Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Story for Spring

Tonight, for the potluck following my church’s Seder dinner, I’m cooking lamb. My church, an open and affirming UCC church here in Ottawa, has been having Seder dinners for quite a while. Until I attended one I was unfamiliar with the tradition of a Seder, believing it to be a Jewish tradition. And it is. It is a meal served to commemorate the beginning of Passover in the Jewish faith. So why is my protestant Christian church having a Seder meal? Because Jesus was a Jew, as were all the early Christians, and in that sense the Seder is part of our common faith. The meal, and the ritual within the meal, tells the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. But I’m not writing about the Seder. I’m writing about the lamb.

My daughter, a food scientist who continues to teach me new things about what I eat, sent me a link to an article about spring lamb that suggested we North Americans choose another meat for Easter as local spring lambs are just not big enough for slaughter and consumption during the spring holiday. It stated that if you purchase fresh spring lamb it will no doubt be a fully grown fall lamb from New Zealand or Australia shipped in for the American Easter lamb market. That made sense to me. We raised sheep on our dairy farm and those lambs born in the cold of January would just be getting to twenty pounds or so by March or April. We raised sheep, and shipped them to the sale barn for slaughter, but never ate a mouthful of their meat. I once asked my Dad why we didn’t eat the sheep like we did the cows and chickens.

“City people eat lamb and mutton,” he said. “We don’t.” And that was that.

I didn’t eat mutton, the meat of an adult sheep, or lamb till I traveled through North Africa where lamb and goat were the primary meat. I liked it then and have been eating it at every opportunity since. Having been recently educated by my daughter on the whole movement of farm to table going on in the hip restaurants she and my son take their Mom and Dad to, in order to both spend time with their parents and pick up the check, I was on the lookout for a local grass fed animal, and remembered some years back driving past a pasture on Route 80 somewhere between Princeton and Geneseo that had a hand painted sign on an old farm wagon that said “Easter Lamb” with a phone number. That’s all I started with. I began Googling lamb+(the names of towns along that stretch of Route 80). I got lucky with lamb+Sheffield. I was directed to Graze-n-Grow Farm, just East of Sheffield, where I met Jim and Ruth Draper.

Jim and Ruth have a lot going on at the Graze-n-Grow. Ruth has a full blown greenhouse business selling flowers and vegetables, and she also raises chickens along with some geese and ducks. Jim has been raising Katahdin sheep for the past twelve years or so, having gone from wool sheep to this breed of hair sheep bred for their meat. Katahdin sounds ancient and from the Middle East doesn’t it? It’s not. As Jim Draper tells it a guy from Maine set out in the late 1950’s to develop a breed of sheep that had great meat characteristics with no need to bother with the wool. The market price for wool has been in the toilet for years, ever since Australia dumped its wool reserve, some twenty years of stockpiled wool pelts, on the international market. It’s never recovered. Jim recalled paying more to shear his wool sheep than the wool was worth. He wasn’t even breaking even by raising sheep. He wanted to keep raising them, sheep had been raised on that farm for years, but needed to find a new market, a new product, a new plan. After much research he sold his wool sheep and switched entirely to the new Katahdin breed.

Their name? Taken from the highest peak in Maine. Completely made up. Katahdin sheep are a cross of an African “hair sheep” which sheds its long fine wooly hair each spring, and several chunky wool breeds. After years of cross breeding they created a new stock of sheep that maintained the “hair” and bulked up on the “meat.” Hence Katahdin sheep, made to be eaten not shorn. Their coats are so fine you don’t even need to cut off their tails like wool sheep. They do not need shearing. And they’re rugged. Jim, and most Katahdin breeders, feed them on nothing but hay in the winter and green pasture grass as long as it lasts. No grain needed. Also unnecessary are vaccines or hormones. Jim pays very few veterinarian bills. His Katahdin sheep are ruminants eating grass as their body was designed. Purely grass fed, like all lamb used to be. My daughter calls that moving forward by going back.

