On one’s food history

Mother’s little helper

NOTE: This and the next post go together.  They’ll be about the meat birds, but this one is not graphic!

SURELY, there has to be an easier way to do that,” my mother said.

She had just come outside and has safely seated herself on the other side of the table from me, about as far away as she could. She brought me a pint-sized glass canning jar with two fingers’ worth of Cabernet in it. She thought it would be an appropriate way of serving me wine, considering what I am doing. I am leaning over a galvanized tub, removing the feathers from a meat bird.

“Why yes, mom, there is an easier way. But let me explain to you the concept of the $100. Chicken, and why we won’t be going there.”

I explain to her how a mechanical plucker works. I tell her more about the process of what it was that I was doing. (She had been inside the whole while, entertaining the patient, so she hadn’t seen a thing.) And then I asked her a pointed question:

“How far back in our family do you think we need to go before we find another woman who plucked her own chicken?” I asked.

This is a question we should all ask ourselves. (Let’s make it easy on ourselves and remove the idea of “want to” from “have to” pluck a chicken.) How far is it, really, before we find relations who grew their own food, raised their own animals for the table? We pondered the issue of our own genealogy for a while and agreed it was probably my great-great grandmother, back on the Old Sod, who probably did such a thing. That, friends, is a long time ago. Unknowable generations ago.

Now, my own mother has gardened, of course. She had us kids labor in the U-Pick farms around us to harvest everything from peas to turnips to tomatoes to blueberries to peaches, all destined for the table or for rows of gleaming canning jars in the basement: it was her attempt to extend the reach of a one-income household. Granted, she was an anomaly amongst her friends; it was the early 70s though so some hippie things (making your own wine, candles; brining your own pickles) was something my parents thought might be fun to try. She still makes her own jams. But true farming is a stretch for her, and her relations: even my great-grandmother had a college education. My mother’s family history is that of happy upper middle class life. No chicken plucking, ever.

There’s a similar story on my father’s side. I don’t know where I get this, in other words. I only know that, even though there’s a lot of sweat involved, this is the best food possible for me and my family. Surely, there is an easier way, Mom; it’s just not the road I’m gonna to take.

30 responses to “On one’s food history

  1. My mother has plucked many a chicken in her lifetime. She grew up on a small dairy farm that also raised/sold chickens, vegetables and anything else they could to make a living and feed the family. I remember staying in my grandma’s house (I was sheltered from the “hard” farm life) while grandma and my mom (and others) killed, plucked an butchered. I’m not sure what she would think if I decided to raise/pluck my own. She’d probably go with crazy. However, she would definitely come over and help. 🙂

  2. If my mother plucked chickens on a hippie commune in Northern Ontario, does it count? Granted, she only spent two weeks there because of the chicken-plucking…

    I’ll have to go with my grandmother and grandfather, then. They both grew up in a sailing/fishing/subsistence farming environment (although my Grandmother’s family were essentially “middle class,” they didn’t have much money).

    I think historically, it comes down to choice. My grandfather didn’t have any other choice but to fish and farm for a living, and when he was finally able to choose, naturally he chose not to. The lifestyle associated with wage work was so appealing to people in the first half of the century because it meant freedom from all those tasks that you and I may now embrace, and also, undeniably, meant more leisure time. I can’t fault anyone for finding that appealing. However, I also love the fact that we now have the freedom to understand a task such as chicken-plucking in a new, less vilified (and less classist) way. (Disclosure: I don’t subsistence farm or pluck chickens, but I’m still a grad student, and I’ll likely end up living a similar lifestyle to yours. Only hopefully I can also own a sailboat. And a burro).

    Sorry for the length! I’m a landscape/cultural historian who took too many food history courses. 🙂

  3. Great question. As far as I know my grandparents were all city-raised, no chicken-pluckers among them. Great-grandparents, I wish I could go back in time and talk to them.

    I do know a couple odd facts — both grandmothers were Off the Boat from their homelands (Hungary and Poland), and a great-great grandmother on my mom’s side had 17 children (who lived through childhood) — I’m betting she plucked some chickens.

    And one male ancestor worked as an aide in a mental institution and was killed by one of its patients. The weird things you find in family history, eh?

