My grandfather used to let us watch him slaughter the chickens. He’d hold them down against a tree stump, wack their heads off with one swoop of the axe, then let them go. We’d stare after their headless bodies as they ran and flapped around the yard, spraying the grass red.
I kept thinking they’d take flight, disappear over the 100-year-old, Massachusetts, stone-walls that lined the fields and escape–leaving only their heads behind, still blinking up at us from beside the bloody tree stump. Their beaks still opened and closed, long after their bodies fell over, as if trying to impart one last secret before going still in the wet, red, barnyard dirt.
I still remember the smell of scalded feathers after my grandmother plunged their limp carcasses into boiling water. She taught me how to pluck them, how to pop their feathers smoothly out of the skin, leaving only pale, pink, bumps behind. I remember her veined knuckles gripping the knife as she chopped off the chicken’s yellow feet, leaving them gnarled on the kitchen table, like the claws of some prehistoric creature.
She’d fry up the livers with onions in olive oil. The fragrant, sweet, smell filled the house and seeped out into the yard, drawing in my grandfather from the fields. I can still see his tall frame ducking in the doorway, taking off his hat and folding his long limbs into the small, kitchen chair. He’d carefully layer a salted fork-full, swirl it around in the oil drippings and take a bite with his eyes closed. He’d sigh and tell my grandmother–those are some dam good liver and onions, Annie!
My grandmother would cluck her tongue at him, swat him with her dish towel for swearing around us. He’d just laugh and go back outside, the screen door slamming behind him.
Although my parents don’t raise chickens anymore, my mother still uses the whole bird when she cooks. She simmers broth all day on the stove, made with the giblets, carrots, onions, celery and fresh herbs from her garden. The fragrance drifts up from their in-law apartment all the way to the third floor where my kids play. My daughter skips downstairs to find out what delicious thing Amma is cooking now.
During the holidays, the large turkey carcasses intimidate me, piled high in their refrigerated grocery troughs. Pounds, cooking times, temperatures–all a mysterious ritual that leave me panicking. I ask my mother– Does it look done to you? Do I baste it? Should I have stuffed it? Should I have brined it longer? I sigh with relief as she takes over and delivers a perfectly browned bird to the table.
Most nights my kids want chicken: precooked, pressed into the unnatural shapes of dinosaurs, french fries and even onion rings. Shapes suitable for children.
I watch them, happily dipping their crispy-coated nuggets into ketchup, oblivious to the fate of those flightless birds so long ago, of the people who raised both them and us and taught us each our proper place at the table.