Jim and Ruth’s challenge was finding a market for their new sheep. They found it rather quickly among the Muslim population in the Quad Cities. Jim realizes three fourths of his revenue from lamb sales around one Muslim holiday, Eid El Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice at the end of the Hadj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s an interesting observance, and one that revolves around families sacrificing an animal and distributing the meat. One third is to be eaten by the immediate family, another third given to extended family, acquaintances, and friends, and another third given to the poor. Millions of animals, goats and camels in addition to lambs and sheep, are sacrificed throughout the Muslim world on Eid El Adha. And Jim Draper and his Katahdin sheep found their way into it.

If you are Christian or Jewish you know the scripture on which this holiday is based. Jim and Ruth Draper knew it too. As we talked to them at their kitchen table I couldn’t help but notice a well worn Christian Bible next to the salt and pepper shakers. Eid El Adha is based on the Genesis story of Abraham, the humble servant of a God who tested his faith by commanding him to kill then burn his son Isaac on a pyre of sticks on a mountain. I’m quite sure our English language Bibles have lost much in the translation. If that were happening today the exchange between Abraham and God would go something like this, beginning with Abe hearing God’s command.

“You want me, an old man of 99, to kill my son Isaac, born to my wife Sarah miraculously at age 90, our only son whom we love.” His other child, Isaac’s older half brother, was born to Abe and Sarah’s Egyptian household servant Hagar. It was Sarah, then unable to bear children, who came up with the idea to create an heir to Abraham by having her husband Abe sleep with the servant. That child was named Ishmael. But back to God, Abraham, and Isaac.

“That’s right Abraham. I want you to sacrifice Isaac.”

“You have got to be kidding.”

“I‘m not.”

Abraham, as we learn, is a faithful God fearing guy. And so he takes Isaac up the mountain. Isaac is confused. He asks his Dad, “We have fire, and wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
“God will provide it,” his Dad answers.

When they came to the sacrificial site they built an altar with the wood, but then, presto change, Abe ties Isaac up and lays him on the pile of wood. He raises his knife to kill him as God commanded. The Bible version I’m reading doesn’t note Isaac’s words or reaction to his Dad getting ready to kill him but surely he would have said something and if he did it would have no doubt recorded this:

“Jesus Christ, Dad. What is wrong with you?” No, wait. He wouldn’t have said Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t show up for another thousand years. But he might have said.

“Good God, have you gone crazy?”

Now that’s a valid question. Luckily, before Abe’s arm, attached to the hand that holds the knife that is about to kill his son, descends downward in a fatal blow God speaks to Abe. Imagine a big voice booming down from the sky. God wouldn’t have a small voice would he?

“Don’t lay a hand on the lad. For now I know you fear me, because you didn’t withhold your son from me.”

Abe stops, the knife in mid air. Just then he looks up and sees a ram whose horns are caught in a bush. He unties Isaac and they sacrifice the ram, much to Isaac’s relief I’m sure. I’m not ambitious enough to read on and find out what happened to Isaac, but it is hard for me to believe he ever felt the same about God, or his Dad, after that experience. But you know the Bible, anything can happen.

And so that story, told orally for years before it was written down, became part of the Jewish Torah, the Christian Old testament, and also the Koran, sacred scripture of the Islamic world. I learned that basic fact from traveling in North Africa in the seventies. All three faiths share the Old testament as scripture. As my Moroccan friend Najib once explained over tea in a busy Rabat street cafĂ©, the stories that make up each religion’s earliest writings are not that different.

“We got Moise, you call him Moses. We got Noah and Ibrahim, you call him Abraham. We even have Jonah, the man who lived inside the big fish.”

Can’t you almost see those ancient people, somewhere in the desert in a tent, sitting around a fire listening to an old man tell the story of a faithful man about to sacrifice his son? It’s a compelling story, a good one with all the elements; suspense, violence, and in the end redemption. Like all good stories you don’t want them to go to waste. Everybody apparently used that story and wrote it down when writing became common. The Muslims though put a twist on their version of the story.

