It’s always been a bit confusing to label the “noontime” meal. My family always referred to it as “dinner” (and we called the evening meal “supper”) but depending on where you live, the noon meal is “lunch” and the evening meal is “dinner.” Just for clarity’s sake, whenever I refer to “dinner” I am referencing the noontime meal. Old habits are hard to break…
It always seemed to me that, whenever we were at my grandparents (which, by the way, was in eastern Kentucky, Breathitt County, to be specific), a large part of the day was spent eating. As soon as the breakfast dishes were done, Grandma began to work on dinner. There were many times when all of the family was together (before we–the grandkids–started marrying) that Grandma was cooking for 27 people, three times a day. And the amazing part is that she made it look to easy.
Dinner was a whole new meal. It usually consisted of some type of beans (soup beans, green beans or cooked dried green beans which she called “leather jackets” or “shuck beans”), cornbread, fried chicken, potatoes and whatever else she decided to fix. During the summer months, we also had whatever fresh vegetables that were available from the garden.
I cannot count how often I have seen my Grandma go out to her chicken pen which sat behind the house, grab a chicken, and as quick as anything, wring it’s neck and begin to pluck the feathers off. We ate fresh, free-range chicken before the word “free-range” was in anyone’s vocabulary. Eventually, she bought chicken from the store but even then, Grandma kept a few laying hens for fresh eggs and a few older ones to use as stewing hens for her chicken and dumplings.
Grandma made the absolute best chicken and dumplings. And again, it was without a recipe which is sad because no one can quite replicate what she did. In the same big old metal tub of flour that she made her biscuit dough, she would make her dumpling dough. Grandma would then roll this dough out with a drinking glass (usually one that she had gotten from a box of soap powders years earlier) and pinch the dough off into little pieces, dropping them into the rich broth from the stewing hen. When they were ready, she would carry the big old cast iron dutch oven full of dumplings over to the table. There would be a layer of bright yellow chicken fat on top. The thicker the layer of grease, the better the dumplings would taste. My aunts and uncles often referred to dumplings as “slickers.” No wonder.
One of the best fried chickens I ever ate was at Grandma’s house. I always pestered her to let me gather the fresh eggs. Because of black snakes and roosters, she would usually do it herself but she let me go. As I grabbed the galvanized bucket and was headed to the gate, she hollered out to me, “My girl. Leave that old rooster alone.” In the literary world, this is what as known as “foreshadowing.” There was a huge rock that I had to climb to reach the laying hens. I guess I was so intent on climbing and looking out for black snakes that I failed to hear the clucked warnings behind me. I had gathered a few eggs before I noticed the sounds. As I turned, my heart began pounding. It was the old rooster–he was clucking, prancing around and staring directly at me!
I slid off the rock that I was on, grabbed a much smaller one and threw it at the old bird. That was mistake number two… Mistake one was going into the chicken pen in the first place. He immediately stepped up his pace and started towards me. As I made my way to the gate, the rooster did too. Panicked, I grabbed at the gate and couldn’t open it. At this point, the old guy began to flap his wings. Having been previously “bitten” by a goose, I didn’t want to feel the wrath of this chicken. With no other options available, at least none that occurred to me at that moment, I decided, one way or another, I was getting over that fence.
My mother, who was looking out the window above the kitchen sink, watched the drama unfold. Years later she told me it was an awe-inspiring sight: the bucket thrown up in the air with eggs flying in every direction and me, her 12 year old daughter, vaulting over the fence like a conditioned Olympic athlete with the rooster right at my heels. All I can say is that fear is an amazing motivator. I ran into the house, leaving the frustrated rooster flapping his wings against the fence. Wanting to get away as far as possible from that old bird, I briefly relayed the story to Grandma before I shot out the front door, in search of a far less dangerous adventure.
Later, as we gathered for dinner, there was a huge platter of fried chicken on the table. As I sat down, grabbed a piece and began to eat, my family asked me how it tasted. It was delicious (Grandma’s fried chicken always was) so why would this be any different? Laughing, they told me I was eating the old rooster. With Grandma’s help, I got the ultimate revenge. I was taking a bite of the bird that had earlier wanted to take a bite out of me!!
This is my grandma, Malinda Turner Deaton. Behind her is the chicken pen and to her right, you can see where the hens laid their eggs.