John Carlson: For the Love of Chickens

Acquiring chickens is a beautiful dream. Photo by: Nancy CarlsonAcquiring chickens is a beautiful dream. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

By: John Carlson—

My wife has a recurrent dream.

It’s about chickens.

In this dream, Nancy actually owns chickens. Rather, we own chickens, an assortment of dutiful, fancifully feathered cluckers that reside out back. Sometimes she will go for eight or nine months without even mentioning chickens. But then, out of the blue, she’ll verbalize some crazy chicken pipe dream of hers that reminds me she hasn’t forgotten them and, indeed, remains in the throes of her chicken obsession.

This happened just the other day, sitting on our back deck.

“See,” she said, pointing thirty feet away to our little storage barn. “Just take off the bench and knock out the window.”

What?” I said, totally flummoxed. So she went on to explain we could rip the bench from the storage barn, remove the window from its western wall, then affix said bench between the ground and the windowsill as a ramp. This would allow any future Carlson chickens to leisurely stroll up the incline each night in a dignified manner, pop through the empty window into their cozy storage barn, then settle themselves down for another satisfying bout of egg laying.

Nothing to it, assuming the foxes don’t follow.

In considering this, part of me feels a hint of excitement. While I’m no egg connoisseur, I will grant you that a nicely fried egg placed between the halves of a perfectly toasted onion bagel and slathered in gooey Cheez Whiz makes an excellent sandwich.

What I don’t cotton to is the other side of chicken raising, its seamier side. As the grandson, from my mother’s family, of country farm folks, I heard all about the fate of chickens past their prime. My sweet Grandma Millie Smith told me about wringing unproductive chickens’ necks for Sunday dinners, though I could never picture her walking around with a murdered chicken in her hands. And Grandpa Howdy filled me in on the way chickens gallivanted around the barnyard, even after their heads had been hacked off.

Could I do that? Wring the neck of some poor chicken I’d come to think of as Clucky, Ms. Cluckster or The Cluckmeister? Or ax off its head? I think not. Deep inside, I’m no chicken killer.

On the other hand, deep inside I am a chicken eater, and Grandma Millie was one heck of a country cook. However those luckless chickens had met their doom, it was undeniably in a tasty culinary cause. I couldn’t count the times I’d stood alongside the stove in her tiny, fragrant kitchen, watching the chicken parts turn golden brown as she patiently fried them in her cast iron skillet. And her chicken and dumplings? Oh my God, they were so delicious. In your darkest days, they were chicken and dumplings that restored your faith in mankind, the U.S. Constitution and a Supreme Being.

In pondering this, I couldn’t help but compare Grandma Millie’s dinner table with my sweet Grandma Hulda Carlson’s who, as far as I know, in her whole life never dispatched a chicken to poultry’s Promised Land. Representing the more exotic, Swedish side of the family, her dinners always included what we called “potatoskurv,” a potato-and-sausage casserole I could inhale by the pound.

After that, things got sketchy. Pickled or creamed herring? OK, I could stomach both, but not exactly by the handful like Tater Tots. Then there was cow tongue, served huge and cold. Grayish in color, kind of rough and bumpy like tongues are and filling a plate in the center of the table, it sort of curled over on itself like a football that Tom Brady had over-deflated.  While Dad, Grandpa Herb and Uncle Herby would happily slice away at it, there was no way I was eating that sucker. Over every dinner, meanwhile, hung the silent threat of lutefisk – Sweden’s ungodly combination of fish marinated in what, for all I knew, was transmission fluid – though I don’t think Grandma Hulda ever actually forced it on us.

Comparing the dinners, one thing stood clear. I was firmly in the chicken camp.

Which I guess should ultimately make me back Nancy’s highfalutin chicken ambitions. And as a supportive husband I do, more or less. It’s just that, chickens being a no-no under city ordinance, I’d hate to see her hauled off to court on chicken charges.

Same goes for me.

However things work out, I can promise my neighbors this. They’ll never see the day when a headless chicken blindly stumbles over from our place to pay them a visit.

A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.