  4. p.s. at first glance I was afraid that was chicken blood in the canning jar. 😉

  5. OMG that is chicken blood! El is a vampire!

    … he he …

    I remember the first time my dad got chickens, he only got a couple to try them out before buying a bunch, and he was so annoyed at how long it took to pluck them by hand that he built his own chicken plucker before doing the next batch.

    We used that thing for years (chickens and turkeys). I always wondered where he got the rubber fingers from.

    Plucking by hand isn’t that bad, I’ve done it, but there were six kids in the family, so he bought fifty chicks each spring, and when you realize you have to harvest all of them in one morning, a little mechanical help becomes more appealing.

  6. My mother is plucking chickens tomorrow night with her sisters, so not that far back for me. Both of my grandparents had college degrees, but both were raised on farms. They moved their 6 kids onto 30 acres in the late 50’s and raised their own produce and meat for 40+ years.

    My grandfather, while CFO of a major insurance company, always secretly wished he was an organic farmer. So that’s what he did in his spare time and after he retired.

    As a kid we spent Friday nights in the summer and fall “doing” chickens in batches of 50. We did several hundred every year – enough for all 6 kids and their families and a few to sell. It was always a good way to see if a boy really liked me – could he handle killing / cleaning chickens?

    I hope that next year we’ll be “doing” our own meat chickens.

  7. I also totally thought that was a canning jar of chicken blood. Cool jar though! I would have to go back to my grandparents. My grandfather’s much older brother lived on a farm outside of Harrisburg and raised chickens.

  8. All of my grandmothers plucked chickens. One of them hunted, so she cleaned and cooked those creatures as well. I may have been switched at birth.
    I have tried to convince my carnivorous son that he should research local farmers for his meat ( he lives in New Jersey), but so far he is sticking to the plastic wrapped. Kids.
    Should I give FGTW a skip tomorrow? I have respect for the education you are providing, but I don’t need all of the facts. Thanks.

  9. Wow! I am in the distinct minority here. I guess it’s because I have city-dwelling ancestors? All I am saying is it’s bred generations of food-ignorant (but not shopping-ignorant) people in my line is all. I was wondering if I was alone in this disconnect. Everyone who’s piping up here says I am, but there’s nobody saying their families are like mine (i.e., no farming relations).

    I’ll comment more later but PAMELA: yes indeed tomorrow is the Process post so…come back on Friday! It won’t be visually graphic just descriptively so~

  10. Hey El, try this: http://whizbangbooks.blogspot.com/2007/12/wb30.html

    I think my grandmother and her sister plucked chickens. I don’t think I ever saw them. I know my Aunt Ann had chickens for eggs but I guess I never knew if they butchered them or not. It’s a vague memory. Probably, since my grandma’s parents came over on a boat, then got the farm, my great-gma plucked chickens too. I have never. My mom has never, I don’t think. I don’t like chickens live too much, got pecked near my eye by a Banty Rooster when I was very little. I used to have to collect eggs and would run all the chickens out of the hen house, shut the door, collect the eggs, open the door to get out, throw open the door to the chicken yard, and RUN as fast as I could to the out door and slam it shut before those hens could get in and get me! I was a little kid, heh. That memory makes me laugh now.

  11. well, my comment seems to have disappeared! I’ll try again.

    Hey El! try this: http://whizbangbooks.blogspot.com/2007/12/wb30.html

    I’m pretty sure that my grandma and her sister plucked chickens. I’m pretty sure my grandma’s mother plucked chickens. They came over on the boat from the Old Country and got the farm and I’ve heard tales about the farming and how they had chickens and a cow. I’m also pretty sure my mother never plucked chickens. Neither have I.

    My Aunt Ann had chickens for eggs but I never remember them killing or plucking actually, only stories. Must not have done it when I was around. I was pecked near my eye when I was little by a Banty Rooster, hence I don’t really like live chickens too much. Never have. I remember going to collect eggs and running the hens out of the hen house and shutting them in the yard while I’d collect the eggs. That part was fun cuz there were wooden eggs in the nests too. I’d open the out door, go to the yard door and fling it open, and run as fast as I could to the out door and slam it shut, so those hens couldnt’ get me when I was done. Funny memory.

