Vagneur: Winner, winner — never mind
December 24, 2016
Yep, it's Christmas Eve, and you'd think I'd have something "Christmassy" to say, but I don't. Instead I'm going to write about chickens. No, I don't mean those rude dudes who side-slip the steep stuff, pushing all the snow off the rocks and then squawk off in a watering hole about how they skied or rode S1 or Harvey's Rock.
Yes, I'm talking about the feathered kind, the ones who cluck their way through life as though they aren't going to end up on someone's dinner plate. I grew up with chickens, know a lot about fowl and readily admit that I can seldom stomach a chicken dinner, unless maybe it's buried in a casserole or something like that. But I love to see free-range chickens roaming around the place, cluck-cluck-clucking and plucking up all manner of things off the ground.
It's hard to say where I was first exposed to chickens — either on the Woody Creek ranch or at my maternal grandmother's house on Bleeker Street. My grandmother lived there with two sisters, a couple of brothers and whoever else needed a short-term place to stay. My great-aunt, Mary Stapleton, one of the sisters, always known affectionately as Aunt Wee (a child's nickname as I'm sure you can understand), kept a brood of chickens out near the alley in and around what was at one time the carriage house. A beautiful building still standing today.
During the school year, we almost always went to Grandma's house for Sunday dinner, and, you guessed it, a menu of chicken and whatever else — mashed potatoes, vegetables, and always a pie or cake for dessert. The dinner was cooked on a coal-burning stove in the oversized kitchen.
You should know that the Stapletons go back a long way in Ireland, perhaps to the Gaels, and certainly lived in Tipperary County in the 1200s, before the invasion of the Normans. And I only tell you this because it is my belief that the Irish, the ones going back millennia, at least in my immediate family, had a firm conviction that it was Irish bad luck to waste a fire. This meant, quite literally, that they cooked everything to a well- or over-done reality, especially meat, potatoes and vegetables. My father claimed an allergy to chicken, a brilliant ploy that garnered him a steak each week, well-done, of course.
Meanwhile, out in Woody Creek, my paternal grandfather kept a passel of hens across from the main house in a couple of old log buildings from the 1880s. Unlike town fowl, which had to be contained, Gramps would let the chickens out in the morning as he went to saddle his horse and return them to the inside of the log structures at about dusk. One room contained little rows of cubicles where each bird could nest and lay her eggs, the gathering of which sometimes depended on me, if I was around.
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One year, the eggs didn't get collected in a timely fashion and my granddad carefully counted them into a large pail and bravely stood in front of the wood shed, instructing me to see if I could hit him with an egg. We split the bucket of rotten eggs, taking turns at clobbering each other with yolk-laden projectiles, laughing like crazed skiers after a wide open, cold-smoke powder run.
If Gramps got back late after riding for cattle, the chickens would round themselves up, flying into the tall trees around his house, patiently waiting for his return. There never was a problem with predators or uninvited dogs — coyotes were still afraid of civilization, at least most of the time.
My dad kept a large chicken house/enclosure across the lane from our house along the Woody Creek Road. It was attached to the milking barn and was basically a huge area enclosed in, what else, chicken wire, including the top. Enclosing the top wasn't to keep the chickens in — it was to keep predator birds from swooping down for a chicken dinner. Additionally, there was a walled-in enclosure for nighttime safety, into which the chickens voluntarily ensconced themselves each evening. Still, the gate was opened in the morning and they had free run of the place during the day.
My maternal grandmother, the one from town, was an expert at beheading chickens, and my mother occasionally would send her to the chicken house to round up enough poultry meat to feed whatever size crew we might be responsible for that day, or week. At a very young age, I learned a few things about the chopping block.
There's a certain majesty about chickens and roosters, a way they carry themselves that belies their reputation for being unaware. They enjoy themselves; they are designed to live their lives as they do, and they do it very well.
Hopefully, you're not having chicken for Christmas dinner.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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