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Mama’s fried chicken came at a price. Although her recipe was simple, plenty of time and toil was invested before she heated the pan. Yet I would be the first to tell you that the succulent result was well worth it.
On the farm, all of our food was grown or caught, so the preparation of Sunday’s chicken dinner began when my brother and I stole into the hen house to snatch our entrée from its roost. Chickens fell asleep on their preferred poles soon after sundown, so we didn’t have long to wait. My brother carried a flashlight but used it sparingly. The chickens were so drowsy we could walk right under them without being detected. But when a startled hen raised an alarm, the game was up. This meant our first choice had to be a good one and the capture successful, or we would have to wait till the flock settled down again.
You might think a chesty rooster would be our first choice, but not necessarily. Rooster meat tended to be tough and sinewy, and a mature cock had sharp horny spurs on the back of its feet to defend itself. So a chicken catcher like myself risked being slashed by a rooster’s stilettoes. Even if I managed to grab him without major injury, the old boy would put up a more energetic fight than any of the hens in his harem.
Better to choose a plump hen that had passed her prime laying years. Mama had shown me how to determine this. She held the bird upside-down with one hand and felt its pelvic bones with the other. A wide aperture in the pelvis meant the chicken was still laying eggs, while a narrow gap meant she wasn’t. Mama wanted me to spare all egg-laying hens, but the rest were fair game.
After my brother and I made our triumphal return from the hen house (and Mama had made it clear that we could not return empty-handed), the task of killing and dressing our dinner began. That fell to Mama herself. I will spare you the gory details, except to note that the most time-consuming part was plucking the chicken’s feathers. After plunging the bird’s lifeless body in a pail of scalding hot water, Mama would begin snatching its feathers from the carcass. She finished the job by lighting a twisted newspaper and using this makeshift torch to singe the chicken’s nascent feathers (pin feathers) from its body.
She did all of this before washing and gutting the chicken, dredging its fat-yellow pieces in flour, and putting it in the roasting pan. No wonder preparations began the night before our meal. You just couldn’t hurry Southern fried chicken.