The Best Part of a Chicken
He always preferred to ride home with his grandparents after Sunday service. He liked their calm and ordered manner. The atmosphere in the elder couple’s home offered more comfort to the boy than the boisterous house of his five older siblings, plus he felt more grown-up in their company. Maw-maw occasionally allowed him to help her with lighter chores, tenderly instructing him with each step along the way. His Paw-Paw always took time to thoughtfully answer any and all of the many questions the bright-eyed eight-year-old boy could think to ask.
But for now his mind was centered on the cracklings. The anticipation for this treat ranked higher to Orrin than the chicken frying on the stove top, or even the cloth-covered bowl of waiting biscuits on the table where he sat, or the well-seasoned cream gravy soon to come. The strain was now almost too much for him to bear. Both of his short legs stopped suddenly as he asked,
“How soon will they be done?”
The old woman tilted back her head to peer under her glasses while she gently turned each of the chicken pieces. The little cracklings danced among the legs and thighs and breasts as they all cooked together in the bubbly oil.
“If I had me a hard girl like las’summer, I’d almost be done ‘bout now, Orrin.”
Grease sizzled and popped loudly as the tidbit pieces floated to the top and jostled each other. The boy lifted himself up on stiffened arms for a better view of the action in the pan.
Most of the older people who lived in this part of Southern Illinois spoke with a twang, and Maw-maw was no different. But her soft southern accent puzzled him at times, so while she poked and rearranged the browning chicken parts, this mysterious phrase aroused more curiosity for the boy. He settled back down in the chair, and then he asked,
“What is a hard girl, Maw-maw?”
“You jump up from there quick-like and fetch me a clean plate from over yonder in that far cabinet , Orrin. That is, if your hands are warshed. But mind you, don’t run.”
He conscientiously delivered the serving dish to her side in good time, coming not too close to the stove, but standing back at a safer distance while holding the dish properly by its edges with his short out-stretched arms.
As she gingerly scooped each golden-brown portion of chicken from the pan into the large platter, along with the more-tasty bits of cracklings , she answered him thoughtfully.
“A hard girl is one that works for low wages, honey. Me and Paw-paw, we hard us one las’ year during the summer after thet tornader hit over at Simpsonville. You ‘member that hap’ning, don’t you?”
Orrin stood stock-still without speaking. Both of his eyes focused on the plate he held, and the crisp cracklings hiding among the growing pile of tender chicken.
“Hit weren’t no more than a shirttail of a tornader, neither , so you might have plumb forgot all about it.”
She put the last breast on top of the heap, and then she smiled down at Orrin.
“Now, take them and walk real slow-like to the table so you don’t tump it. Paw-paw would get awful sore at us both if you was to drop any of his lags. Oh, and here comes yore family now, right on time.”
Orrin cautiously placed the platter filled with chicken in the center of the oak table, and then he hurriedly gathered up his drawing pad and pencil. He moved the treasured items into the parlor where he hid them both safely away inside a desk drawer. As the boy slid the drawer closed, muffled yelps from two older brothers could be heard outside as car doors slammed shut. Orrin quickly returned to the kitchen table to claim his seat. Then a screen door out on the porch banged once, and within seconds the two boys burst through the back door and into the cozy kitchen.
“You little fellers git in there and warsh up fore ya’ll sit down now. Hello, Nadine.”
The two boys, eleven and twelve years-old, raced each other to the bathroom as soon as their mother stepped across the threshold. Nadine smiled a happy smile at the older woman at the stove and went directly to one of the crowded kitchen counters. She shoved aside some of the clutter with her elbows, making space for a large salad bowl she carried, and there she set it down.
“Ware’s the rest of them at, Nadine? Hit’s pert near done here ’ceptin for my gravy.”
“Oh, they are coming. Wilber wants to check the under the hood again real quick. ”
She removed a tinfoil covering from the bowl as her mother lifted the heavy cast-iron skillet. “He thinks he fixed that leaky radiator, since it didn’t heat up like the last time, but I’m not so sure.”
After draining off excess grease into a canister at the back of the stove top, Maw-maw set her fry pan back on the burner . She bent over to turn the flame down, and then began adding a small amount of flour to the drippings in the hot pan. She began blending the mixture with a fork while Nadine pulled opened one cabinet door over the counter to take out plates.
“Aw, he’ll figger it out, honey. Can you hand me that gravy bowl up there?.”
