Smells Like Chicken

“But my heart’s running ’round like a chicken with its head cut off

All around the barnyard, falling in and out of love

The poor thing’s blind as a bat, getting up, falling down, getting up

Who’d fall in love with a chicken with its head cut off?”

“A Chicken with its Head Cut Off” by the Magnetic Fields

I’m prone to follow my thoughts as they fall into a rabbit hole, diving in to see what is at the bottom. I’m not sure this was a rabbit hole. It was more a black, iron kettle sitting on a fire, water rolling, and steam rising. At some point, I realized I smelled like chicken.

I was lying face-down on an operating table while my dermatologist removed the latest squamous cell carcinomas from my calf. This was the third or fourth in that location which joined the two on my ear, and a couple on the thigh of my opposite leg. That has nothing to do with the story exactly, but I wish I had kept up with my total number of stitches during my lifetime. Seems like I’m always cutting something or getting cut upon.

The calf had been numbed and the doctor’s touch was light. A little pressure he said, no pain. It couldn’t have been much pressure and there was no pain. I was just at the point of falling asleep when he began to cauterize the bleeders. It was the smell of my own toasting flesh and singed leg hair that brought me back and took me back to my childhood.

Back to a boiling black cauldron of water and the poor chicken that was about to give her all so I could eat a chicken leg for supper.

Periodically my grandmother, Nannie as we all called her, would begin a fire outside, under a big, black, iron caldron. As the water heated, she would pick up her ax and head to the chicken coop. Gothic chicken horror music should be playing in your head. A less than productive egg producer was about to die.

We were meat eaters, and the death of farm animals was a common occurrence. It wasn’t kept a secret from the children. There were no worries about our delicate sensibilities. We knew how the meat, fish, or poultry ended up on our plates. We had been warned about naming our animals, but I still found it sad when Bacon, Sausage or Henny Penny went to meet their maker. Sad until those pork chops or chicken legs hit the frying pan.

 I would follow my grandmother to the coop realizing a macabre sight was about to unfold.  I didn’t find joy in the occurrence, but I knew there was something odd about chickens with their heads cut off running about willy nilly before finally flopping over. I remember when I first studied the French Revolution. I truly wondered if King Louie XVI or his wife, Marie Antoinette, ran around like a chicken after their beheading. Truth, I kid you not. I was just a stupid kid.

After the beheading, Nannie would take the chicken and dip it in heated water for five or ten seconds and begin to pull feathers. If they were too hard to pluck, she would continue to dip the chicken into the water until she had supper plucked. Then she would dry the chicken and with a burning piece of wood, singe the pin feathers off before gutting and butchering. That was the smell triggering my memory.

The memory came when the smell of my own burning skin and hair hit me. The memory was as if I was there, sixty years ago. Not pleasing…smell or memory. The memory of frying chicken battered and turning brown in Crisco is a much better memory. I can smell it now and a Johnny Cash tune is running in my head. Or it might have been Kris Kristofferson.

“Then I crossed the empty street

And caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin’ chicken

And it took me back to somethin’

That I’d lost somehow, somewhere along the way”

I haven’t lost the memory of a chicken leg, crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. The memory is quite pleasing. Colonel Harland Sanders, eat your heart out. She did more with chicken coated with flour, salt, and pepper and shallow fried in Crisco than any of your secret recipes.

From the Johnny Cash Christmas Show, 1978


Postscript: Except for the smell, everything went well. I got to add twelve stitches to my total and am recovering with just a bit of discomfort.

