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The Funky Chicken: Memories, Truth & Tribute

The Funky Chicken: Memories, Truth & Tribute

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The Funky Chicken: Memories, Truth & Tribute

268 pagine
3 ore
Jan 23, 2014


Chickens are the new trendy pet. They’re easy to house, friendly, functional, and truly fascinating. Fifty years ago, many families had a chicken coop on their property and a flock of hens for eggs and meat. That tradition virtually disappeared with the advent of large-scale, intensive poultry farms. By the 1960s, chickens were kept almost exclusively in rural areas. But chicken-keeping, at least on a small scale, is making a fast comeback. Families—even in dense urban settings—are recognizing the value of owning chickens and eating healthful fresh eggs and meat, and they love these amazing and entertaining pets.

Part memoir and part minutia, The Funky Chicken: Memories, Truth, & Trivia is the author’s fond remembrance of growing up in rural Western Maryland in the 1950s and early 1960s tending her family’s flock of Plymouth White Rocks. One fowl character in particular, a proud rooster named Putter, plays center stage and unwittingly delivers genuine life lessons. The story is nostalgic, heartwarming, a bit comical and fun, yet sometimes sad—a glimpse of bucolic, mid-twentieth century life in a large family. A bonus is the extensive trivia portion of the book, rife with “all things chicken.” Sections focus on the history of our favored fowl, fascinating facts and myths, proverbs, poetry, classic tales, quotes, folklore, holidays and crafts, food ways, and family recipes. This is not a “how-to” book, though it contains a wealth of essential information. Instead, it’s a “how-fun” look at keeping chickens yesterday and today and a tribute to their role in human history and, in particular, the author's childhood.

Jan 23, 2014

Informazioni sull'autore

Elinor DeWire writes about a variety of topics, including lighthouses, maritime history, weather, astronomy and sky watching, and animals. She is a native of Maryland, but spent her teenage years in Pennsylvania and has lived in several other states. She has been researching, photographing, and writing since 1972. DeWire has been honored for her work in journalism, education, and historic preservation by the U.S. Lighthouse Society, the American Association of University Women, the American Lighthouse Foundation, New England Lighthouse Lovers, the Avery Point Lighthouse Society, the Florida Lighthouse Association, the New Jersey Lighthouse Society, and the National League of American Pen Women. Three of her books have won the Coast Guard Book Award and the prestigious Ben Franklin Book Award. She lives in Washington.

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The Funky Chicken - Elinor DeWire


Chapter 1

The Meaning


Chicken Soup

Add ingredients…

The tax assessor stood on the front porch, clipboard in one hand, knocking on the door with the other. I had a sudden but fleeting urge to ignore her knock. Property taxes never decrease; tax-assessors never bring good news. She knocked again, more insistently, and I reminded myself that avoidance behavior usually comes back to haunt me.

Good morning! I shouted, putting on my best tax-payer face.

She wiped her feet, patted the chain-saw-carved wooden bear by the door, and once inside admired the birch floor in the great room. We exchanged civilities for a few minutes about chain-saw art, flooring, and my shy housecat that had just bolted from the room.

I see you have some paperwork for me. Let’s sit in the kitchen, I offered, motioning to a doorway.

I directed her to a seat at the kitchen island, next to a tray holding hen and rooster salt and pepper shakers, and poured us both some coffee. She admired the granite countertops and then looked around my kitchen as if décor directly relates to tax rates.

Hmmmm. Okay. Someone likes chickens. Interesting!

Yes, I have a little flock of hens, I replied, somewhat abashed. They keep us in fresh eggs…and they keep us entertained too.

She grinned: Entertained? Your chickens are comediennes??!!

We chuckled. The comment was meant to ease the unwelcome visit.

I always thought chickens lacked intelligence. You know what I’m saying, she back-pedaled. It’s the bird brain thing, right?

She reminded me of Marge Gunderson in Fargo, all business but in a slightly sarcastic way. She had the same accent and was even pregnant like Gunderson. Yes, she was just making conversation, but I knew what she meant. No doubt she sees a lot of crazy people in her daily travels from property to property.

