Tucked deep in the laundry room in the basement of our house in Pennsylvania sits a careworn hatchet, its blade dulled by decades of disuse. This largely abandoned tool contains a history that is, I believe, known only to me. During the Coolidge and Hoover administrations (and possibly the early tenure of F. Roosevelt as well), it was deployed to decapitate chickens.
This sounds jarringly visceral today, but in fact it was a normal practice on the suburban Cleveland block where my father spent his boyhood in the 1920s. The family coops were kept in an unattached garage, and when there came a need for a dinner most fowl, instead of procuring it in a Styrofoam-and-plastic-wrapped sarcophagus at a supermarket as we do today, my grandfather made the trek from the house to the chicken coop with his hatchet. By and by, he returned with the freshly slaughtered bird for dinner.
When chicken emerged from oven and made it to the table, my grandfather — being a man of the house in the early 20th century — was served first. As my father always told it, given the choice of breast or drumstick, thigh or wing, he always went straight for the pile of giblets and selected the neck. I am aware of this only secondhand; though I carry his name, I never knew him.
My grandfather’s preference puzzled my father. Here was the toughest part of the chicken, gray and wiry, not all that tasty, with very little meat. And yet each night a chicken was roasted, the neck was what my grandfather chose. The boy who became my father didn’t mind. “More of the good parts for me,” he said.
Then he grew up and had children.
Somewhere along the line he realized that his father probably didn’t actually want the neck of the chicken but was, in fact, saving said good parts for his wife and young son. I’m told that my grandfather, a railroad clerk, was a quiet, generous, somewhat formal man who kept things low key. He died at age 60 on a winter morning in 1954 without ever revealing his chicken-neck motivations to his only child. I suspect he never had the kind of conversation about everyday emotions that was as — what? — granular as the ones I have every day with my sons.
When I was growing up, my mother often made Shake ‘N Bake chicken legs and thighs in the oven. My father would rummage through the serving plate for the one with the knobbiest joints. Always served first by my mother (gender bias dies hard), he’d spend dinner crunching the cartilage and ignoring my contorted facial protests at the horrible noise. “I like the gristle,” he’d say to me as I, oblivious, grabbed the biggest thigh.
In my house last night, we had chicken wings for dinner. My two sons — who, for better or worse, dive right in and liberate the food from its serving dishes before my wife and I can get at it — each went straight for the plumpest miniature “drumette” and, fleetingly, squabbled over it. I waited and then took a much smaller one at the margins.
I get it now.
- “Memories as strong as brick and mortar,” a column about saying goodbye to my childhood home (which I never actually ended up doing).
Ted Anthony, a Pittsburgher living in Thailand, has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here. ©2015, Ted Anthony