In the Koran it’s not Isaac being sacrificed but Ishmael. Ishmael is an important figure in Islam. He is regarded as a prophet and an ancestor to Muhammad. Ishmael is credited with later designing and the Kabba in Mecca, Islam’s most holy site. I didn’t learn this from researching the Koran. Jim Draper told me. He has learned it from his customers seeking sacrificial lambs.

“Yep, their story is just about the same as ours, excepting for the change in characters there, from Isaac to Ishmael. They put their important person in their story. We got our version and they got theirs. And must be that their book, the Koran, talks in more detail about the ram, because they come here in the fall wanting a ram without blemish. And they like them with horns. I can charge more if they have horns. Except if a horn is broken, or the animal is scarred in some way, they don’t want them. And they don’t want them castrated. I used to castrate the bucks, because they gain weight better, but they want them intact. So I don’t do anything to those lambs at all. And I’m telling you, with that holiday being in the fall, and the lambs just coming off summer pasture, that’s the perfect time to harvest my lambs. They’re heavy, their meat is still tender, and they are as natural as natural can be.”

“The other thing I do is let them practice their customs. Your really good Muslims, the devout ones, they are dead set on killing their own lamb themselves according to Halal. That’s like Kosher to the Jewish people. See when you sell a live animal to someone, they’re free to do with it what they want, and some people just load the live lamb up in their car or van or whatever and take it home to slaughter. But there’s been problems with that. Americans in cities don’t go much for families bleeding out a lamb and butchering it on the driveway or even the back yard for that matter. So I let them butcher here if they want. That’s important to them. They appreciate me for letting them carry out their religious traditions.”

“So where this, uh, killing done?”

“I let them use the back of the barn there. I got to say, it’s a very humane way to kill a sheep. In the small processing plants around here they just shoot them you know, a .22 to the head. In the larger plants they use an electric bolt, knocks them out, and then they hang them up and bleed them. But this Halal butchering, they call it zabihah, is slick. They pray before each animal is killed, making sure to use their God's name, Allah, during the slaughter. They use a very sharp knife, slitting the throat with a long cut that opens all the arteries, so the sheep bleeds out quick. The animal can’t be unconscious, but they make sure the lamb is quiet. They bleed so fast that they simply fade out from blood loss peaceful like. After they make the cut they hang them and let them bleed out completely. They don’t save the blood for nothing. And they make sure a religious person does the slaughter. Usually the husband does it, but some of them are queasy about it and let their wives. But I have to say it’s done tastefully. I kind of like the way they pray and give thanks. We do that when we eat, they do it long before they even cook as well.”

My son Dean was interested in Jim’s story. He has traveled to Morocco also and remembers the sheep and goat heads hanging in the souks or markets, used mainly for soup. He was both surprised and pleased to find a Midwestern farmer was so knowledgeable of another culture.

“I bet you never knew anyone that was Muslim growing up here,” Dean said.

“Heck no,” Jim said. “I’ve lived here all my life. We got Lutherans and Methodists, Catholics and Baptists, some other groups. But Muslims? Wasn’t till I started selling these meat sheep I ever met one.”

“So how you getting along with your Muslim customers?” Dean asked.

“You know, they’re like everyone else. Some of them are nice as can be, and some are hard to deal with. I used to have problems with them wanting to barter. Must be a custom in their countries. I have a set price and don’t like to dicker. Most of my advertising now is word of mouth between families and friends, and they like the taste of my lambs. They’re pretty much selling themselves. I got lots of repeat customers and for the most part they don’t argue about the cost anymore.”

“I like the Moroccans best. They’re more the working class regular people. There’s this Indian guy, maybe Pakistani, he’s got more money than most I think. He’s into the medical field somehow. Now he’s dang hard to deal with. But you know, they’re good people. They’re trying to keep up their traditions and do right like they were taught. I respect that.”

“You should go to Morocco,” my son said. “You’d love it.”

“That’s what they tell me. They offer to put me and Ruth up with their relatives over there. But Ruth and I, we’re pretty busy here. The sheep need looking after. It’s pretty much full time and year round.”

