Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Language of Chickens

Our chickens certainly have a language of their own — consisting largely of squabbling and squawking, based on what I can hear from my office during the day. It got me thinking, though, of just how much we all talk about chickens, every day, whether we realize it or not.

There are an awful lot of idioms in the English language that come from living near chickens. That’s not too surprising, given that they are some of the most common livestock in the world and that their lives have been intertwined with human lives for the past 10,000 years. We’ve been sharing our land and observing their antics for quite a while, so it stands to reason that so many of our sayings are chicken-related.

I’m positive there are more, but here’s what I came up with when I put pen to paper to list our chicken idioms:

  • Chicken (or chicken shit): Our chickens don’t strike me as particularly cowardly, but they do run away from a garden rake as fast as they possibly can. The awkward flurry of action is always good for a laugh.
  • Cock-sure (or cock of the walk): We don’t have roosters of our own, but they do tend to strut around like they own the place at nearby farms.
  • Coming home to roost: Chickens do always find their way home at dusk, without any prompting, as a lot of their instincts are based on daylight. 
  • Feathering the nest: Broody hens like Abigail pluck out some of their own downy feathers to line the nesting box for the chicks they are hoping for. 
  • Fuss and feathers: An apt description for henhouse spats, which end up with a lot of wing-flapping and some feathers flying. The argument is almost always over food.
  • Headless chicken: We don’t have any direct experience with chickens flailing about after facing the guillotine (though Lizzy remains a good candidate). 
  • Henpecked: When a spouse is getting nagged by his wife, we say he’s henpecked. Our chickens do a lot of this to each other, and this turn of phrase seems to belittle the truly Machiavellian machinations behind their work. 
  • Nest egg: When you’re saving something valuable for the future, you’re building a nest egg — just like hens who jealously guard the eggs they’re sitting on.
  • Pecking order: This is a real thing. Chickens peck at each other and throw their weight around to figure out who’s the baddest bitch in the coop. It’s shockingly brutal — until it’s settled, and then everyone knows her place.
  • Preening: This is something chickens do when they’re molting to open up newly-emerged feathers. It comes across as terribly vain, but I think it’s really just to stop feeling itchy as feathers come in. 
  • Putting all your eggs in one basket: Never a good idea. You’ll break them all if you drop the basket, but no chicken would ever be so careless.
  • Rare as hen’s teeth: Chickens don’t have teeth — though those beaks can give quite a sharp pinch!
  • Ruling the roost: After all the henpecking and posturing, one hen emerges as the queen of the henhouse. She’s the one who gets the choice spot on the roosting bar and decides who gets to sit next to here. In our henhouse, that’s literally sitting at her right hand. Or wing.
Have I missed any? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Brussels Sprouts Success!

For years, we’ve planted Brussels sprouts, but we’ve never managed to harvest more than just a handful of tiny sprouts, whether due to late planting, trouble with the weather, or greedy chickens and groundhogs. 

Well, this year is finally different!

The original Brussels sprouts we started from seed in the garden struggled in the drought, so we replaced them with transplants from a local nursery — I was lucky to find them, as these aren’t the world’s most popular vegetable. I only brought home a single six-pack, and we had decided that this would be the last year we devoted any space at all to a plant that was giving us such a poor return on the effort. 

Along the way, groundhogs nibbled on the small plants, and we thought they were goners. They bounced back, and then the drought stunted everything in the garden. We thought they were done. 

But by August we had small sprouts forming between the larger leaves, and I cut the tops of the stalks off to encourage the sprouts to fill out. Thanks to our relatively mild fall and late frost, they matured, and we have bona fide Brussels sprouts for the first time ever.

Since it’s still in the 30s over night, these are tough enough to just stay out in the garden for “storage” until we want to eat them. We cut the stalk you see above for a side dish the other night: 

Letting them get kissed by the frost actually makes the Brussels sprouts quite sweet, so if you think you don’t like them, you should get a stalk from your farmers’ market right now — it’s the best time of year for fresh Brussels sprouts. 

Kirk made these by chopping up a slice of bacon and cooking it in a medium pan, then adding the trimmed sprouts once the fat rendered to grease the surface. He poured in a bit of water and partially covered the pan with a lid to steam the sprouts. He would check as the water evaporated to add more as necessary; once the largest was tender, he finished them with a clover of garlic, salt, pepper, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. This was stirred around to deglaze the pan and brown the sprouts a bit.

They were delicious! Cooking Brussels sprouts in bacon grease with garlic is a pretty good way to make anyone like them, so if you’re iffy about them, give this recipe a try — we’ve got another five stalks left, so I’m sure we’ll make this again!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Childhood Treat: Peanut Butter and Molasses

A week or two ago I had a conversation with someone about food, and she mentioned (for contextual reasons I no longer remember) Amish cooking in Indiana. Among the foods she described was peanut butter sweetened with molasses and served on brown bread. 

This was described as something of a poor man’s lunch in our conversation, but I was taken immediately back to certain childhood lunches made for me by my grandmother: peanut butter and molasses sandwiches.

I’ve written about some of the food traditions from my Pennsylvania Dutch childhood, but I had completely forgotten about this until it came up in that conversation. 

Today I finally recreated one for lunch, and it was every bit as delicious as I remembered it being. Lest you scoff, I would point out that my grandmother served me this sandwich for the first time while explaining that she could never figure out what kids liked about peanut butter and jelly, a combination she described as “disgusting."

Anyway, the texture is a lot like peanut butter with honey, but the flavor is so much better. The molasses adds a richness that tastes like Christmas to me — another favorite family recipe is for soft molasses cookies that are so, so good.

If you grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania, did you ever eat peanut butter with molasses?