Chicken-Head Puppets

June 4, 2010

There’s a lot of talk about free range chickens these days. Well, okay, maybe there’s not A LOT of talk. I mean, it’s not like the subject is showing up on the front page of the New York Times or anything like that. But there is MORE talk about free range chickens, especially considering the fact that I don’t recall people using those three words in conjunction with one another for the first thirty years of my existence.

In fancy restaurants, you hear this term quite often, usually involved in sentences such as, “I don’t eat eggs unless they come from free range chickens,” or, “Was this parsley-coated cutlet in watercress sauce made from free range chickens?” These people say this with their chins turned up and their eyes defiant, as though they are the Harriet Tubmans of poultry, always prepared to help the birds escape through the Underground Railroad if their range isn’t free enough to their liking.

When I was young, we lived on a small farm-like plot of land in rural Colorado. I say “farm-like” because we didn’t do any actual farming, per se. Pa never woke me up at the crack of dawn to plow the fields and fetch water from the crick so’s Sis could clean her lady parts. However, we did have a couple of pigs, a few rabbits, a badass hound dog named Duke, and a variety of feathered creatures with lizard feet, also known as chickens.

Were they free range chickens? I don’t know. We weren’t that close; I didn’t ask about their personal lives. They certainly seemed to be ranging freely. There were no bars on their chicken house and they were allowed to nest wherever their delicious little chicken hearts desired (i.e. in the snake-infested weeds out back, or in the snake-infested front seat of the old Ford pickup that sat rusting behind the barn, or under the snake-infested porch).

One day each summer, Dad would invite all our relatives from the tr-state area to the house and we would butcher a few dozen chickens for the family. What can I say? Some people go to Disneyland in the summer; some people rent houses in the Hamptons. We butchered chickens.

My job was to chase down the chickens after my dad chopped off their heads with a giant ax.

Chickens can still move for about two or three minutes after their heads are removed. In fact, I think they’re more active during that period of time than they are at any other point in their lives. Normally, chickens just sit on their ample behinds all day or wander around doing that head-bob thing that makes it look like they’re backstage at a Parliament Funkadelic concert. But after you chop their heads off, they start flapping around like crazy and running in a variety of directions. It was my job to chase down the headless chickens and return them to my mom, who would then de-feather and butcher them. And when my mom wasn’t looking, my brother would take their severed heads and put them on his fingers and entertain our cousins. We called them Chicken-Head Puppets.

There aren’t many vegetarians in my family.

We were not the only people processing chickens in the neighborhood. There were a variety of large chicken farms in the area that mass-produced poultry for human consumption. These were the types of places that incubated eggs by the millions and crammed chickens into tiny cages, where they often died of malnourishment or disease. Every once in a while, some animal-rights group would sneak inside one of these chicken farms and videotape the carnage inside. The local press would run a story about the horrible conditions on the farms and how something should be done about it. But no one outside our community seemed to care too much, so we basically just ignored it.

Of course, no self-respecting local resident ever ate the chickens from those mass-produced chicken farms. Those chickens were all packed up and shipped to the city, where customers were constantly demanding that farmers produce more food at cheaper prices or go bankrupt. Eventually, those mass-produced chickens would end up at some fancy restaurant, where a wealthy woman who had never actually been to a farm in her life would raise her chin and stare defiantly at her waiter and say, “Was this parsley-coated cutlet in watercress sauce made from free range chickens?” And the waiter would say, “Of course, ma’am.”

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