Fall is the time for harvest, and that means chickens, too. Some people are appalled that children are part of a chicken massacre, but that’s life on the farm. We raised chickens from tiny chicks, gathered eggs for breakfast, and helped clean and dress chickens for the freezer. My sister Marcia, got so attached to the animals she eventually became a vegetarian. My sister Julie waved goodbye to the steers and said, “See you at dinner.” Dissecting the chickens was my favorite part of “dressing the chickens” was interesting as all get-out. Bonita hated me for it.
First off, when I learned a chicken egg was the reproductive cell, I just couldn’t wait to share the news. I looked at breakfast in a whole new way. “Look at that,” I said, pointing to the yolk. “That’s the nucleus of the cell.” Bonita just looked at me like I lost my mind. “The white’s the cytoplasm,” I continued, because it was so darned interesting, the information just burst out of me. “That could grow into a whole baby chick, if Mom didn’t cook it.”
Bonita looked at her sunny-side up breakfast, cooked just the same way Dad liked his eggs, ’cause Bonita liked everything just the way Dad did. “I’m not hungry,” she said. “Why’d ya have to tell me that, anyways?”
“It’s interesting.” What other reason could there be?
“No it’s not,” Bonita stuck out her bottom lip and pushed her plate away. “It was breakfast, ’til you got started on it.” I just hoped she didn’t tell Dad, ’cause then I would be in trouble for sure.
I thought she’d pick up a little interest when we had boiled eggs, ’cause then she could see how the white surrounded the yolk, and the shell protected all of it, making it a perfect place for a baby chick to grow. “Stop telling me all about my food: where it came from and what it could become, and where it’s going in my body. I just want to eat it and enjoy how it tastes.” Bonita clamped her teeth down so tight the skin rippled up along her jaw and her nostrils started to flare out like the angry bull on the Foghorn Leghorn cartoon. “You ruined eggs for me. I can only eat them hard-cooked scrambled; I don’t want to see any of the pieces that could be a baby bird. I can barely even recognize it as an egg anymore.”
Dad was the leader of the “chicken dressing” chore. He got out a big axe and chopped off the heads, while Mom boiled pails and pails of water. The chickens ran around quite awhile, longer than you might imagine, with their heads cut off. That’s because of the autonomic nervous system. I learned about it in school. Chickens didn’t need their brain to run. Now that’s darned interesting, ’cause chickens do have a pretty little head, they had to save their brains for more important things than running, like figuring out which way to run, ’cause without a head, the running was pretty haphazard.
Once the chickens stopped running, Dad dipped them in boiling water. That loosened up all the feathers, so they could be plucked clean. Those wet feathers stunk to high heavens and the smell stayed in my nostrils for what seemed like days. Wet feathers stuck to everything, too; there was no way to get free of a bunch of wet feathers. First off came the big thick feathers that looked like the quill pens from the olden days, then the soft downy feathers that some people liked to stuff into pillows. Those feathers made my nose itch and run like crazy, until I got a headache from all the blowing and scratching at the back of my mouth with my tongue. That’s the one part I hated, except it was pretty interesting how those feathers were stuck into the skin just like a pincushion.
Dad cut the chickens open and pulled out the eggs. Some eggs had the shells on, and were all ready for laying. Some eggs were soft-shelled, but still white and recognizable as eggs. Some eggs were tinsy-tiny and red. I only knew they were eggs, ’cause Dad said so, and ’cause they came out of the same place as the regular eggs.
Sometimes Dad pulling his hand in and out of the chicken made squawking noises, which almost sounded like a chicken. Dad told us the chicken was cackling. I knew better: for one thing, without a head, no voice-box, so no squawking; for another thing, I saw those stars in Dad’s eyes even though he kept his head down and only looked at me sideways, and besides that, the corner of his lip twitched up, which meant Dad was pulling a joke on us. I learned not to trust everything Dad said after he told me a rock I found was a petrified potato and I took it to school and showed it off to everybody I knew. Bonita hated that joke about the squawking. She kept her eyes peeled on those chickens like they might get up and start talking English and giving her the what-for.
Next, Dad got out a blow torch and singed off all the pin-feathers, which were feathers so tiny I could barely see them. Mom said pin-feathers had to go because when the chicken got cooked, the skin shrunk and the pin-feathers stuck out and look disgusting. Boy or boy, there sure is a lot of complexity to chickens’ bodies. I thought it was pretty darned marvelous.
The last thing before they went in the freezer, we cut up the chickens. I loved this part, ’cause that’s when those pictures in the World Book Encyclopedia came to life, only in the World Book it was a human body, not a chicken body, but I saw how those things were quite similar. Now I could see the arteries and the veins, and the tendons and the muscles, and of course the bones and joints. All those things under the feather and skins that make the chicken alive.
“Look-it here,” I said to Bonita. “You can tell this is an artery, ’cause of the valves.” Bonita wasn’t looking. “See the valves,” I said, pointing to a vessel dangling from a thigh. “And here’s a tendon. See how it connects to the bone?”
“Just get to work,” Deanna piped in. “All you dissecting is slowing us down. I got better things to do that look at chicken parts all day.” I kinda wondered what that could be, but I kept my mouth shut on account of Deanna and the bloody knuckles. Besides, Deanna was cool, and if I paid attention and was just like Deanna, I was gonna be cool some day.
Bonita never did quite forgive me for turning her food into a biology lesson. Most of the time I remember not to share my awe of the beautiful complexity of nature. Even though I understand the science behind it all, I still think life is a miracle. And sometimes, I still just burst out with a “Look-it this.” Because, well, life is indeed, pretty darned interesting.