I liked Jim a lot. Not only because he wore Dickie’s bib overalls with patches on the knees but also because he was the kind of farmer I grew up with; smart, inquisitive, always trying to make his farm better, looking for new ways to make a honest living. If we can repurpose the small farms around here to filling a need or desire for good food raised in a sustainable way I’m all for it.
Jim asked Dean and I about our experiences travelling. We must have talked for an hour. He gave us a tour of Ruth’s well ordered greenhouses. She was meticulously taking tiny sprouts from the smallest of trays and pushing them into bigger flats where they could grown to be plants ready for sale. Their big day is Mother’s day. Though it was a cold and windy morning, with snow on the ground, it was hot inside the plastic hoop house. Grass fed lambs and plants grown from seed. There’s something nice about that combination.

As we went to our car Jim asked us to let him know how the people at my church liked his lamb. I promised to tell him. There are lots worse things you can do on a Tuesday morning than pay a visit to a local farm. It’s good to know there are people in the world changing themselves and their surroundings for the better and learning to accept people different than them.

So whatever your traditions, whatever stories you’ve been told to believe as if they were true, enjoy this Easter weekend. There’s something about it that makes the world new.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Independent Living

There is a Trailways bus that takes off from Burlington, Iowa every morning of the week heading east. It stops in towns along Interstate 80 before arriving at the bus station in downtown Chicago. You can get on the bus in Ottawa at the Dunkin Donuts in front of the North side Kroger at 4:30 a.m.. Dunkin Donuts is open twenty four hours a day so you can wait inside, with or without a donut, if it’s cold or rainy.

You pretty much have to buy bus tickets on line these days with a credit card and print them out. Of course, by getting on this bus you can travel on past Chicago. From there you can go anywhere. Remember my young friend, the one I bailed out of jail on a cold night around the new year and helped get a social security card and State ID? He got on that bus Saturday morning. With any luck he arrived in a good town near the West coast Monday afternoon. For him it’s a fresh start. A clean slate. My young friend got on the bus with little but a paid ticket and an old friend to stay with at the other end of the line. Some may call that ill prepared but from where he started it’s not bad.

I think there is nothing sweeter in life than a fresh start. Some say it’s a God send. I think all of us need a clean slate at least once as we make our way through the years. Maybe more than once. But we can’t expect too many. It was the immortal and astute Muddy Waters, I believe, who once said:

Every dog has its day.
If you’re a real good dog you might get two days.

Given the pain of completely leaving a community, a group of friends, perhaps family; walking away from those we love or who once loved us, to say nothing of abandoning habits and routines we rely on, know so well, and are so comforted by, it’s amazing anyone deliberately makes major life changes. But we do. We do amazing things-cross borders, brave deserts, sail oceans, risking everything to strike out on our own to escape our lives as they are. My young friend’s break was less dramatic. He simply set out across the country to find a job, keep a roof over his head, stay out of jail, and experience life as an adult not dependent on anyone else. All he had to do, on the surface anyway, was get on a bus. The hard part would come soon enough.

He talked about leaving with anticipation over and over this winter. I helped him put together a plan that included steps needed to make it happen. He followed those steps. When we talked calmly, at breakfast usually, he knew he had to go. He knew it was the best thing. He isn’t dumb, and he can see his personal reality clearly at times. Yet like all of us he has to balance reason with emotion. And for him, emotion wins much of the time. At the very end he broke down. He left during a crisis. He was beaten up and beaten down. But he managed to leave in spite of all his fears.

“I’ve taken long bus trips,” I told him, “and there’s nothing better than looking out a big window at the countryside going by for two days or so. Gives you a chance to sort out where you’ve been and figure out where you’re going. Hopefully somewhere in Colorado, which is about halfway, you’ll turn the page on Ottawa and start looking ahead to that new town out west.”

