The Christmas Chook

At Christmas time, we ate chicken. This was a rare treat for us. Not that we were vegetarians, far from it.

In Australia in those days, meat was cheap, and we ate lamb chops and beef stews often and had roast lamb or beef every Sunday. But a few days before Christmas, Dad chopped off the head of a chicken. He caught one from our coop, tied its legs together, then lay it on his tree- trunk chopping block and decapitated it.

The deed is done, soon the “chook”, as we called it, was draining into the laundry sink. Then Granny came out and plucked and gutted it. She was practical and matter-of-fact about this procedure, which we kids found disgusting. Our pioneer grandmother told us we were spoiled suburban children and was not patient as she taught us her methods. She muttered under her breath at my squeamishness as she attempted to demonstrate this essential housewifely skill.

I stood by her, gripping the side of the sink as I balanced on a wooden crate and leaned over, getting in the way as her reddening hands worked in the steaming water. As she pulled the white feathers, I grasped one or two as they fluttered into the water. Despite the summer heat, Granny wore thick lisle stockings and black lace-up shoes. My prancing made the water slosh on them, but her apron kept her cotton striped dress almost clean as she prepared the so recently-alive bird. Once it was cleanly plucked, Granny drained the scalding water and closed the laundry door against the flies. Here came the yucky part. She laid the chicken on a bench covered in newspaper, pulled from her pocket a very sharp knife, and with an expert hand sliced the chicken at both ends, pulling out guts and crop, which she threw in a bucket under the counter. The hot closed room became claustrophobic as the smell rose. Sweat beaded my grandmother’s brow. It was hard not to flee at this point, but a sharp reprimand that the flies would get in if I opened the door left me stuck by Granny’s side till the job was done. My job then was to turn on the water in the sink so she could rinse the bird over and over before leaving it to soak in cold water. Then she carried it by the legs into the kitchen to nestle it in the refrigerator. Later it would be stuffed with milk-softened stale bread, apples, onions, and herbs from the garden for our festive dinner.

Did she later chop off the feet, boils, and declaw them and then make of the collagen-filled feet a nutritious broth? Probably, for nothing was wasted in Granny’s world. Even the chicken guts had been buried near the fruit trees, decomposing slowly into fertilizer.

Ironic how “organic” food has become the watchword today. It’s what we ate when we were kids because we didn’t know anything else.

My London-born grandmother showed grit and determination when she moved, as a young woman, to teach in Western Australia. When she met my grandfather they moved into the remote Outback, where goods we take for granted were in short supply. She was an amazing cook who brought up four children on food she and my grandfather raised. Her mastery of often-maligned British cookery was the inspiration for Camilla, my caterer protagonist in Lipstick on the Strawberry. Take advantage of the season and what’s at hand, and turn it into something delicious is Camilla’s motto, as it was my grandmother’s – and come to think of it – mine.

I’ll think of my grandmother these holidays, grateful for her teaching in more ways than one.

Wishing you all very happy holidays, full of memories past and made as you sit around the table.

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