The air is thick and as heavy as molasses, when I breathe it in my lungs fill with its sweet heat. Some people hate this humidity, choosing instead to stay inside in prechilled air-conditioned rooms. I love this time of year when I can work in my garden in the very early morning hours. It’s cool and still, the birds keep me company, the sun kindly kissing my cheeks — only hinting of how it will burn later on in the day.
Weather like this in the South is what the term “laid-back” was invented for. I can remember visiting my grandparent’s farm in Landersville, Ala., as little girl. Not accustomed to the rhythm of life in the country, it was always a real treat to get up before daybreak, eat a big breakfast, and then gather eggs.
The chicken coop was dim and quiet until disgruntled chickens started to cackle reluctantly, giving up their smooth brown eggs — a whole night’s labor — to my small hands.
Ruffling their feathers at my rudeness and clucking indignantly they moved only because they knew that there would be grain outside waiting for them, scattered from my grandmother’s flour sack apron.
I was scared of chickens. Their hateful beady eyes glared as they saw me coming toward them with my little basket.
If I was scared of chickens, the emotion I remember mostly was holy terror when it came to roosters. (It’s totally ironic that my kitchen is now covered in them). They strutted and pranced all about the barnyard, crowing the sun up, waking any living thing that dared sleep after dawn.
Farmers would have city folks believe that they arose so early because they are such hard workers, and they truly are. But I still think that the main reason they all get up so early is because nobody can sleep with a rooster in residence!
These cock-o’-the-walks would throw their heads back as far as possible, red crests crowning their shimmering feathers, filling their lungs with as much air as they would hold, then proceed to proclaim their dawn reveille, each one thinking that he bore the sole responsibility of bringing on daylight.
Their task finished, they’d strut around as if waiting for all the barnlot residents to congratulate them on such a splendid job.
The reason I was so afraid of these prancing devils was that for their amusement, they always waited until I emerged from the little chicken coop, eyeing the distance from there to the screened-in back porch and safety, before coming at me.
Swiftly they covered the distance between wherever I stood, frozen, clutching the handle of the basket for dear life. With beaks as sharp as razors, they nipped at my ankles until I broke out into a full-fledged run, dodging these flapping, crazed, conquistadors of the poultry population as they loudly announced my retreat.
Jumping and pecking, they flogged me until my grandmother threw open the screen door, shooing them away with one command.
I never understood how these rascals picked me out of the other dozen or so grandkids that visited the farm. I never saw them chase any other unsuspecting victim, never even saw them so much as shake a tail feather in their direction.
My grandmother always told me to ignore them and walk normally back through the crowd of hens and their self-proclaimed bodyguards, but try as I might, terror struck me cold every time I emerged from that chicken coop. They were always ready for me, waiting to see who among them would be the first to draw blood from my tender ankles, poking little ragged holes in my Keds.
As brave as my older cousins and aunts were, no one, and I mean, no one, was anywhere near as brave as my grandmother.
She could actually walk right up to any of them, grab them by the throat, swing them around a few times and pop their heads right off their protesting bodies, without so much as peck for her trouble.
These demons that so terrorized me were so afraid of her, they ran off even while she stood holding the bloody head in her hand.
The first time I saw her kill a chicken like that I thought that she was some kind of magician.
I waited for her to call the headless creature back and mumble some incantation that would reattach its parts, like the magician in the top hat who came to our school once.
She never seemed interested in putting the ragged head back on. She just calmly waited for the chicken to realize that it had met its demise, quit running in useless circles, and fall over dead. Then she would pick it up by its scaly yellow feet, and make her way to the house with it dangling from her hand.
Now that was impressive to a little city girl, especially one who had suffered so at the talons of these creatures. That she had the nerve to pick the thing up after wringing its neck was further proof of just how brave and courageous she was.
That a headless chicken, flapping its wings and running in the other direction could put so much distance between its body parts was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my life. I was convinced that there was something supernatural about the whole bloody spectacle. I kept expecting the dismembered thing to rush my grandmother, clawing her with its sharp feet and somehow reassemble itself, then take huge chunks out of the hands that had so recently put an end to its barnyard bravado.
But, no, she never suffered any retribution from the recently departed poultry. She just calmly started to insult it even more by pulling the feathers from its still quivering breast. Quickly and efficiently, with never a wasted motion, she plucked its remaining feathers and with the flash of a sharp kitchen knife, cut off its feet.
Now, here is where the real magic that was my grandmother took place. Never mind all the other strange and mysterious things she’d just done, she would transform that ugly, bloodied mess, its white skin making it look like nothing I’d ever seen my mother buy at the grocery store in town, into the most mouth-watering, crispy, golden-brown fried chicken in the world.
For years to come my aunts and cousins and I would try to make chicken bought in a freezer case, sealed with shrink wrap, and sold by the pound, taste like hers. We used lard, just like she did. We battered it in flour and waited until the grease was just the way she said it would look, barely bubbling, and dropped each piece into a black iron skillet, just like hers.
I’ve deep fried, oven baked, sautéed, and smothered thousands of chickens trying to bring back the taste of my childhood. Chicken farmers have named their kids after me.
I’ve thought about it, and I’ve heard my uncles laugh and tell my aunts that the only way to make a chicken taste like that was to wring its neck, bring it straight into the house, pluck its bloody feathers by hand and fry it right away. I’m almost sure that’s certainly right, but if that’s the case, then I’ll never have chicken like hers, never taste that perfectly fried delicacy again in this lifetime.
Not to mention that the ASPCA would probably gang up outside my door, even if I could manage to find a live chicken, I could never in a million years summon up the courage to reach down, grab it by its neck, and with a few swings and a pop of the wrist, send its body wildly careening away from its cranium.
Why, that chicken would most certainly see the fear in my eyes when I came toward it, spread its wings, puff its chest out and crow to all and sundry that another coward had just entered the yard.
By the time I got myself turned around it would be flapping its wings wildly and showing me who’s the boss of the place, pecking and scratching my ankles and herding me back to where I belong, in town, at the Piggly Wiggly.
There must be others like me who remember what real chicken tastes like.
I've finally figured out what the secret was, though, the missing ingredient that none of us could capture that unattainable thing that remains only in our memories — it was her abundant sprinkling of love.