Home Cooking

Sometimes, I’ll use an ax to kill, but I can wring me the neck if I’m of a mind to. The chicken would always lurch headless around the yard. Then the children, they’d throw up their hands and run screamin’. I can still hear ’em. Finally, we’d all just gather the bird up and hang the carcass upside down by the feet for half-an-hour to let the blood drain. We’d tie the neck tubes off and scald the body to loosen its feathers.

My husband and his cronies like a chicken with all the fixin’s. If I knowed he was bringin’ friends on home with him, I could ready the chicken early. Most times, though, he and his buddies, they’d be practically at the gate ‘fore I’d know who all was comin’ for supper. I’d hear their voices and then I’d begin.

Fried chicken, corn-on-the-cob, mashed potatoes and milk gravy, green beans with a little ham hock, biscuits and cornbread, whatever pies I could get up. This is the dinner I’d usually throw together. Come summer, maybe I’d add a watermelon. That’s real good. I’ve fed my husband’s minin’ buddies all the way up to that one friend a’ his who become the state governor, and not a one of ’em has ever left my house with more ‘n a lick left on his plate.

A chicken has to be plucked fresh-kilt. I used to get the children to help. After the worst a’ the feathers was out, the children and me’d go over it with a knife and our fingers for the pinfeathers. If the bird had to be cooked up right away, we’d take a candle and singe the stubborn feathers away. Otherwise, we could mix up some paraffin and pull the rest away later. I could cook the meal in my sleep if I was a mind to.

When I married my husband, he had his same ice-blue eyes. He was determined to make somethin’ of himself, he told me. I used to like it when my man’d come on down to walk me home from the high school. Not that he went to school by then. No, my man worked in the mines even as a boy, but claimed he didn’t want “an educated girl” like me walkin’ tough streets alone come dark. Me, not more’n a girl myself, how’d I know a boy who’d worked the mines since he was ten years old would ever amount to anymore’n my own daddy had? We got married soon as I turned sixteen years old.

The young chickens is always the best. The tenderest and the tastiest, the best for fryin’ up. With a young bird, the feet can be cut off without removin’ the tendons that can turn tender meat tough. If an old bird’s all that’s to be had, the bird, it’ll have to be laid on its back and the feet snapped off over the table edge, so these tendons, they can be pulled on down the leg and all the way out. Keeps the meat tender and worth eatin’.

“You’ve got yourself quite a wife,” is what his friends always did sit back and say to my husband, and he always did sit back too, after a meal, thumb in his suspenders. His eyes, they’d dart across the kitchen at me, and he’d smile with his friends and agree. I’d feel happy.

The innards have to be got outta the chicken first. Just slit the neck skin and cut off what’s left a’ the bird’s neck. Pull out the windpipe and gullet. The neck and feet can be laid aside to make up the stock, broth for the next day’s dumplin’s. No need to waste parts.

When we was first married was when my husband started bringin’ his buddies on home with him. I didn’t like to hear much what all they had to go through down in the mines. Sometimes my own husband, in his work, he had to get down on his knees and crawl on all fours, his face down in some puddle of oily water, all after some little chunk a’ rock. That dirty coal.

“There’s some don’t mind killin’ for that piece a’ rock” was all I got told, a’course. The killers, they’d be what’s called the owners, I figured. The mine operators. The ones they’d be killin’, on the other hand, these’d be the men like my own husband. The miners, all too often, got coal caved-in over the lot of ’em. Dust blowed up. There’d be fire and smotherin’ gas.

For pullin’ out a chicken’s entrails, a body needs patience and steady fingers. With a finger or two in the slit neck, the lungs and other organs can be pried loose. Then cut upwards from the breastbone and go around the vent. The lungs and kidneys, they’ll have to be gone after separate, but then it’s just a matter a’ reachin’ a hand in to get at the gizzard.

I was with our first child when my husband started talkin’ on the union. Started bringin’ these particular men on home with him. The ones still walkin’ upright, that is. Boys younger than my own man, they’d been practically blowed apart in the mines, crippled up by some blast, some accident or other. Me tryin’ not to dwell on it all, but then like all the rest a’ the wives, I’d end up out standin’ by some slag heap in the dead a’ night.