Traveling alone gives us a chance to look at our life closely. No one knows you out there. There is no one to remind you of past faults and weaknesses. At those times, short moments really in the scope of a whole life, we escape our past. Over the winter he slowly shared some of that past with me, though I’m sure not all of it. We shouldn’t require that of each other anyway; absolute full disclosure of regrets and fears, weaknesses and mistakes. Well perhaps to one other human being. I didn’t want to be that human being for my friend. I just wanted to help him get through this time in his life. No matter who ends up really knowing us, if anyone, it is more important I think to see ourselves for who we are, to look at ourselves honestly, in order to both celebrate the beauty and face the ugliness we discover in there.

I tried to help my young friend by talking to him. I made observations, thought about what he said, tried to explain simply how his life looked to me, and how he might expect to be seen by others. I hope some of that helped. In the end though, I could only make arrangements.

I gave him rides, encouraged him, reassured him, and bought him food. As so often happens, it was his family that put the money together to finance his trip. He’s lived through more than his share of pain and brought pain to others in arguable proportion. He has plenty of critics. What is in short supply are people who support him. Not that it matters much now. His past can’t be changed. It’s the future that’s matters. It is the choices he makes next, and not forgetting that life is long and anything is possible.

On the short drive to Dunkin Donuts at 4:15 in the morning we joked about the secret of life. I told him my version and he laughed, which made me laugh back. I would tell it to you here but it’s a secret, which is why they call it the secret of life. If we run into each other you ask I’ll tell it to you, but then you have to keep it to yourself as well.

He was tired but in good spirits; weepy but optimistic, if those things go together. I think they can. Under the bus, in the luggage compartment, was a single suitcase worn out from too many trips of mine. In a shopping bag he had five sandwiches, three big cookies, two pops, two bottles of water, and a book. In his pocket was cash and with it a cheap cell phone loaded with one month’s worth of minutes. That was everything he owned. As departure time neared the bus driver looked at his ticket and asked to see a picture ID. My young friend promptly pulled it from his wallet and showed it to the driver. I chuckled to myself. Few know how hard it was to accomplish that simple step of establishing his identity, something most of us so take for granted.

It was time to go. He gave me a big hug and I hugged him back. Yeah, he’s officially somebody now, with papers to prove it. He just has to figure who that’s going to be.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Raising Chickens

On our farm, a 190 acre dairy farm with timber, pasture, and good tillable McLean county soil for crops, Dad was master of the dairy barn and the sheep lot and my Mom the absolute ruler of the hen house. She bought baby chicks, nurtured them, fed them generously, took their eggs, killed them, butchered them, cooked their flesh in various ways, ate them, and started the cycle over the next spring with more baby chicks. To the chickens, had they been able to think like humans, she would have been God-mother, sustainer of life, their executioner and destiny. She filled her roles in the life cycle of those chickens with ease and grace. It was something to behold.

Our farm was how we made our living. Raising animals was not a hobby. The check from Prairie Farms dairy in Carlinville and the egg money kept our family afloat. It was serious business, and death was part of the equation.

As her youngest child I bore special witness to her dominion over the chickens. As the youngest child by far and at eight the only kid living on the farm I was her helper and companion, observant and complicit in all things having to do with the chickens. I fed them when she couldn’t, gathered eggs, helped with the baby chicks at the beginning of their life and at the end when she butchered them. To be honest, the days we butchered chickens were much like any other on the farm. It was a task that had to be done and we were the ones who did it. We thought little of it.

Death and farming went hand in hand. Each year Dad bred one of the bigger more beefy Jersey milk cows with Angus or Hereford semen to produce a calf we all knew would be butchered at about fifteen months of age and kept in the deep freeze in the basement to feed us through the year. Our farm was at the crossroads of a gravel road and a state highway. Careless dogs, running loose like farm dogs did then were sometimes hit and killed by cars and trucks on the road. Lambs born on January nights and neglected by their mothers froze to death. Jersey calves were occasionally still born or died from scours. But no animal on the farm matched the death rate of the chickens.

Each spring we bought fluffy baby chicks in cardboard boxes from the hatchery in Bloomington. My time on the farm extended past those days my parents talked about when they let their hens sit on a clutch of eggs and hatch chicks themselves.

“Why not let hens hatch their own eggs Mom?”