I suppose I’m one of the oddball types, a bit eccentric with my chickenpalooza kitchen all decorated with roosters, hens, and chicks. They stare from shelves and corners, from walls and countertops, from inside glass-windowed cupboards. A giant resin rooster perches on the cabinet over my oven. A hen and her three chicks, fashioned from bent barbed wire, trail along the top of a doorway. My whimsical flying hen clock with her fried egg pendulum ticks rhythmically from the pantry wall. Tick, tock, cluck, clock.

Possibly, the tax assessor suspected that some absence of mind had caused me to be fixated with chickens. Her expression said so, a half-smile, partly-surprised, eyebrow-raised look of amusement. It’s quite the opposite, I wanted to tell her. I’m not daft or deficient. It's all in my rural upbringing…and in a certain sort of nostalgia that strikes us as we approach old age.

This is kind of like a gift shop, all this chicken stuff in your kitchen. You sell it on eBay?

No, I said. I just collect. I like anything with a chicken theme. It reminds me of my mother. She had chickens, lots of them. When I’m gone, my kids can sell this stuff on eBay.

Motherhood always strikes a common chord between women.

Your first? I asked, pointing to her expanded waistline.

Third. I have two boys; teenagers. This one was a bit of surprise. But I’m thrilled. Third time’s a charm they say!

Her name was Lynda, she said, pointing out that her post-hippie parents were fond of changing y to i in kids’ names: My older sister is Cyndi and I have an adopted brother named Henri, she added with a smirk.

We began touring the house, with Lynda making notes on her clipboard, thick with forms. Property tax increases directly relate to the number of forms on a clipboard, I think. Lynda was ticking off boxes and wrestling with an impertinent tape measure. She stopped cold in my laundry room, decorated in a cat theme.

Uh…I love cats too, I said, a bit embarrassed. And lighthouses [my office décor], and amateur astronomy [the guest room], and black bears [my bedroom], and dragonflies [the sunroom], and fish [my husband’s Man Cave], not to mention owls and ravens and deer and pine cones and leaves [everywhere]. I guess you could say I surround myself with fascinations. Maybe it’s a throwback to hunting and gathering ancestry. Anyway…makes it easy for my family, you know, for birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day.

She nodded: Mother’s Day is coming up. You should be all set then!

We finished inside the house and headed outside to look at the outbuildings. As if on cue, The Girls came race-flapping to the fence that encloses their outer yard and greeted us with sweet anticipatory clucks. All seven hens lined themselves up along the wire fence like avian Pleiades, plump and well-plumed with vigor and contentment.

Lynda’s eyes brightened.

Ah! The source of your chicken fascination! she said. They look healthy. Do they have names?

The hens paraded along the inside of their enclosure, following us like a line of kindergarteners. I picked some dandelion leaves and handed them through the fence. They ate from my hand, tutting and cooing and chooking with pleasure.

Yes, they have names, I replied, and personalities too. I gave them the names of Greek goddesses. I brought them home as two-day old babies not long after I returned from a trip to Greece.

Those two, I continued, pointing to Barred Plymouth Rock look-alikes, "are Psyche and Nike. You can tell them apart by Psyche’s floppy comb and Nike’s slightly darker feathers. Nike is more timid too. The Rhode Island Reds are Calypso and Circe, good layers and friendly. Circe has a low voice, almost like a duck. She’s very social, actually nosy, a busybody, you might say, and she likes to be petted. Aphrodite is the pretty one, a Golden-Laced Wyandotte. All the others dislike her because she’s so beautiful, a familiar allegory, huh? The big gray one is Zeus, who’s really Zeusette—long story. We thought he, I mean she, was a rooster, because at about four months old she started crowing. And she’s huge, and she’s at the top of the pecking order. But then she started laying eggs, so we knew…"

I paused to take a breath. I love telling people about my chickens. Lynda the tax assessor was staring at me, mouth slightly agape, Marge Gunderson-style, perhaps dumbfounded at my knowledge of hen house social dynamics. But more likely she thought I was just plain nuts. A whacky chicken lady.

Well! Goodness gracious and holy angel harps! I had no idea, she said, that chickens were so…so interesting…and so complex.

I gestured toward the coop, a cute little cedar affair with one small window and a red roof. A tunnel through the fence and a drop-drown ramp connects it to the chicken yard, but it also has a large outer door for caretaker access. I opened the door, and we peeked inside at jet-black Athena, brooding on her nest. She grumbled and lowered her head into her hackles.

