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About A Week: Wartime Feasts

Sociable creatures, hens, says Peter Hinchliffe. They cluck, scratch and gossip all day long. They always seem to be discussing the latest scandals...

We used to keep hens. White Leghorns crossed with Rhode Island Reds.

Good layers. Good to eat.

That was during the war years, and for some time after the war, when food was scarce and a fresh egg was worth its weight in old money.

These days youngsters wash the family car to earn a bit of extra cash. Me, I had to help with the hens.

Sociable creatures, hens. The cluck, scratch and gossip all day long.

They always seem to be discussing the latest scandals. Like village ladies, chattering over cups of tea.

All right, I know village ladies are now liberated, and no longer spend their days gossiping. But they did in the days I am writing about. Scandal was the spice of village life.

“Have you heard about Sheila So-and-So?’’ one of my mother’s friends would say. “She’s been going out with…’’ Whisper, whisper. “They say she’s…’’

“Shush,’’ my mother would say, finger to lips, directing her friend’s gaze in my direction. “Little pigs have big ears.’’

Knowing I would never be allowed into the secrets of the adult world, I would go out and feed the hens. Not that we had a lot to give them during those austere times. Boiled potatoes. Stale bread. Any household scrap, done up in a stew.

If they got a few handfuls of corn, it was a miracle. A Black Market miracle. We won’t go into that.

Hens impose a natural pattern on the days of their owners.

* Feed them in a morning.

* Feed them again at teatime.

* Empty the old stone sink. Scrub away any green algae. Fill the sink with fresh water.

* Clean off the dropping board in the hut, using an old coal rake. (A ghastly job this. On a hot day it can make your eyes water. Hens are not the least bit neat in their toilet habits.)

* Make sure the flock is in the hut before nightfall. Close the bob-hole to keep out marauding foxes.

* Collect the eggs.

The last task is what makes all the other chores worthwhile. The finest breakfast is brown bread and butter, the bread home-baked of course, and a boiled egg; the egg fresh-gathered that morning from your very own hen hut.

Your own eggs from your own hens. Those rich yellowy-orange yolks. What delight!

After lopping off the top off an egg from the Hinchliffe flock, when you looked down at your eggcup it seemed as though the sun was giving you a broad smile.

Nowadays, when I take the top off a supermarket egg it looks as though the sun is peering at me moodily through a thin grey-yellow mist, having lost its sense of humour.

We liked our hens. We treated them well. But they were not family pets.

When their laying life was over, we killed them, plucked them, cleaned them, ate them.

Until you have plucked a hen you do not fully understand the word “frustration’’. You begin to wish that God had so arranged things that birds did not have feathers.

Old hens are supposed to be too tough to eat. Not the way my mother cooked them. They were roasted so that the meat crumbled at the touch of knife or fork.

Then they were served up with lashings of thick onion gravy, with a garnishing of home-made black currant or bramble jelly,

We grew our own black currants. Also succulent cultivated blackberries.

Last Christmas Day my wife Joyce served up chicken breasts, stuffed with a tasty melange that included prunes.

Yummy-yum-yum!

Forget about turkeys.

If you want good eating, look no further than the chicken and the hen.

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