Just another wife weepin’ out in front a’ some great, dark hole, why, I’d get too scared even to pray. Pray what’s gonna become a’ me, what am I gonna do to feed the children if they don’t hoist my husband back up outta there? Me and my young man, both of us workin’ till we was ready to drop back then, but all he was about to amount to was dead.

Cut careful. Cut the bird clean. When the gizzard’s pulled out, the rest a’ the organs, they’ll most often slide out right along with ’em. Skin off the veins and such. Cut the gall bladder away from the liver, the intestines offa the gizzard. A bitter chicken’s always to be avoided, so never pierce a chickens innards.

I don’t know that I ever learnt what my man got paid way back when he was a trapper. That’d be back when I first knowed him as a young boy. The trappers, they’re boys who’d open the doors, then help to drive the mules down into the shaft. A’course, the mules, they have to be blinded before they’ll even go down in a mine. Ain’t a man they let down blind, a’ course, though I seen more’n one man climb back out that way, and the owners, them not seemin’ to care. Why, fear started growin’ up inside a’ me, as a young woman, like some great dark hole. At night when I closed my own eyes, I’d start to flail all about.

A lot a’ folks like the chicken’s organ meat fried up and served right along with their main meal. I seen all kinds a’ folks, right on up to the governor of this very state, sit back from my table and chew on the gizzard. The gizzard’s inner sack can be forced out between the thumbs before cookin’ it. Be sure to get the oil sacs up outta the tailbone too. The back a’ the chicken can be fried up or saved for the stock. Also the giblets, though like I say, some likes the organ meats right along with their meal. Leastways, chopped up into the milk gravy. Folks relish a sweet liver, and most especially, the heart.

The first man I ever saw blinded, as I remember, we all took up a collection for his fam’ly. The top boss, a’ course, couldn’t let the man go down under to work no more, even if he’d been able, which he wasn’t. “No sir, pretty much the last day a’ his workin’ life,” my own man remarks, and there we was, us minin’ folks takin’ up a collection for the family. Hardly a nickel between the likes of us. The mine owners, it’s not as if they even sent the man’s family one good luck wish! No, my husband’s eyes twinkled wicked-like, I remember. No, he said, didn’t take them operators “but a minute to go and replace an old mule with a new ‘un.”

There’s not a man I know don’t enjoy a drumstick. A fresh breast. To cut up a drawn bird, force the chicken leg out and down, put the knife at where the legs join the body to loosen ’em from the body, and then cut down toward the back. Try to keep the skin on the leg.

“Do you want me to come up outta the hole?” My husband finally up and asked me. This was long after he’d graduated up from door-openin’ to workin’ down at the face, right down in the mine. Me, I had myself children runnin’ ever which way by then. Tendin’ to them, my man, what little house we had, I still got me everybody packed up and off to church come a Sunday. Evenin’ prayer meetin’s were the services I more enjoyed myself, though, if and when I could get to ’em. “The union’s offered me a job,” my man announced to me. “I’ll be an organizer.”

My husband still had eyes like the sky is what I musta been thinkin’ when he asked me. A sky, why my man hardly ever gets to see for himself. When we married, my young man, he laughed and laughed at me. Why my parents had packed me off to our weddin’ all bundled up in leggin’s and petticoats! Petticoat after petticoat after petticoat, and my skirts all hand-stitched. My man, he said he like to never a’ got to the bottom of ’em!

“You come on up,” I didn’t have to think a minute way back when my husband first asked me about the union. ‘Course I was scared about losin’ wages and about our comin’ struggle, but seemed like he and me, the question we was always facin’ in our minin’ life was–what was the best death we could hope to expect, not the best life. I decided to stand behind the man, all the way. “Come on up and walk on top a’ the ground with the rest of us” is what I told my husband.

To sever the bird’s wing from the body, grab and cut through the skin, the flesh and the joint. Again, the wings can be thrown in the stock or fried up for their own selves. If a bird’s young, the body can most often just be pried apart by crackin’ the backbone. Either that or the chicken carcass has to be laid flat on its back and cut slant-wise next. The back and breast can be left as whole parts. To make more handy pieces, though, slice the whole right into two equal parts.

Thereafter, sometimes at my own supper table, come the talk a’ the strikes. Strikebreakers. Pickets and those who might cross the picket line. Scabs. Bullets stockpiled on both sides. The children and me, the women and children, without so much as a chicken between us, we mostly survived on cornbread and corn mush, but I bet I served me up an army on that. I cooked for an army! No matter. Anything for the union. All for union.

