Another 4th of July and another cookout disaster
"Hmmmm," one family member murmured as I brought in the chicken from the grill: "Blackened Cajun Delight again this year?" As I plopped the burnt offerings on individual plates, no one complained outright, even when black flecks of crust sloughed...
"Hmmmm," one family member murmured as I brought in the chicken from the grill: "Blackened Cajun Delight again this year?"
As I plopped the burnt offerings on individual plates, no one complained outright, even when black flecks of crust sloughed onto the potato salad or sliced cantaloupe.
You'd think someone as experienced as I am with chickens would know how to cook them over charcoals. And while I could blame my July 4 cookout disaster on the new grill, my success with the old Weber was no better.
It all goes back to a childhood lesson deeply ingrained that chicken, like pork, has to be cooked thoroughly. Otherwise, you could end up with tapeworms or some other fatal parasite for which Mom wasn't certain there was a cure.
When it came to fried chicken - not from a grill, but a frying pan - no one topped what Mom served to Dad, her three sons, and the hired men during summer.
Nor were these store-bought chickens, neatly wrapped under cellophane in cardboard containers. These delectable breasts, drumsticks, wings, necks, backs, and even hearts were homegrown, but started out in the old hatchery in Chamberlain, where the alley off Sanborn intersected with Main Street.
Each spring Mom or Dad would pick up a couple of large cartons of chicks and carry them home to the brooder house, with its heat lamps, 5-gallon watering tank, and creep feeder.
One of my summer chores was to make positively certain the waterer and feeders always were full.
As the chicks grew and feathers replaced the fluffy down, they began to explore the great outdoors -- in a 10-by-15 foot pen created by boards and chicken wire. When they matured, they were turned loose completely. They explored the farm with total freedom, clucking and cackling and scratching at will. It was then they developed a liking to roost in any number of Chinese elm trees in the vicinity.
And that, of course, marked the beginning of the end.
Each evening, after they found a roosting limb, I would grasp two of the birds and place them in a small wooden crate with a sliding door on top. Once in this holding pen, their fate was sealed - but so too was one of Mom's exceptional fried chicken dinners.
Each morning, right after breakfast, I approached the crate, which was in full view of an old tree stump that served as a chopping block. Seizing one chicken at a time, I placed the neck between two spikes in the block. Then came the part I dreaded. I always feared I wouldn't strike the neck cleanly or with enough force to immediately severe the head. You might say I was sensitive to the pain such an errant blow could cause. Sometimes, I am sad to report even after these many years, it took two blows to complete the decapitation.
Then the poor chicken would flop frenetically in the lane, hopping this way and that, looking for the rest of it, a red fountain spurting from its neck.
One's of life's great mysteries was how that headless chicken could come after me, tracking me uncannily even without a head, bounding my way as if to attack the one responsible for its condition. More than once I scampered toward the house, the headless chicken in hot pursuit.
The head, meanwhile, lay on the stump, eyes open but presumably lifeless, the beak moving, as if to gasp for air.
Not to sound overly sentimental about it, but killing chickens never became routine.
After both chickens stopped thrashing about, I suspended them by one leg from a wire hanger on the back of the garage. I got so I could skin, gut, clean and cut up a chicken in a very few minutes. Then I placed them both in a pan to take back to the house for final preparation for the noon meal.
I used to tell this story to my daughters when they were children to explain that not all chicken comes from the grocery store or KFC, much less neatly packaged and bar coded.
And, I tried to remember to not tell it before or during chicken dinner.