Motherhood calls, I said. She’s sitting; been doing it for weeks now. Hens don’t get pregnant, but they do get broody. She wants to be left alone to do her maternal thing, even though the eggs under her aren’t fertile. Of course, she doesn’t know that. She’s just doing what nature tells her.

Lynda had a slightly startled expression: She doesn’t care that the eggs are infertile? Really?

Really. Hens will sit on any eggs, even fake ones. When they’re broody they just want some chicks, any chicks. Besides, she doesn’t know the eggs aren’t hers or that they won’t hatch. There’s no rooster in my flock.

Lynda extended her hand and then hesitated. Her somewhat-sardonic demeanor had disappeared. Perhaps it was her physical state of impending motherhood that had changed the tenor of the conversation.

It’s okay, I said. You can pet her. She’s pretty, isn’t she? An Australorp. Look at those black feathers. When the light hits them just right they flash iridescent purple and blue.

Lynda softly fingered the fluff on Athena’s back. The hen protested slightly and then settled herself and closed her eyes, accepting the gentle touch.

The coziness of the coop, the ray of saffron sunlight falling through its small window onto the blanket of wood shavings, and the pungent but pleasant farm smell seemed to evoke a memory…for both of us. Lynda drew in a slow breath, obviously connecting with some ancient image:

"Gosh, I do remember my grandmother having chickens when I was a kid back in Montana. White ones, I think. And a rooster. She called him Buster. Those fresh eggs were so good!"

I agreed as I lifted irritable Athena from her broody nest box to reveal a clutch of four eggs snuggled close in a perfect little well of wood shavings in the shape of a hen’s belly.

Linda reached for them, almost reflexively: Oh my goodness! Real eggs, freshly laid! May I touch them? They’re beautiful!

Eggs in the nest. Warm to the touch. Emblems of new life, maternity, nourishment, nostalgia, grandmothers, and happy childhood memories. They are, indeed, beautiful.

There’s something mysterious and promising and powerful about eggs, especially eggs quietly waiting in a nest. They are a charming and simple reminder of the good life and everything there is to celebrate about it.

Eventually, Lynda the tax assessor went on her way, clipboard in hand and a dozen fresh eggs in a paper carton on which I had written A Gift from the Goddesses.

These will be much healthier for you and your unborn baby than store-bought eggs, I reminded her. My chickens are pastured…and they’re loved. They live the way chickens should, and that makes for good eggs.

She was cheerful now, gracious, and beaming with childhood recollections and the discovery that even as adults we can get excited about finding eggs in a nest. Perhaps she also was a bit more appreciative of the significance of my kitchen décor and my fascination with the world’s favorite fowl. There’s a reason we love chickens, and there’s no harm in delighting in it.

Measure carefully…

How did I become so fascinated with chickens? Almost every visitor to my home asks me this question, as if an attachment to seven hens is peculiar, even silly. It’s an interest that began in childhood, I tell them, and matured in later life. It has a little to do with a healthful diet and a desire to care for things, and a lot to do with a need to connect with my past.

Before I unveil the trivia part of this book—the symbolism, lore, facts, figures, and minutia of the favored fowl…the everything usual and unusual about chickens—I should tell you why I love them. I’m guessing you’re fascinated with chickens too, or you wouldn’t be reading this tome. Perhaps you simply want to own a few hens for the sake of healthful eggs or have yourself a little bit of hobby fun. Maybe you like the sound of a rooster crowing every morning like a natural alarm clock. Or, you might have grown up in the country where every small homestead and farm had chickens, and part of your daily routine was caring for them.

Like me, you might have bucolic DNA.

My family had a sizeable flock when I was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, sometimes as many as thirty or forty hens and a rooster—always at least one strutting emperor of the coop. Those avians taught me where real food comes from and the amount of hard work necessary to get it. They also schooled me about life and death in real-time, about how one animal gets sacrificed for the sake of another. Growing up with them was fun and funny, exasperating and exhilarating, edifying and humbling, disappointing and, some days, just plain sad. I learned that chicken soup has many meanings.