    I think everybody plucking eggs should get a little wine. Ok, a LOT of wine. You go girl!

  12. One of my first memories from my grandparent’s place is chicken slaughter day, so I guess you could say my interest in meat-raising runs in my blood. 😉

    It’s funny, because I think plucking is the easiest part of the whole shebang. Is your dipping water hot enough? (we use 140˚) That was the biggest mistake we made when we did our first ducks…. the water wasn’t hot enough and the feathers became lodged, taking FOREVER. Ugh.

  13. Oh yeah Liz 170* or a bit less. So no maybe I am just a featherplucking spaz. I’ll be going over the process in the post tomorrow so I am sure you and other experienced folks will give me further pointers. Did you have dishwashing soap in the water? That helps too even if the water’s getting cold, esp. with those tough downy ducks.

  14. : ) I thought that was chicken blood too !!!

    Any “feed”-back? (pun intended : ) on taste? I am thinking of giving them organic starter and keep them on organic feed the whole time until they are ready for their commute to the freezer. Any thoughts? I feel bad that the egg-layers are not on organic diet…but it got so expensive! They eat all the organic grass and bugs anyway!

    yes – my mother processes her own chickens. I saw my aunts processing the ducks too (back in Bangladesh). She used to make an incision and take the innerds out before she would put them in warm water to pluck the feathers. The slaughter seemed to be a man’s job (like taking the trash out kinda deal : ). I remember helping in slaughterings as a kid…On the other hand Mrs. weekendfarmer who grew up in Japan never even saw a whole chicken in the supermarket freezer. It is a bit of shock to the system I must admit ..when I had to process 2 of our roosters last year. I was sad…however, I knew that they had a good life and was killed with respect.

    How is the little one doing? My little one turns 5 this weekend. I cant believe it! Time flies.

  15. oh…before I forget there is another way where you make certain cuts and pull out the whole skin with the feathers. Takes away the step of hot water etc……however, you lose the skin in the process if you want to roast etc.

  16. Does anybody give the menfolk a hard time for plucking the game birds they hunt?
    I’d be a’pluckin’ chickens if I was allowed to raise them.

  17. My mother is fond of saying, “Where did you come from?”. But all she has to do is turn around and remember her parents she tried so hard to differentiate from.

    All the women of my family had children late so I don’t know too much about my great grandmothers. Everyone I’ve known has had a college degree but it was my grandmother that taught me how to fish, and dry fish and cook on a pot bellied stove. She didn’t want to teach me too much because she said there was no need for me to know these things. (As we patched the mud “chinking” between the logs in their cabin).

  18. I don’t have to go back far at all – one set of Grandparents were chicken farmer’s in what once was the egg capital of the world and the other set were sheep and then turkey farmers. I have a photo of my grandfather in his wheelchair with a tomato plant that is legendary. They took growing your own food for granted. My Dad to this day though won’t eat chicken after having to care for them growing up. I’m looking forward to the second half of this.

  19. Mum plucked chickens, dad shot and killed wild duck and rabbits, they didn’t teach us those skills though, it is only now we are interested in learning, guess what we are doing this week-end….learning how to kill a chook (as aussies call chickens) humanely and pluck it.

    We are thinking about keeping some meat rabbits, Dad will show us how to do those too. What a shame we didn’t recognise the value in such activities as children in an affluent society.


  20. We plucked chickens as kids in the suburbs of LA, and I am pretty sure my dad’s mom plucked hens (she was also a foodie).

  21. My mother’s family came from Slovakia & had chickens & geese, & my father’s family came from Italy & probably had a few chickens too in their garden at the edge of town. I remember my mom’s stories about my grandfather twisting the heads off the birds & them running all over the yard in that condition. Pretty heady stuff for an 8 year old!

    My mom cleaned a lot of chickens growing up, but by the time I was old enough to remember, she always raised rabbits on my uncle’s farm & killed & dressed those. Needless to say, I ate a LOT of rabbits, which are surprisingly good although not all that meaty like a chicken.

