Sometimes you get a feeling, that nagging duty feeling, the feeling of being drawn back to a task that while necessary, was something your interest had passed on, but needed to be finished to get on to better things. This left me plodding along behind Chin back to the hens.
They were drained now so the next thing was the feathering.
We went to the shop and as instructed Gus had the kettles boiling. He and Chin carried them out to pour into two large buckets, one slightly larger than the other. Gus maneuvered the wash tub of blood waste away and stationed the smaller bucket under the baking hens.
Chin had gotten two full front aprons we put on, they were stained with all manner of what I did not know. She managed to adjust mine for my small stature.
Then to the feathering…Chin plunged a hen into the bucket and hanging it on the nail began to pull the larger feathers off the wings and tails. She let me help a bit here and there. Then we repeated it with hen #2. She let the feathers land in the water, “so as not to make a mess.” Then we both took turns plunging and feathering all the smaller feathers into the larger bucket. When the hens were about naked we washed them off with the hose and hung them back on the nails.
“Now for the feathers,” Chin added. We took what seamed a good amount of time ladling the smaller feathers out of the bucket and onto the screen box and covering it with the other screen to dry out for use later.
Two things they used a great deal in southern Louisiana, for stuffing things like pillows and mattresses were chicken feathers, and Spanish moss respectively. My mother used to tell us a story of how they once were washing out their pillow and mattress covers, a biannual job, for re-stuffing with fresh feathers and moss. And for three or four months or so you would have plump pillows and full mattresses that you could just sink into, in time they would become flat. This particular year as they were throwing out the old feathers, they found some of them sewn together in an x with black and red thread. This meant a hex had been put on your household, especially the person’s pillow it came from. But they didn’t know who’s as they had already dumped all the pillows out.
The people had old ways and old beliefs, and her mother was very alarmed. Being a poor widow, she got help from relatives and found a way (beg and borrow) to pay some ugly old man 50piastre (fifty dollars) which was a fortune in those days, to come make good gris gris (gree, gree) by throwing a pouch under the porch and spiting all over the top of the it. My mom, though young at the time, was appalled at the waste of money on superstition.
Going back to the chickens though, soon we had them cleaned up fairly well. Chin then shaved the pin feathers with the long skinny knife. “Any is left we will burn off inside later.” She explained.
After we rinsed the hens again with the hose Chin got out the wire and using the end like a needle sewed and tied up the anus area of each chicken. ‘Oh my God’ was all I could think, ‘what in the world is she doing that for?’ but I kept it to myself and didn’t question. Then she took the pink sharp little knife and cut a triangle around the place she just tied up. She cut a base of the triangle along the inside of the tail (the tail is called in Cajun the croupier, but pronounced croupiyon) which I found out later first meant the person riding behind the rider on a horse, or on the tail end, before it was a gambling attendant. Anyway the cut was along the inside base of the croupier and like a triangle up either side meeting just above the sewn closed place.
Then pulling the wires all of the innards came out in one blob, to be dropped into the blood waste tub. All except that is the gizzards which she snatched up in her hand before they fell in.
“We save the gizzards you see from the stomach and guts.” She snipped of the line of innards tube, and the gizzards were placed in a little bowl.
“Smells king of stinky.” I observed
“Yes it does but not so much as if I hadn’t tied their butts closed.”
I don’t know why this struck me so but I exploded into laughter. The phrase “tied their butts closed” sounded somehow so funny to me that I couldn’t stop giggling “tied their butts closed” I howled. Aunt chin didn’t see the humor at first but my giggling was contagious and soon we were both belly laughing soo hard that Gus came to see what the deal was.
“Why are you laughing at?” he came out and asked
“Tied their butts closed.” I spurted out. It took Gus a moment at the French explaining from Chin to catch on to the reason for my laughter. We all had a good guffaw. And even later in the house I heard Chin and Gus in another room laughing, and speaking French except the phrase “tied their butts closed” they had gotten the idea of my childish laughable comedy of it all.
After that incident all tension melted away and I saw the hens as food we were preparing now, without any trepidation of the animals they recently were.
Next chin cleavered the heads and sent them to the waste bin, as well as loosening the tubes that led to the guts, the crop, windpipe and such got cut off, the esophagus veins and such were pushed through, holding the neck she ran her fingers in down the neck cavity loosening the other vital organs to come out the bottom. We saved the livers and hearts and added them to the gizzards and removed the necks to keep. Then she ran the hose through the inside of them.
Lastly she cut off the feet just at the leg joint and she set them off to the side. Then she cut open and cleaned out the gizzards showing me the little rocks and such. She took the yellow skin off the feet and snipped the nails and she cut off the pointless end of the wing.
“Why are you saving the feet and wings?” I asked. I knew what the livers hearts and gizzards were for.
