If you take a deep dive into the culinary folkways of the South, it doesn’t take long to realize that as the preferred centerpiece of pretty much any festive meal, chicken holds pride of place. One colloquial name for chicken, “preacher meat,” tells us as much in delightful fashion. If the preacher was coming to your house for Sunday dinner, chicken, the “Gospel bird,” would be on the table. Lyrics in the old-time country ballad She’ll Be Coming around the Mountain offer other fine examples of the importance of the meat with the words, “We’ll all have chicken and dumplings when she comes,” and, “We’ll kill the old red rooster when she comes.”
In the wistful lyrics sung by Bobby Bare in Chicken Every Sunday, he shares the tale of a boy raised by his widowed mother who somehow, no matter how hard things might be, always manages to put chicken on the table come Sunday. The recurrent refrain, “Chicken every Sunday, Mama, everything’s all right” is touching, as might well be expected from the songwriter, Tom T. Hall, who produced so many poignant songs. If you can listen to the words of the song without finding your tear ducts have gone into overdrive, I’d seriously suggest you consider seeking help. There’s a hole in your soul, or, at the very least, all you deserve from a platter of chicken is the back, a wing, or maybe even the south end of a yard bird headed north.
Yard birds, as chickens were commonly described in the days when folks raised their own and allowed them free range, are as much a part of our cultural past as they are an item of great importance in contemporary diet. In the past, they were not only a vital part of sustenance in the forms of eggs and meat but served other purposes. Free-ranging chickens did a wonderful job of keeping insect populations in control. The tried and true adage describing an act involving alacrity as being “like a chicken on a June bug” has solid underpinning. A wandering flock of chickens spots and consumes any and all types of insects like an avian vacuum. They will also eat all sorts of vegetation, and a common plant, chickweed, gets its name for the way they devour it with delight.
Indeed, when allowed to range free, chickens are a two-legged recycling machine. Their virtues in that regard are almost without end. For starters, they served as what was in effect a super-efficient lawn mower requiring no gas, electricity, or human propulsion. Along with walnut trees, which have some toxicity that repels both undergrowth and insects, the free-range birds kept dirt yards clean enough to require little more than the occasional expenditure of some elbow grease in the form of a human wielding a broom or rake to keep everything around a house shipshape. That translated to all sorts of benefits. Among them were an appreciably reduced likelihood of snakes in the grass since literally there was no grass to hide them and less favorable circumstances for rodents.
Of course, yard birds doing precisely what the description suggests, wandering in the yard, presented one significant problem, and any youngster who grew up around free-range chickens and rejoiced in going barefooted during the summer likely has rather messy memories of why that was the case. While random deposits of manure might not be welcome, at least they were a pointed reminder that droppings beneath hen house roosts were another matter entirely. They were in effect an organic Miracle-Gro long before that soluble commercial fertilizer came along, and the mineral richness of yard bird fertilizer far exceeded that of manure from cows or horses. A proper application of chicken manure could give garden vegetables or flowers a wonderful boost, although care had to be taken. As my paternal grandfather used to say, “You’ve got to be powerful careful with chicken manure. It’s hot, and you’ll burn plants if too much is used.” That was his quaint but exact way of pointing out that the nitrogen-rich droppings should be spread sparsely — a little went a long way.
Considerations such as bare yards and free fertilizer aside, it was the “food on the table” aspect of chickens that always loomed largest for anyone who raised yard birds. They were valued most not for meat but for egg production, and the difference between an egg from a free-range bird and one of the kind you buy in the grocery store is dramatic. A yard bird’s egg has a yolk as vivid a gold color as an October hunter’s moon just clearing the horizon in the early evening sky, and the intensity of taste from such eggs leaves those from mass production in the dust.
Eggs were, after all, a vital ingredient in country cooking in so many ways — being a quintessential part of a hearty breakfast whether fried, scrambled, poached, boiled, or in an omelet; as an adornment for vegetable dishes ranging from spinach to poke sallet; in egg, potato, or mixed greens salads; deviled; pickled; and a vital ingredient in all sorts of baked items. A pone of cornbread without an egg or two having been part of the batter was simply out of the question, while “cackleberries” — a colloquialism for eggs I often heard used when I was a youngster — were crucial to recipes for pound cakes, various types of pies, and other baked goods. Nor should the fact that surplus eggs brought welcome infusions of “cash money” in many a household be overlooked.
In the simpler days and simpler ways of yesteryear, chickens also provided considerable entertainment. If you’ve never been privileged to savor a big slice of watermelon from a Charleston Grey or Georgia Cannonball, spitting seeds to waiting chickens and watching them scramble, then yours has been a life beset by two types of deprivation. First, nothing is quite like a piece of ice-cold watermelon from one of these seeded varieties on a hot summer’s day — a pox on the pantywaist poltroons that have had the seeds and no small measure of flavor bred out of them. The messy, chin-dripping goodness is enough to put offerings of a five-star Parisian dining establishment to pure shame. As for the entertainment side, the feathered chaos that occurs when a batch of yard birds compete for the black tidbits from a good old-fashioned seed spitting contest can leave one so hopelessly gripped by laughter that things have to calm down a bit before the next seed can be dispelled.
