Many of my ancestors were farmers. Some farmed crops for food and kept livestock, some grew cotton, others grew flax in order to make linen. One ancestor was the first horticulture professor at Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina (Clemson University today) and grew the food that the students ate, among other things. Another ancestor started in farming and ended up becoming a pharmacist and then a doctor.
As recently as my grandparents generation (all of them were born in the 1920s in Alabama and South Carolina), my ancestors were living on farms or raising a portion of their own food. They were sometimes familiar with the animals that became their food. Just two generations later, I choose not to think too much about where my food, particularly my poultry, comes from.
This week’s topic for 52 Ancestors is On the Farm. While thinking about this topic, I pursued a list of farm idioms. Some were unknown to me and some were funny, but didn’t stir any thoughts, until I came to “like a chicken with its head cut off.” I instantly thought of the second story I share below. As this story sparkled in my head, I thought of my maternal grandma and here I’ll tell you why.
Her name was Alice Lorene DeArmond. As far as I know, she always went by Lorene; she didn’t like the name Alice, according to my mom. Grandma was raised in the country on a farm outside New Hope, Alabama. Her dad was a sharecropper. Grandma’s brothers and older sister worked out in the fields, while my grandma learned to cook and her younger sisters did housework. They grew all their own food, but it wasn’t always easy in the mountains of Northern Alabama. For some time, grandma’s dad and brothers made and sold moonshine to help sustain the family.
Growing up, my mom told me stories of how grandma would eat things I wouldn’t consider eating. When she was raising her children, grandma would buy ham hocks, give the ham to her kids and then eat the left over fat. She also loved liver and onions. Later, when I was about 10 years old, she came to live with us for half a year. We had chicken wings one afternoon and she gnawed everything off the bones. After seeing her do that, I only eat chicken with the bone in if it’s the only option and there isn’t a polite way to ask someone to debone it for me. If I do have to eat chicken that hasn’t been deboned, I only eat what is near the outside, so I don’t have to see the bones. (As I write this, it sounds ridiculous even to me, but the reaction to chicken bones is a real thing.)
This leads me to the story that I first thought about. On the other side of the tree, my paternal grandma, Bettye Elizabeth DuPre, grew up in the town of Abbeville, South Carolina. At the time, Abbeville had a large train yard and a mill. About 7,300 people lived in the town limits, according to the 1920 census. Grandma’s dad worked for the railroad company and the family lived in town. The family grew a few things and kept chickens for eggs and meat. They would have milk and items delivered from the local dairy and other grocery items came from a local store.
When my dad was about 6 or 7 years old, he went with his parents to visit his maternal grandma in Abbeville. His grandma kept her chickens in the playhouse that his grandpa had built years before for an older cousin. During the visit, my dad’s dad went to the yard and tied one of the chickens to the wire clothesline. He then took a butcher’s knife and cut off the chicken’s head. The chicken’s body ran around for a moment and then collapsed to the ground.
I remember my dad telling me this story growing up. It was a funny story of a time that seemed long ago to my younger self. I can picture my young dad and his father in a yard, wearing their 1940s clothes, watching that chicken run around. The picture in my mind is in black and white, just like the pictures of them from that time. But in my imagination, there’s no thought of what it was like after the chicken died, not the cleanup from killing it nor the preparation it took before the bird could be cooked. This may be from a lack of experience, but it could be from a lack of really wanting to think about it.
There is something to be said, at least in my case, for the luxury of being removed by several steps from one’s food. But I also wonder how quickly I would have needed to get over my aversions had I been born in an earlier time.