Monday, December 09, 2019

Christmas and the 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 done, soon the “chook”, as we called it, was draining into a laundry sink full of cold water. 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 realized we were spoiled suburban children, told us so, 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 and 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.
Ironic how “organic” food has become the watchword today. I’m sure my grandmother would have appreciated a few labor saving devices – one of was not her prancing granddaughter!
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 to 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 round the table.
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