Another aspect of the yard bird scene was the seasonal watching of events unfolding as one month gave way to another. For me, the onset of the chicken calendar came in early spring. Hens that had made it through the winter, having survived the fate of becoming table fare thanks primarily to being reliably consistent egg producers, would go into setting mode. In due course, multiple batches of fluff balls would follow their proud mother around the place as they learned the essentials of catching bugs, getting grit, and other aspects of daily life. These home-raised chicks were always supplemented with an infusion of store-bought peepers from the Farmers Federation or perhaps a shipment received through the U.S. Postal Service. Day-old chicks can still be shipped this way. As a youngster, I loved to go into the local post office in early spring because invariably back in the facility’s bowels and well away from the counter you could hear the incessant noise of tiny chicks awaiting pickup by some farmer or local resident who raised his own poultry.
Next came the period of rapid growth through late spring and on into summer. Peepers became pullets, reaching the stage known as fryer size in short order. At this juncture virtually all cockerels or young roosters met their preordained fate as table fare. In today’s world, purchased baby chicks are sorted by sex, but two or three generations ago no such selection process existed. Of course, the mixed sex situation also applied to the new additions to the family flock raised by our own hens.
The summer months were a decidedly mixed blessing for the chickens on any homestead or family farm. This was the time of family reunions, decoration days at cemeteries, all-day singings with dinner on the grounds, church picnics, and other gatherings where foodstuffs loomed large. Chicken prepared in a wondrous array of fashions — baked, fried, as chicken and dumplings, in salads, and the like — was the meat of choice at all such events.
It also was, at least in the scope of my personal experience, what you would find as the centerpiece of Sunday dinner throughout most of the year but especially in the warmer months leading up to hog killing time in November. Momma could fry chicken like nobody’s business, and I can honestly say — as someone who has been an integral part of close to a dozen published cookbooks, a mighty consumer of the meat, and who greatly enjoys cooking — that she was without peer on that particular culinary front.
The warm months also saw the greatest amount of predation from several of the chickens’ myriad enemies, most notably snakes. Of course an egg-eating snake learned a permanent lesson once it consumed a ceramic “nest egg” intended to encourage hens to start setting in the spring. Alternatively, and this also worked wonderfully well on egg-sucking dogs, you could “blow” an egg, extracting the contents with a hypodermic needle and replacing it with some kind of homemade hot pepper sauce or a commercial concoction such as Tabasco. Rest assured that no serpent or canine, once they experienced the result, had any inclination whatsoever for a repeat experience. Other nuisances that could pose problems at any season — rats, racoons, weasels, and hawks — were dealt with using traps, or in the case of the latter, a load of shotgun pellets. Today hawks and other avian predators are strictly and rightly protected by federal and state laws, but three-quarters of a century ago, failure to shoot or at least shoot at them was likely to get a solid dose of hickory tea from one’s seniors. In their eyes every hawk was a “chicken hawk.”
In late summer, with garden crops long since laid by and autumn’s bluebird days on the near horizon, yard birds enjoyed free range to a heretofore unprecedented degree. They were allowed to enter the family gardening area and dine as they pleased. Tomatoes were a particular favorite, but so were bean bugs, squash bugs, grasshopper, that stinging spawn of Beelzebub known as packsaddles, and indeed pretty much anything within reach. Watching a flapping chicken trying to reach a ripe, staked tommytoe, a cherry or miniature tomato, a few feet off the ground was pure comedy.
Once fall arrived things settled down after the hectic months of procreation, pullet growth, egg laying, culling of cockerels for the table, and the like. The ensuing months saw a more measured pace of life. Table scraps and especially scratch feed, sometimes purchased but more often the leftover from the milling of corn or removal from nubbin ears of corn, became more prominent in diet. Crushed egg or oyster shells also figured in the dietary mix because they were helpful in the gizzard and as a source of calcium for eggs in the making. Consumption of yard bird was cut back considerably, although on festive occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, at least in my family, baked hens rather than store-bought turkeys formed the centerpiece for festive holiday gatherings.
Look at vintage black-and-white photographs of rural home settings, and it is amazing how frequently chickens appear. That’s a chapter from life of our forebears we probably miss to our detriment. Indeed, I would staunchly maintain that daily dealing with a batch of chickens is uplifting and a wonderful introduction to the cycle of life. Small wonder that home flocks are enjoying a significant resurgence, although those living in urban areas are likely to face restrictions such as no roosters — not everyone wants an avian alarm clock going off as night gives way to light — and requirements for pens.
For me, every time I see chickens wandering about or maybe a coop in someone’s backyard, mental time travel carries me back to a magical youth and carefree days in which yard birds were an integral, important part of life. Traveling such delightful corridors into the past is balm for my soul or, perhaps more appropriately, grit for my gizzard.
Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who lives in Rock Hill. Yard birds figure prominently in two of his most recent books, Fishing for Chickens: A Smokies Food Memoir and Celebrating Southern Appalachian Food: Recipes & Stories from Mountain Kitchens.