Back On The Farm: The dignity of the chicken
My mind wanders back to the sweet memories of childhood where I spent a great number of summers on my grandparent's farm in the heart of Texas. Those days are gone now, but the experiences I encountered will live on in my heart until I am gone.
Warm sultry days of summer combined with rich pasture land for cattle to graze was a haven for a large populace of grasshoppers. So many they would leap in waves to each side of you as your feet shuffled along in the grass.
Heading to the barn yard, with a bucket in hand to collect eggs was one chore I looked forward to. The egg-laying chickens were free roaming, and laid their eggs where ever they made a nest around the barn yard. It was an Easter egg hunt every day and there were plenty of eggs to collect. Needless to say the real ingenuity took place by knowing just how to stack the eggs in the bucket so they wouldn't break before you got them back to the house to be washed.
On the backside of the house stood a coupe full of chickens that were being fattened up for frying. I was learning animals on the farm had a purpose... including being Sunday dinner.
I remember my grandfather as being tall, lean, and seemingly frail -- a first impression that was quickly reversed when he spoke, spouting his crusty attitude. He didn't cater to the foolishness of all his grand children. And believed in cracking the whip when you got out of line.
A partial income for the farm came from the sale of corn. It was also a staple food used to feed the livestock. Acres upon acres of corn grew on the farm. It was a great place to play hide and seek. Crawling and running in and out the corn stalks with brothers, sisters and cousins was one of the joys a corm field provided, or so we thought. After several of the corn stalks were damaged from our sportive endeavors, Grandpa's rage became evident with his rather colorful oral expressiveness. To say the least, we moved out of the corn field with the expediency of an antelope being chased by a lion.
When the family gathered together for dinner, it was time for good old down home southern cooking. Everything was fresh. Snapped green beans from the garden, potatoes, home made gravy, biscuits, and of course fried chicken right out of the back yard.
Grandpa wasted no time in sending the kids in to catch a couple of chickens from the pen. Then, snatching the birds up one at a time by the neck, he would swing it above his head to snap it's neck and decapitate it. Leaving the chickens flying headless to the ground, their bodies would run around the yard a few seconds until they dropped.
Grandma would have a pot of hot water ready to dunk the chickens in, this would help her pluck out the feathers. Then from there, someone would be ready to sear the pin feathers off over a burn barrel. Then back into another pan of water for the final clean up, ready to be cut in pieces and cooked.
In this day and age that whole operation would probably be considered animal abuse. I have to admit, I don't think I could stomach watching that whole operation today. But, it was what was excepted on the farm back then.
You have to know that this was during a time and in a place where we were still using an out house of all things. There was no outdoor lighting either. Your sense of direction needed to be sharp if you were to use the facilities at night, or you might end up back in the corn field. The bathtub was a large tin tub that we bathed in outside in the yard below the window of the kitchen. We drew straws to be the first in the tub because those following bathed in the same water. Not everyone bathed every night either, until the old house was plumbed for a bathroom in the 1960's.
Fire took that 100 year old house last summer. But my mind rings clear with its every detail, including the smell of that fried chicken being cooked. Occasionally Grandma would slip in a few frog's legs along with the chicken she fried when we caught them down at the tank.
Chickens are one of the most beneficial creatures on the farm. It is a bit of a mystery how they came to the United States, and not everyone agrees on where the first area of domestication occurred. But one thing most historians do agree on is they originated from a wild chicken found in South East Asia called the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus Gallus). Those birds are still running wild today.
Chickens are omnivores by nature, getting their food from a variety of sources such as seeds, insects, lizards, mice and even tables scraps when left to free range. Left over produce is one of their favorites. I can remember laying out left over watermelon rind in the yard at the farm. The chickens would come running from every direction with their comical awkward hobble for that delicate delight.
There are more chickens in the world than any other bird. A 2003 census estimated the number of chickens in the world at that time to be around 24 billion. In nature they can live anywhere from 5 to 11 years depending on the breed. But in raising chickens for commercial use their life span is much shorter. Market chickens raised for meat typically live to 6 weeks old before they are butchered. Free range meat market chickens are butchered at about 14 weeks of age.
The chickens used for commercial laying can each typically produce approximately 300 eggs their first year. Then egg production declines and they are butchered sometime during the second year for their meat which is used in processed foods for both human and pet consumption.
With the mass production of eggs and meat being produced, most chickens are raised in confinement today. This makes the transmission of disease a higher risk. But with the development of vitamin D supplements and the administration of antibiotics the chickens seem to be faring well.
There is still some controversy over weather the antibiotics being given to animals for human consumption is safe. For now there does not seem to be evidence that has been contrary to the fact so the administration of antibiotics continues.
Some people are finding a whole new purpose for the chicken as a pet. We are now finding them in backyard suburbia and cities with some restrictions set in place depending on the local judicature.
Back on the farm the chicken is the all around garbage disposal unit, electricity not required. It is also a cheap form of pest control around the yard providing fertilizer at will. The eggs chickens provide are an excellent source of protein and vitamin B12. The meat it produces is also an excellent source of protein, is lower in saturated fat than red meats, a good source of vitamins A and B, and contains minerals.
So maybe we ought to think twice when using that old adage gleefully referring to the dumbbell of the neighborhood as a chicken. That old chicken might just have more dignity that commands our respect than we know. He still gives his life on the farms of America. Seems rather patriotic. And as featherbrained as it may seem, just what is a farm without chickens.