Most any mornin’ of my life, I’ve made bread. Sometimes a loaf or the biscuits that’s not needed durin’ one day can always be stored back then for warmin’ later on. Cornbread, which a lot likes just as well, can be started up right before a meal. Cookin’ so fast and easy like it does. Durin’ better times, not strike times, the children, they used to help me shuck and strip sweet corn, but anyways, it can be cooked up last to go with a bird. The potatoes, I peel ’em and start to soften ’em up an hour or so before my man’s cronies would be ready to pull their chairs up to the table. When times got better, we’d even get us some green beans and ham; let ’em come to a slow boil. ‘Course even the birds could be hard to come by come strike time.

Back then, seems like my husband, he was always flyin’ out the door Why, after we went to work for the union, he was always flyin’ out the door. My man had to call meetin’s, attend rallies. Our own children’s eyes, they’d grow wide and shiny, like windows, just watchin’ their daddy go. I tried not to mind him bein’ gone. I was happy. Not so scared anyway, ’cause I didn’t dream no more about great, dark holes. My man, my children, seemed like none of us felt so beat down no more. Kinda like our Lord at Easter, my own man had been delivered ’em up. He was out preachin’ that we could, we would, all of us rise up together. We’d stand on our own.

There were guns though. For protection, my man said. Guns for shootin’ people, come one reason or other, I guessed. I began to worry again. Worry about other people’s guns and about some bullet gettin’ lodged in my own man’s chest. His shoulders that seemed to fit the shape a’ these two hands.

Back then, the talk at the supper table got to be so much about fightin’. I could barely stand to come in from the kitchen. Made me so anxious. There was the talk about money. Not enough money. Needin’ more money. How long it was we’d have to go without even food. All the men would talk at me about who needed persuadin’ or about someone not yet bein’ persuaded to join our ranks. There was talk about men who refused to negotiate.

Now, makin’ a good pie gets to be a matter a’ competition. Any kind a’ berry or fruit laid back in a cellar can be used for fillin’. Why, seems like I’ve stood day after day till my legs ached, flour to my elbows, rollin’ and kneadin’ out dough to make up the men’s favorite. The apple.

The secret to a good pie is all in the crust. Use lard and a little butter. Salt and water. Flour both the board and rollin’ pin. Vinegar is for those who don’t know how to make a crust. The secret to light and flaky crust is all in the handlin’, or the not handlin’, that is. Easy does it.

Come even bad times, strike times, my man would step into the house and lift one a’ the children high. His reach had grown. It had range, motion. I kept wrapped in my most private thoughts, what I’d come across all wrapped up and hidden way back on a tool shelf. I guess that’s when I stopped askin’ my husband where he was off to come some nights. I’d found me a pair a’ brass knuckles.

Seems about that time, there also began to be elections to organize the union, itself. The union was strong by then, so there was bigger and bigger elections–first in the mines, themselves, but then the elections moved out to influence our towns and got downright political. My husband, he’d become an officer by then, and he was a man to get his voters lined up and out to the polls for the candidates he supported. Seems the union, we had to elect our own people.

This civic work, I’ve come to think over the years, is what I liked best. Whole seasons spent fillin’ fairground after fairground fulla tables, and then, my job to fill the tables fulla food. What with the heat a’ the fires and the stoves pourin’ out over us, and then the sun pourin’ down on us, a wonder me and the children weren’t all burnt to a crisp! Still, our youngsters growin’ strong between us, I have to say I was proud to be my husband’s wife. A union wife. We took care of our own. I took care of our own.

Come one a’ my man’s suppers in these growin’ times, why sometimes one of his cronies would follow me right on out to my kitchen to press some point. Why, as it finally turned out, one a’ the men my husband picked up along the way would become a state governor! All the cronies’d be tellin’ me, while I’d be scrubbin’ at their dishes, was that their idea now was that we had to have laws. The law on our side. The law would protect the workin’ man! All for the law.

To this day, I use a cast iron skillet. Oil it. Heat it. Never soak a chicken before cookin’ it. When it’s time, just sponge the bird off. Pat it clean. Dredge the pieces in flour. Flour and whatever magic seasonin’s come to mind. When the smell a’ fat fills up the kitchen, lower the chicken in. Fry up one-half at a time, turnin’ the pieces all the while. Mind the hot grease. Careful not to splatter, to singe the bare skin.

