren't they, those conspiratorial times? Thank you for your kind comments.

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