I was born on a dairy farm near Catoctin Mountain in Western Maryland, but when I was about three years old, my family moved off the farm to a country homestead of just a few acres. It was large enough to have some livestock, including a pig and steer to butcher every autumn, a large vegetable garden and some fruit trees, rabbit hutches, the usual mob of outdoor dogs and cats, and a chicken coop full of productive hens. My mother had about thirty Plymouth White Rocks, enough to keep a big family in eggs and meat. We ate fried eggs for breakfast, had hard-boiled eggs packed in our lunchboxes, and roast chicken went on the table every Sunday. A veritable smorgasbord of custards and puddings, pies and cakes, breads, pastries and muffins—all made with fresh eggs—kept us full and healthy. My mother was a wonderful cook, and The incredible, edible egg, as a popular American Egg Board slogan touts, was a godsend for my family.

Mornings dawned with our Leghorn rooster crowing until he was hoarse and exhausted. He was added to the flock when I was five-years-old and was my pet and the paramour for our hens. This swaggering, self-aggrandizing character was named Putter. He began life as a 39¢ pink-dyed Easter chick crowded into a makeshift wooden bin in the People’s Drug Store. Chicks dyed pastel colors were outlawed in the United States years ago, but they were regularly seen in stores every Easter when I was a kid. No one questioned the practice of dying baby chicks in those days. They were cute, and every kid wanted one.

My little pink chick seemed no worse for the wear. He looked as if he’d been dipped in a bottle of Pepto Bismol. Of course, I thought he was adorable, all roseate and soft and sweet, peeping plaintively. He was—and Mom reminded him of the fact almost daily thereafter—the fortunate recipient of a moment of sentimentality. Mom loved chickens and quickly gave in to my pleas to adopt him. He went home with me in a paper bag a week before Easter in 1959, along with a small green chick for my older sister, Lois.

They’ll be pecked senseless by the other chickens, dressed as they are in those pink and green feathers, Mom said. You can hand raise them until their white pin feathers grow in. Now remember, they’re not playthings. Be careful with them.

We were careful. For a few weeks, the two chicks lived a mollycoddled life on the back porch in a cardboard box with a light bulb positioned over it for warmth. When they were old enough, they were put in the coop with our pullets and hens and a very old, mellow rooster named Hank (for singer Hank Williams). The green chick shed her chartreuse down and quickly grew into a sweet little pullet. But pink Putter, named for his habit of puttering around inside the cardboard box, morphed into a mutant teenager with rose-tinged wing feathers and, finally, a gargantuan white rooster with absurdly long legs, dinosaur feet, and a crusty, poorly-coifed comb that grew beet red when he was mad.

If hens could talk, I wonder what ours would have said about Prince Putter? He went into the adult chicken yard as a young cockerel and soon discovered he was the top male, and a hen-pecked one at that. Old Hank, feeble and perhaps shocked by the appearance of this monstrous, adolescent upstart, died a week later. Mom estimated Hank was about fifteen years old, older than Lois and me added together, and exceedingly ancient for a rooster.

The roomy chicken coop was located under a large, aging apricot tree about fifty yards behind our house. I loved that old tree. It seldom produced edible fruit, and my father regularly threatened to cut it down. Mom reminded him it gave shade to the chicken yard and coop, and it was a favorite place for kids to play. I made many a mud pie under the apricot tree and served it up to the chickens. I saddled my plastic cowboys on their plastic horses and placed them Rawhide-like on a cattle drive in the ruts made by the tree roots that had risen to the surface of the ground. In summer, I picked Rose of Sharon blossoms and flew them from the old apricot tree’s highest branches, dreaming they were fairies in whirling white dresses. When the apricots were green, Lois and I shinnied up the tree and swung ourselves monkey-style onto the chicken coop roof where hundreds of the unripe fallen fruits could be gathered.

The coop had a corrugated metal roof that sang pleasantly during rainstorms and thunked loudly when apricots fell on it, rolling the length of its metallic gullies to plunk on the ground. Apricot races consisted of shooting the hard little fruits down the ridges of the pitched roof like marbles and seeing which one dropped off the end first. If the neighboring farm’s dairy cows were snoozing under the tree where it overhung the fence to their pasture, we pretended they were sea monsters threatening our ship and pelted them with the fruit.

In the heat of a summer day, the shaded hen house roof was a refuge for two little country girls, and a place of imagination too. We yanked up our shirts and lay stomach-down on the metal, peering over the front edge into the chicken yard until the roof ripples were emblazoned on our bare bellies. The

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