“Well I’m goin to add them to the backs I cut from the fryers and boil up some chicken stock…broth,” Chin explained. “unless you want them feet for a lucky ju ju?”
“Naww…” I pshawed, giggling
“Don’t laugh.” She added, “Some folks take it serious and it seams to work for them.”
“You can just boil them, thanks anyways.” I said. I could just picture my mom’s face if I wanted to bring home some chicken feet for luck. And I could picture them being pitched out the window of the car on the way home, as she would be mumbling something about ugly old men spitting on the porch, and fifty dollar superstitions.
Lastly, another washing and the two hens were placed in the rectangular pan looking as though we just bought them at the store.
“So my sweet, thas all there is. Whad’ya think?” Chin looked over for my evaluation.
“I’m glad I helped and watched.” I told her. “ It really wasn’t bad.”
“And you got to see chicken butts get tied closed!” Chin burst into laughter again, and I along with her.
“What do we do with all this stuff now?” I motioned mostly to the waste tub.
“Well that’s what husbands are for.” She chortled. “Actually we gonna take our hens, and that bowl of goodies inside and finish clean up, then I will be back out here for the mess. But I do believe you will be startin some artwork for me eh?”
“OK.” I agreed excitedly. Chin took the tray of chickens and asked me to bring the bowl of ‘goodies’. Off we marched like a parade with an offering back to the house. I realized it was really beginning to get hot outside, especially with the apron on. Looking down at what I was carrying I felt like a hoodoo apprentice, with a bowl of chicken feet , necks, hearts, livers, gizzards and wing tips.
Inside we set everything down and took off our aprons. The fan felt good. I could see Chin was sweating too, as she took our aprons off to the laundry. I was instructed to go start washing my hands “from the elbows down” in the bathroom sink. Chin joined me in a moment and did the same.
As we returned to the kitchen we both sat down to fan and cool off. I had to run and get my fan from the living room. “You want some ice-coffee?” Aunt Chin asked. Not sure what she meant I was about to ask but she saw my expression and volunteered more information. “Just like ice-tea, only coffee.”
“Oh, OK.” I wondered if this would be nasty tasting though. Chin took two glasses to the coffee pot and poured each about a third full with left over coffee. Then she took some ice trays out and took them to the sink. She plugged the sink dumped most of them in, but reserved enough to fill each glass. The she refilled the trays and put them back. To our coffee she added sugar a tad of milk and filled them the rest of the way with water, stirring, and returned to sit by me and serve me my first glass of ice-coffee. I tasted it and was surprised, and I’ve been a fan ever since…and this new generation thinks they invented the cold coffee drinks, latte, frappe, whatever.
“You rest here while I finish these hens.” Chin said as she sprung up and went over to the stove. She burned off any little feathers on the burner then washed them again in the open sink. Then tossed them on the ice and filled that sink with water. It was the opposite of the thaw we did earlier in the same sink, now it was rapid cool down. Later we would wrap them in butcher paper label them and take them to the freezer, in a sort of reverse of the steps we took with the earlier hens. I watched her quietly sipping my coffee. The box fan cooled me from behind, the counter fan still blowing sort of reached one side of my face and my peacock, I used to cool the other.
Chin piddled around, sorting the hoodoo goodies, some in a stock pot and others in the frig. Chicken backs I assumed went from the frig to the pot, the fryer parts in buttermilk went to the frig. The pot went to the sink to fill then back to the stove,…I felt like a person watching a tennis match back and forth, Chin was to and fro. washing her hands in the sink, back to the pot with salt and seasonings, and turning on the fire beneath, top on, slightly askew.
Chin sat for a moment, only a moment, sipping her coffee and fanning, and dabbing her head of sweat. “I need to put them pies in the frig prally (probably) now.” Chin felt the bottom of the pans to see how cool they were, then poof!--up again she was in the frig making room and putting the pies away. And bam back down in the seat fanning and drinking a long sip of coffee. We were making small talk that led back around to my art work and… pop, Chin was up again getting a roll of white butcher paper and some scissors. She metered it out and asked me how big a piece I wanted to draw on, then she cut it off trimmed the edges more evenly, wiped the table of condensation moving my coffee, and laid it in front of me. Soon it was joined by a can of pens and pencils “There,” she said, “you’re all set.”
“I don’t know what to draw.” I told her again.
And her response was the same as before “Pick up a pencil and the idea will pop into you head,” but then she added “draw something big and grand.”
As I picked up the pencil, it happened…How did she know?! I thought of the chicken feet and wondered if she had done a little gris gris to me along the way somewhere. Ole Chin had a bit of magic or something ‘cause just as I picked up the pencil something indeed big and very grand popped into my head.
Stop and smell the roses
7 years ago