Don’t it just seem like one fight leads right on up to another? First, there was the trouble in the mines to settle, then there was if someone we could trust was runnin’ our town and the county, and I’ve got to say, I couldn’t tell the fightin’ got all that different when a governor came to eat right at my very own table. Always, just an endless stream a’ men talkin’. Course, then the talk was a’ fights more far off, way up in the state capital. Floor fights come one political convention or another. At home, here then, the fights would be over the government projects comin’ into the area and the money. How many jobs would there be? Whose jobs? Who was it would get to hand the jobs out? Would my very own husband be involved?

All folks like a little gravy. When the bird’s done, drain off most a’ the fat, but keep a decent part a’ the drippin’s back. Blend in a spoon or two a’ flour. Then stir it all up till the mixture thickens, smooth-like. Don’t nobody want to swallow a lump a’ flour. Add milk. Stir. Keep the heat steady. Stir.

“They call it power,” our visitor, the governor would wink at me and bite into his drumstick. Then the cronies would all finally shove their plates back and have their cuppa coffee. The scrape a’ their chairs sharp across the floor then, they’d all get up and leave. Only the governor, he was the only one, thought once to turn back to me.

“Don’t worry, Missus. Your hubbie, he’ll be traipsin’ on back home before long.” This man motioned in the direction a’ my husband, already well on his way out the door. Me left to wonder what’s the wave of a governor’s hand supposed to do for me? Me, who, somewhere in there, just took to wavin’ ’em all along on their way. One back after another turnin’ away from me, what was there left for me to be afraid of now? The boys, they all think it’s where they’re goin’ I mind. The drinks, the cards, the smoke, the women. Me, with a kitchen fulla leftovers and dirty dishes.

I found it’s not the bein’ alone, I mind. It’s the work. All the hard, hard work all along the way. Me, who minded the loneliness at first, the hunger and the longin’ to be part a’ things.

I felt, and tried to imagine what fun they all might be havin’. I’d stand at my window, lookin’ off across our town into the shadows gatherin’ all ’round. I’d try to imagine what the particular women of the evenin’ looked like. What all those women looked like and lived like. I wondered what it must be like to have hours at a time just to be pretty. Hours at a time to laugh and comb my hair. ‘Course now, I do have to allow as this was just what I imagined the women’s lives to be like. I had no way a’ knowin’.

Truth to tell, I’d just as often find myself wonderin’ what it would be like to stay out late into the night like my husband and his friends. Stay out late and play card games, darts, just like children. I wondered what all went on when my husband visited his friend, the governor, upstate. The big city. Everybody busy whoopin’ it up and havin’ a fine old time, I guess.

What dawned on me then, though–my own children bein’ up and finally all gone their own ways–what dawned on me, then, was the quiet. A whole house comin’ up around me. This house was my life’s work. The fruit a’ my labors. I’d finally got me my house filled with peace–and then, now, and always, I mean to keep it.

Once when my husband was walkin’ out into the night, I heard him remark to his buddies, “Maybe hard to believe, but when I married her, Ma had a waist not much bigger than her wrist! Yessir, she was a prize. Just a sweet young bird!”

Me, left to stand and squint at my own reflection. A face gone gray in a dishpan filled with dirty dishes. Seems like at first I minded ’cause my husband took to comin’ home at all hours a’ the night, but now, I more dread the way he comes bargin’ in through the door come who knows what time. These days, I leave the man to find his own way home. More’n once, he’s come stumblin’ and fumblin’ in durin’ the wee hours, for all the world, like a prowler up to no good at all.

Once upon a time, if I knowed my husband was bringin’ friends on home with him, I could ready the chicken early. Most times, though, he and his buddies, they’d be practically at the gate ‘fore I’d know who or what’s comin’. Then time to trim a bird come a visitor, one more time. How many, get the meal, one more time. Light hurts my eyes real bad now. There’s shadows comin’, though, even durin’ the day.

Every evenin’, I used to get down on my knees and pray. Now I clean my kitchen before turnin’ in. I lay me out a butcher knife. I make sure the ax is hangin’ where I can find and catch it up handy if need be. Like I said, there’s times I’ve had to strike off the head with a blade, but say I hear strange noises–I’m a woman who can snap me a neck if I’m a mind to.