Don Miller writes in multiple genres, both fact and fiction, and combinations of both. His latest is “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes” which may be purchased or downloaded at


Boomer was named by one of Linda Gail’s basketball players, Cullen Gutshall, during a celebratory gathering to honor their basketball team at the end of a successful season. Celebration wasn’t an unusual occurrence as most of Linda’s basketball and tennis teams were successful. And as usual, I had been roped into assisting. “Have spatula – will grill.” Cullen had decided, with reason, that our large, beautiful, one-eyed and one-legged Rhode Island Red looked like a “Boomer.” I would have named him “Long John Silver” or “Lucky” for obvious reasons…but I am getting ahead of myself.
We had purposely not named any of our chickens for two very good reasons. First, you shouldn’t name what you are planning to eat. Second, chickens and roosters don’t usually come running when you call their names unless, of course, you have a handful of scratch feed to bribe them with. I should clarify that in number one I said planned to eat because I am here to tell you, “We ate nary a one.” Nor did we eat any of the “meat” rabbits we were raising; however, between the rabbits and chickens, we grew wonderful sweet-tasting tomatoes using their droppings as fertilizer. Can you say “organic?”
Boomer was either the luckiest or the unluckiest animal in my barnyard… depending upon your perspective. Unlucky because he was locked in the chicken coop with his son for an entire day. Do you know what two cocks do in order to while away the hours when locked in a chicken coop? I don’t know how long they fought but when I discovered the closed door and opened it, the yet un-named Boomer quickly exited having lost multiple feathers and an eye during the fracas. He had also lost his standing as the flock’s “alpha” male. Boomer did what any loser might do, he ran away and hid. He disappeared for several days until I thought I heard what turned out to be the weakest of “cock-a-doodle-dos.” He had managed to get himself trapped in an old lettuce sack and was in the process of thirsting to death. I had to cut him out as one plastic strand had become wrapped tightly around one of his legs just below where the “drumstick” began. The normally bright yellow shank had turned a shade of sickly gray. I feared he would die from gangrene but instead, several days later, the leg just fell off and he survived! Boomer was as lucky as any one-eyed, one-legged rooster could be!
All things considered, Boomer adapted quite well. He developed a gait that involved stepping with his good leg and then flapping his wings to get him back onto his good leg. It was a “step-flap-step-flap” cadence. When in a hurry, he was quite humorous to watch and as quick as you would expect a one- legged rooster to be. Unfortunately, he was not quick enough. Normally there were two times when he was in a hurry – to get away from the younger rooster or when he was “à la recherche d’amour” …and he was always looking for love. There was a problem. All the hens knew they were faster than he was or knew that all they had to do was hop up onto a fence to escape his advances.
Hopping onto a fence was how he got his name. Cullen watched him use his wings to propel himself onto the fence between two hens. After wobbling like a broken weathervane, he fell off, landing with a thump and a cloud of dust. Cullen laughed like the crazy person she was and exclaimed, “He fell off and went Boom!” After the third or fourth time the name Boomer had stuck. Poor Boomer was no luckier with the ladies than he had been at life. He eventually arrived at the idea of hiding in the shrubbery in hopes that “une jeune fille” might happen by. If he was lucky and a hen walked by, he would explode out of the shrubs and…well this story is rated for all audiences. Unfortunately, the hens adapted and began to stay away from the shrubs. I believe I had said in a previous story that chickens weren’t too bright. I may not have given them enough credit!
I don’t remember how long Boomer lived but I’m sure it was much more than the somewhat average seven years. I am also sure that his longevity was due to the special care and love given to him by Linda Gail. Short of playing the role of a pimp, Linda saw to his every need. Extra food, yummy beetles and caterpillars, a warm place to sleep in the shrubs…I should have had it so good. I’ve always said if the Hindu’s are correct and we are reincarnated, I want to come back as one of Linda’s animals…except the beetles and caterpillars.
Late in his life, Boomer took to lying in the sun in the one spot of the heavily-treed yard that does receive sunlight for a long portion of the day. He would stretch out his wings which were still inky black and the sun would reflect off of them like a freshly-polished black car. The red, orange and yellow on his neck were just as bright as they had been years before. I don’t guess feathers turn gray like hair. Despite his bad luck he had outlived all of our original chickens. In fact, he was so old that he no longer paid attention to the “spring chickens” in our small flock. That was how I found him on his last spring day. He had died quietly in his sleep while lying in the warm sun. When you think about it there might not be a better way in the world to go…in your sleep, contented and warmed by the sun.