Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lunch With Grandma


This is a story of my Grandmother Anna’s chicken soup and how it came into being. This is a simple story, one that is a special memory of my childhood, a glimpse of life in a simpler time.  I suppose this tale is much like many others during the baby boom years; life in rural and small town America after WWII as TV dinners and fast foods were gaining popularity across the country. (Not in my grandparents’ household! Grandma cooked from scratch.) I grew up in the small farming town of Palouse during the 1950’s. My home town is  in the fertile wheat lands of Eastern Washington State. Our family lived on the outskirts of town, and as a child my playmates were my younger brother and sister and my three cousins who lived next door. Our maternal grandparents lived across the way from our house on the hill opposite, about the distance of two or three city blocks and we could see Grandma’s little rust red house from our yard.  The school’s football field was in the little valley between.

During the summer this little group of kids loved to walk across this field and up the dirt road on the other side to visit Grandma. I can still picture tall grasses rippling in the breeze, the purple clover dotted with humming bees, and the broad expanse of blue sky above.  The air was sweet with the fragrance of ripening wheat. Sometimes we’d run through rhythmic wushwush of the water sprinklers. Time stretched ahead of us as only it can through the eyes of young children and we dallied along the way, distracted by whatever crossed our path, whether it was grasshoppers, ant hills, or a stray cat.

We often arrived at Grandma’s at lunch time. I think this was the plan all along. Grandma, wearing as always her bib apron, wire framed glasses and black shoes (which we now call Granny shoes) welcomed each of us with a hug.  The aroma of fresh-baked bread filled the kitchen and we sat at the gingham covered kitchen table eagerly waiting for that first bite of warm bread slathered butter. We would have been happy with bread but the main attraction was mouth-watering chicken noodle soup.

I used to watch Grandma make the noodles. She mixed flour, eggs and water in a bowl and worked the dough with her hands before rolling it into a long tube shape. Then she sliced the dough into thin strips and scattered them on the flour covered counter to dry out while the chicken broth was cooking. When the noodles were ready she dropped them into the bubbling broth which took only a few minutes of simmering before it was ready to serve.

The story of Grandma’s soup goes back further. Grandpa Thomas and Grandma Anna raised chickens. Baby chicks were delivered by mail at the local grange in special cardboard boxes that had breathing holes along the sides. The chicks were put into their own separate domain within the hen house, an area that had fresh wood shavings on the floor, heat lamps and special feeders.  A few weeks later the chicks morphed out of their adorable “chickhood” into gangly adolescence, ready to graduate to another area of the chicken house. As they matured further it became obvious which were the hens and which were the roosters.

Meanwhile back at the henhouse it was time to select the older hens that had quit laying eggs and any tough old roosters and kill them for the soup pot. My grandfather built big campfire in the back yard and put a large pot of water on to boil. He grabbed a pre destined chicken by its legs, held it upside down, and swung it around in a couple of big circles to make it dizzy. This accomplished, he placed the bird on the chopping block and with one whack of the hatchet chopped off the head. The headless chicken ran around aimlessly, blood spurting out everywhere before falling to the ground. Thus I was witness to the origins of the term “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”  Country life was all about raising and preserving food; killing was part of it so I accepted it as a matter of fact.

Grandma plucked the feathers and I like to think I was a good helper. She held the bird by its feet and dipped it into the hot water which loosened the feathers and made them easy to yank out going “against the grain” which means the opposite direction from how the feathers grow. The feathers stuck to our hands and clothing and had a distinctive, peculiar odor.

The next step was to remove the entrails. Grandma held the bird backside down, and with her knife made a slit near the bottom, reached in and pulled out the innards. She separated out the heart, the liver and the gizzard and took these organs along with the carcass into the kitchen to prepare for the freezer or the soup pot.  All the unused parts; the intestines, the head, the feet, and feathers were set aside for Grandpa to dispose of later. I’m not sure, but I think he buried them.

The old wives’ tale that chicken soup is healing has been around for a long time.  I think there is something to it, but I can’t pass along Grandmother Anna’s recipe because it wasn’t written down. Her exact formula will stay a secret. One ingredient I am sure of and that is love. Lunch with Grandma was not just about the food. It was about a way of life.