“This works better,” she said. “We can keep eating and selling eggs year round, and buying chicks from the hatchery means lots less roosters.”

Hatchery chicks were sexed to guarantee females. We only kept one rooster. In fact, being male was nearly fatal on our farm. We kept and raised heifer calves to become milk cows but sold the little bulls within days of their birth to a man down the road that raised them for veal. We had one buck sheep and each year we shipped all the male lambs while keeping the best of the ewes. We had but one Jersey bull, then when we switched to artificial insemination, no bull at all.

Soon after we sold Joe, the last bull on the farm, my Dad shared this astute observation with me. “Of all the things alive on this place, the only ones with balls are the buck sheep, the rooster (though you couldn’t see them) you, and me. It’s good to be human, don’t you think?” I had to agree.

Mom and I would drive to the hatchery in Bloomington about this time of year and fill the station wagon with flat cardboard boxes full of chicks. You could hear them peeping and scratching inside. Because there were no seat belts then I turned around in the back seat and lifedt the lids on the boxes, sometimes bringing a chick out and cupping it in my hands, a ball of soft yellow with a beak, beady eyes, and fragile legs underneath.

We put the chicks in the brooder house, a small one room chicken house with electricity and South facing windows. We put them in flimsy circular pens made of corrugated cardboard a foot high. It didn't take much to corral baby chicks. Over the circles hung heat lamps. Keeping them warm meant keeping them alive.

“Why circles Mom? Why not a square pens?”

“Because chicks have tiny brains and they’re not very smart. They pile up in corners and smother each other, suffocate. Take away the corners and more live. That means we get more eggs and more chicken on the table.” Mom was a practical thinker.

As it was, not all the chicks made it through the first week. Each day it seemed we threw a few of their tiny carcasses into the manure spreader outside the milk barn. But after they started sprouting real feathers they became hardier. They grew at an amazing rate. Before you knew it we added them in with the mature hens in the big chicken house with the fenced in yard. They had transformed themselves from chicks to pullets. As they began producing eggs, and throughout the year, we thinned out the flock by butchering the older hens. My Mom’s belief was that the older a hen the tougher the meat. Young chickens were better for frying. She stewed the old ones, often with dumplings. A chicken butchering day was sometimes announced by my Mom at breakfast.

“After I get the breakfast dishes done I want you to help me do up some chickens.”

Do up meant butcher. It started with catching them. Just inside the hen house door, hanging on nails, Mom kept two long wire chicken catchers with wooden handles on one end and twisted wire hooks on the other. The hen house floor was cluttered with feeders, a shallow water tank, and a short broad open pail with cracked oyster shell for their craws. In one corner were elevated racks for roosting, and in another long boxes filled with straw where hens nested and laid their eggs. Armed with the wire catchers Mom and I would herd the hens into an open corner of the chicken house, where they piled up much as chicks would I guess. We reached under them, trying to get the wire hook around one of their scaly yellow legs. When we got one we pulled it out, squawking and flapping its wings. Mom would look over the hens I caught with a critical eye.

“No, let that one go, she’s too young. Go after the older girls.” Mom was better at it than I was. I was afraid of hurting them, and she was not.

When she approved of the chicken I caught I would draw it to me and grab both of its legs with my hand. I hated that part. If you weren’t careful to keep the hen away from you it would slap you in the face with its wings. Sometimes I would let go out of fear. Mom chided me.

"David, that chicken is not going to hurt you. Hang onto it now and take it out.”

When we were successful in catching and holding a good candidate for butchering I would take it outside the house and tie it by the legs, upside down, to one of the lengths of baler twines hanging from a pine tree. That pine was great for climbing. Its limbs grew evenly spaced and parallel, like a ladder. From two of the lowest limbs six baler twines hung. When we had six chickens hanging there we were done with the first phase. It was a strange sight, and the hens looked perplexed, hanging upside down, three hens on one side of the trunk and three on the other, their wings spread. They hung there quietly, clucking softly, completely unaware of what was about to happen.

My Mom was the executioner. On the days we did up chickens Mom put a sharp butcher knife in her apron pocket. As the chickens waited innocently, upside down, she approached them and drew out her knife.