    I raised chickens in my backyard a few times for the eggs, but could never bring myself to eat them as they were more like pets for me than anything else. But I could do it if need be. It’s all a mind set.

  22. Again, wow, I seem to be in the minority! Either everyone who reads this blog has had farming grandparents, or everyone else is just keeping mum!

    Sheri: You know, I am protecting our girl from the killing too. She had issues at first but I had to ask her: what’s your favorite meat, girl? “Chicken,” she said. Your mom would probably think you were crazy because of the have to/want to thing. So many who grew up “having” to do some harder things can only see progress if you don’t have to…

    Sarah O: What a fascinating double major. You are quite right about choice in the historical picture. My point is generations of choice have left us thinking roasted supermarket chicken are just as good as these birds. Preferable, even. I would of course love to remove class from the discussion altogether but that is impossible.

    Anne, I got into genealogical study a few years back and there are some fascinating tales in any one family. As a practical thing, I at least mined the family history to come up with names for our egg hens 😉 but the best family story I found was the original bloke with my last name had 6 kids and a farm in New Jersey, didn’t want to fight in the War of 1812 and so instead left with someone else’s wife to Ontario. She died in childbirth and I am the descendant of a third wife.

    Anne, rob, Meredith and WF: sangre de vino, baybee!

    Rob, your dad sounds like my husband. “I’ll make my own,” he said the other day when I told him he needs to help this weekend to off the rest of the birds. But you are right: plucking isn’t so bad. It’s just time-consuming, which galls me because I tend to have so much else going on at the same time. But things take as long as they take, you know!

    Laura: Hey, girl, you don’t have to go back at all if you’ve done it yourself!! I can see you chicken ranching next year for sure. You’ve got lots on your plate though your first year on the farm. But I will tell you that you feel so much different about your meat birds than you do your egg birds. I don’t think I will ever transition to eating them too…though now I suppose I at least know how if I *had* to.

    Meredith, isn’t it a cool jar? Can’t quite see it but she’s got a bun of hair and is holding something in her hands and on her lap (peas?) Did you go see that farm growing up?

    Pamela, see you on Friday! Actually, do your son the favor of looking into both EatWild.com and LocalHarvest.org to see where he might find fresh chicken near him.

    Jules, thanks for the link: I think that’s why your comment got caught in spam, though I thought I had it stuck at two outside links; I will have to look into that. He’s the guy I nabbed my chicken tractor design from, plus a few other things. He’s great. That’s a great eggy memory! You should ask your mom about her personal history. I am sure she’d tell you a thing or two even if she didn’t pluck. BUt yes, I find wine is essential to loosen the tension between my shoulderblades when I pluck those poor birds.

    Liz, I know your happy memories of your grandfolks’ place definitely set you up for your life now. My grandma’s Florida condo didn’t do me the same favor 😉 Does James have similar farming folk in his background?? I would likewise think plucking were the easiest thing if I had help with the whole process…but I’ve been doing it solo so far.

    WF: My post today (meat bird wrap-up) kind of says what I think about these guys, that they’re not worth the time. They are HUGE with HUGE BREASTS and though I am a Dolly Parton fan I guess I am not such a great white-meat girl. They are very tender. Not much taste to them though compared to the old laying hens I have eaten, or even young roosters…which is why I am going with young roosters next time. More yellow fat on those guys, more chicken-y taste. These pups are commercial birds and I shouldn’t have been surprised that they tasted like it too. Have had the same debate in my own head about the organic/nonorganic feed, which is why I go to the mixes-his-own feed store so far away. He gets his grain locally, at least. Who knows if it’s GMO or pesticide-laden. Ah. Thanks on the tip about removing the skin; I could easily see how that would be done, but we want skin on these guys. Congrats on a five-year-old! Wow, he’s a little boy now. Our girl is up and down with this healing. It has been a hard week here for all of us.

    CC: As WF mentioned, it seems plucking, like garbage take-out and grilling, seems to be a sex-typed activity. Hunting too come to think of it. My dad hunted, and my mom did help clean the animals. Interesting, though, he wasn’t a deer hunter because he thought the gutting and the other hunters were gross!