Other voices and footsteps on the porch announced the arrival of more visitors. An older boy and his sister trailed into the kitchen as Maw-maw poured milk into her pan, stirring as the mix heated. The young girl stayed to join the two older women while the taller son walked on passed and went into the parlor.
“Trixie, you set the rest of the table for us while I find some salad bowls, and boys, go wash up quickly. Who wants milk? Who wants tea? And where is Paw-paw, mother?”
Maw-maw lifted the heavy skillet with both hands and cautiously tilted the edge of the pan over a gravy boat, allowing the thick gravy to spill into the waiting bowl. She didn’t speak until the last of it was gone.
“Back in his study reading, I reckon. Send one of yore boys to fetch him, Nadine. And tell them other two to stop acting up in the sink back there. They gonna be the ruination of my septic yet, the way they carry on.”
The giggling coming from inside the bathroom ended after a male voice spoke a few words, and then Paw-paw came from the hall to join the now-crowded kitchen. He made his way unhurriedly over to the large round table while the two boys darted past to claim their seats. The patriarch then slowly settled his body in a chair by the window just as Wilber walked in from outside.
The father of the five children closed the outer door behind him. The thickset man then turned to survey the activity going on in the busy kitchen. As he calmly wiped his hands with a shop towel, Maw-maw turned and asked,
“Got that thang fixed yet, Wilber?”
Wilber leaned over a bit to stuff the rag into his back pocket. He shrugged his shoulders in reply before going over to slide one of the high-backed chairs away from the table. He shook his head at Paw-paw, and sat down with a weary sigh.
“That old heap is just about shot, Eugene. And from the sound of it, my water pump’s about to go next.”
Trixie filled the last three glasses with Maw-maw’s fresh-brewed tea as the other siblings gathered around the table. Then she took a seat next to her grandfather. Other chairs began scooting up to the table as Nadine placed the salad bowl down, while Maw-maw set the bowl of gravy next to Paw-paw’s plate. The old woman then stood back with her hands resting on her hips to see what else she might have missed before taking her own chair. Paw-paw then spoke to his son-in-law.
“The good Lord provides, Wilber. He always has, and He shore always will. Now ya’ll bow heads while I give some thanks.”
Orrin kept one worried eye fixed on the plate of fried chicken while everyone bowed and his grandfather prayed. The little eye noticed that the stack sat dangerously close to his oldest brother, Allan. And sure enough, as soon as the amen was said, Allan reached over and took the first breast from the top of the heap, which he plopped in the center of his empty plate. The eight-year-old watched anxiously amid all the chattering of the seated family as Allan forked out several of the crispy cracklings and laid them in the plate next to his piece of chicken.
Another hand shot forward after that and speared a piece of meat, and then it too collected bits of the crunchy chicken skins. Dishes of mashed potatoes and yellow creamed corn, along with the bowl of towel-wrapped biscuits were passed around the table in a blur as he watched hands going for the vanishing chicken. As fast as the pile of meat and the cracklings diminished, so did his concern grow, until at last he could not contain himself.
His little voice whined out above all the noise.
Nadine halted her busy conversation with her mother to give Orrin a puzzled look before realizing his predicament.
“Oh, for goodness sakes. Ya’ll have taken all of the cracklings before Orrin could get any.”
Paw-paw looked at the child’s still-empty plate and the boy on the verge of tears.
“Now, that’s a crying shame, ya’ll. You know that’s his fav’rit part of the whole chicken.”
Little Orrin sat with a fist clenched under his chin, looking glum while his grandfather spoke.
“But here, son, you take mine -- I reckon I got enough on my plate to feed an entire army.”
The boy’s mood began to improve as others at the table also volunteered a bit or two of the morsels for his plate, and before too long a heaping pile of the sweet and delicious bits of fried chicken skins sat before him, waiting to be devoured.
Nadine then smiled at the group.
“I’ve always liked the breast myself, but Orrin, he only likes cracklings. And I see Mommy has her favorite part too.”
Maw-maw studied the chicken back laying on her plate.
“Yes, I shore do. They ain’t nothing I like better than a chicken back."
Chicken backs are disappointingly troublesome, if one likes fried chicken. There is little meat there to chew on, and the thing is all but useless as food.
But Maw-maw was never one to complain about her food, or how it might taste. And as long as the family got fed, she was satisfied.
“Why, they hain’t no use of you ever complainin' 'bout thangs.” She might say.