You might think that the actually killing of the chickens would be somewhat solemn. We were after all ending the life of a living breathing thing. I had learned somewhere that when plains Indians killed buffalo they said a little prayer of thanks. Later in my life while traveling in Morocco I learned that Muslim teaching requires families to buy their chickens alive and kill them in a manner prescribed by their religion, respecting its life. While you might have expected there would be some ceremony or at least a token of notice as to what was about to take place there on our farm, in fact the impending death of six chickens my Mom had raised from chicks and profited from during their lifetime, I have to report there was absolutely none. Not only did she acknowledge nothing, she often talked about something else entirely.

“What do you like best about Sunday school?” she once asked as her fingers encircled the neck of the first chicken, closing around it just below the beak and eyes and stretching its neck towards her, drawing it near. In addition to being ruler of the hen house she was the Sunday school superintendent at the First Presbyterian Church in Danvers.

“I like it when they let us rewrite the Bible stories in our own words.” I had recently written as a Sunday class assignment my version of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. In my version, Moses’ words to the Pharaoh came as he stuck a snub nosed .38 revolver into his ribs. “Let my people go… or else.”

“Yeah, that was a good lesson.” As those words were coming out of my Mom's mouth she cleanly sliced off the head of the first chicken, drawing her knife across its neck with a quick jerk and tossing the now separated head against the base of the tree. When she was done there would be a small pile of six chicken heads there. The cats would eat them later.

That head was immediately motionless and obviously altered there at the base of the pine tree, it’s eyes either shut or open but fixed. In contrast the rest of the chicken, its body, was jerking and flapping wildly at the end of the baler twine, causing the chicken, or most of it, to swing in an wide arc under the tree limb spraying blood which splattered on the ground in a scarlet line much like you might find in a Jackson Pollack painting. My Mom went quickly through the chickens, killing three on one side of the tree trunk, then three on the other. When she was finished it was mayhem, six headless chicken bodies swinging wildly, sometimes banging into each other, the twines suspending them at times twisting together. We would step back and watch. Occasionally drops of blood found its way onto our skin or clothes.

Our Aunt Lou and Uncle Ed used a different and more traditional method of killing chickens. They used a hatchet. After placing the chicken’s neck on a tree stump, they chopped it off with one thunk and let it flop around on the ground. Mom thought that was messy.

When I first helped do up chickens I was perplexed at why and how the body of the hen would react so violently to death while the head of the hen immediately went still. Mom explained it this way.

“I think bodies pretty much do what brains tell them to do. The last thing that chicken’s brain told its body, when it felt my knife on its neck, was ‘Get the heck out of here.’ All that wing flapping is the chicken trying to fly away from danger. But as you know, we put the chicken in such a dangerous position that it was too late. But its body did what it was told and tried to fly away anyway. That’s why they flap their wings.” I liked the way my Mom explained things.

When the chickens were still, hanging straight down and no longer moving, Mom and I would go to the milk house and fill two five gallon buckets with scalding hot water, bringing them back under the tree where we had a little bench to sit on. We would sit side by side, dunking the hens in the hot water and pulling off their feathers. Later I would collect and burn the feather in our burn barrel. Void of feathers, and much smaller in appearance, Mom would then slice open the chickens' abdomens and rake the guts into one of the buckets. I liked to see what was in their craw, some call it a gullet or gizzard. Mom let me cut that little skin pouch open with my pocketknife and inspect it. Inside was what they most recently ate. There was chicken feed in there, but also bugs from their outside yard, and kitchen scraps Mom would make me throw over the fence; bits of potato peel, beet tops, carrot ends. It was like a science project only I wasn’t in school.

We would continue to talk there on the bench about this and that as we worked; the Cubs, school, things I wondered about. When we were all done she put five dressed chickens in bags and sent me with them to the deep freeze in the basement. The sixth one she took to the kitchen for supper that night.

It might seem grisly and violent to you, but it was just another day’s work for us on that little farm. I have to say I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t mind doing it all again.