    Verde: You brought up two very important things: the desire people have to separate themselves from their upbringing, and the very important idea of exposing children to all types of new and different things. It’s why I moved our 9-month-old to a farm, frankly; exposure to all kinds of things our city house wouldn’t be able to give her unless she were on a field trip! Anyway, your grandmother would be happy to learn her lessons “stuck.”

    Katrina: I think of you every time I have kale, like last night! I think it is great that you’re mining your past in your own way, like making that jam 🙂 My friend Tim’s dad is like yours: after growing up on whole-wheat Mom-made bread, he only eats the chemical-laden white stuff. So, like Verde, I think it might be so much easier for us, the further we are from the have-tos of that life….

    Good luck this weekend, Molly! You will feel different about the process, certainly. It’s a real sacrifice, that first chook. I think it’s important to feel very reverential. As far as meat goes, though, rabbit is just about the least wasteful/most efficient way to make meat on the household. My hub is not a fan otherwise we’d have a hutchful.

    TS: Important point: a foodie past! Again, I think lots of us have been raised on highly processed food and in the raising have left many of us with flattened palates. It’s why a newly-plucked peach is such a revelation to some folks.

    Artemisia: a food-loving boyfriend and I used to get rabbit from a German butcher on Irving Park back when I lived in Chgo. We’d make rabbit chili. It would disturb me greatly to see the little frozen bodies in the freezer as my cats were about the same size! I don’t think I could ever eat my egg girls either. They are just so sweet and, well, known by me. It would be a great leap. But again, I think both exposure and the questioning of your relatives about their food pasts is pretty important.

  23. I don’t have to go back far either. My parents have killed and processed chickens and other animals brought back from hunting forays. As have my grandparents on both sides. On Eric’s side his grandparents on both sides owned small family farms, and I think both of his parents were involved in animal slaughters as children, but neither of them actually raised animals or brought in their own foods as an adult. They were trying to get away from kind of life I think. And they did, as did all of their children (5) with the exception of Eric. And I seriously doubt he would be living this life without me. I bring down the income level, and in the backwoodsiness at his family gatherings, even though I have a higher education than almost all of them. 🙂 I don’t mind, because I am also much happier than most of them as well!! 😉

  24. Hey, I do know how to gut a fish! I learned that growing up and going to Ford Lake in the summers. So….I guess I wouldn’t starve. heh.

  25. Liz, if you see this, we used to process ducks/geese and use a very different method than the traditional chicken way. It’s a bit more work but keeps the skin / feathers in better shape. And if you’re doing them in the fall it also keeps your hands warm. Of course it used to fill the barn with feathers as well. Drop me a note if you want the details.

  26. Pingback: (not so) Urban Hennery » Blog Archive » Reflections on Food History

  27. Ang: Very important, again, the idea of choice in this lifestyle. But you sure seem like a happy camper to me! I think there definitely is a generational pushback from life on the farm…I’m hoping our three kids don’t necessarily feel it. I am hoping they only have happy memories of an interesting childhood, don’t you? Although I do expect my girl to at the very least make her own jams and bread 😉

    Jules! Fishing is important, too. I love to fish, but am afraid to eat the little buggers with all the mercury and pesticides in our lakes and streams, unfortunately. Sigh.

    Laura, I might want to know too! We’re branching out into the Land Of Other Poultry next time around (stay tuned of course). Loved learning more about your kooky farm family, but read your thing about the sheep heads way before coffee sadly!

  28. I have to go back to my great grandparents to get chicken butchering. I have to go back to my grandparents to get gardening and canning. My mom was a typical working suburban mom. Dinner came from the freezer and went to the microwave. Dad just worked all the time. They both think I’m crazy and won’t be able to do it.

  29. El, sorry about the sheep heads. The duck / goose trick is pretty gory but also pretty handy if you have interest in saving the feathers for future use. Drop me an email if you want the details and I’ll try to explain.

  30. Christy O: I certainly think you can do it! Especially with homeschooling three kids. What better way than having them help you out on the farm. I hope you guys can find a new house with less problems, though. Good luck with that!

    Laura, I might just. I am not sure when exactly I will do in those cute little ducklings, but I did order some geese this week too. Thanks! Isn’t the internet great for these kind of things?

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