My grandmother Minnie Cora Roberson Magouirk, born in 1902, lived to be 99 years of age. When she was 98, she decided to tell some stories. I was lucky enough to be sitting beside her with a cassette tape recorder when she began to talk. Those 17 hours of recordings may have been amateur and scratchy, but today, they are priceless to me.
It was important to her, as you’ll hear, that I learn about killing chickens so that she could prepare what came to be one of our family’s favorite – fried chicken - which in her day, was fried in lard – hog fat, as my grandmother stated emphatically. We skipped the lard, but we did use the heavy cast iron skillet she describes here.
On Sundays, mom and dad would be up in the spring seat of the wagon and we’d go to church and Sunday School. Then, we’d go home and mom would have a big dinner. Man, she’d have a big banquet dinner. Chicken, fried chicken and gravy, maybe corn on the cob, and vegetables out of the garden.
Grandpa Carl, your grandpa, would come over every Sunday and he’d eat dinner and then we’d eat again in the evening. He said that’s the reason he married me was because my mother was such a good cook and he figured I would be a good cook. He got fooled!
Sundays, we’d have good ol' fried chicken. She usually fried her chicken on Saturday and she warmed it because they didn’t believe in doing anything more than you had to do – just what had to be done. And, she had some kind of a cobbler. It might be blackberry, dewberry, peach cobbler or apple pie, you know, for dessert. And maybe sometimes homemade ice cream. Mashed potatoes and gravy. She rolled her chicken in salt and pepper and rolled it in flour and fried it. She didn’t fry it in real deep fat like some people do. She had just enough lard -- hog lard.
Mom raised chickens. She would go out and catch a chicken and wring its old head off and that old chicken would flop off a way over there. I tried to do that after I was married. I tried to wring those chickens. Mom would just do that and them old chickens ... and I tried to and that old chicken would get away from me and go off. Rich Walker came by one day and Rich stopped. He saw me and that old chicken running off from me, you know. And, he stopped and said, Minnie, let me show you how to kill a chicken. And, he put it down, the chicken, on a board and then he put a stick across his neck and stepped on the stick and after that, I did that and I got along fine. That’s the way I killed chickens after that.
We used to go visit relatives in California. We traveled in a wagon. It took a long time to go across the country. You’d make you know, about 30-40 miles a day and it takes a while. I traveled across Texas, you know. My dad thought we had to go to Tioga, Texas. That’s way out in West Texas. We’d drink that mineral water for a week – every year we had to go over there and camp. We took our covered wagon and our camping outfit and we’d stop by the side of the road and camp. Just wherever – just pull off the road and get up a little campfire. You could do that. You don’t dare do that today, nowadays. Mom had an old, heavy iron skillet – I mean it was heavy! And the lid, the top was heavy, too. And she’d cook bread in there – corn bread and biscuits in there. They were good! And she’d boil the beans in that old kettle. I was about 12 or 13. Oh, dad thought we wouldn’t live if we didn’t do that every summer. That mineral water was really good for us.
BAKING IN A DUTCH OVEN - GREAT GRANDMOTHER ROBERSON
The basic Dutch oven is made of heavy iron with a heavy-fitting lid to hold in the steam. Some have short legs that makes them good for camping or have a rim around the lid so that coals can be placed on top for baking. It's important to dry a Dutch oven after every use. They can be washed, although it is important to grease them after to avoid rust.
To bake in a Dutch oven, dig a hole about twice as deep and wide as the kettle or bigger. Build a fire in it and let it burn until there are plenty of hot coals. Cover the oven, coals and all with the dirt dug out to make the pit. The dirt cover should be at least 4" thick, and if you aren't sure about the coals underneath, you may want to build a fire on top.
To bake beans "in the rough" or on the way to Tioge, Texas, to bathe in the mineral waters, grease your Dutch oven. Preheat it (very important). Put the beans or meat or stew inside and put the oven into the hole prepared as above. Cover with coals and dirt and leave for four to eight hours. An alternative for baking is to set the oven over a few coals and then to heap more coals over it next to your campfire. Be careful, though, because the bottom burns easily with this method.
BISCUITS & CORNBREAD IN A DUTCH OVEN
Preheat oven and lid of a Dutch oven. Put biscuits in the bottom as the pan is sitting on the coals. It isn't necessary to cut them out, but is all right to t break off chunks of fairly firm dough. Turn them over when browned and then set the lid on the oven. Put the coals on the lid. It will take about 10 minutes, according to experience. To make corn bread, just grease your oven and pour in the batter without preheating. Best served with pear preserves.
Biscuits: Work 2 cups of flour, 1/3 cup of shortening (or lard), ½ teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of baking powder all together with your hand until pea-sized. Add a little milk until soft dough is formed, but don't work it too much so the baking powder remains active. Mash it out on a floured board with your hands kind of flat and cut with a floured glass or tear off pieces about ½-3/4" thick. Do everything lightly because of the baking powder. Melt some shortening in the pan as it preheats helps brown the biscuits.
Cornbread: 1¼ cup of flour and ¾ cup cornmeal, about a teaspoon of salt and 2 teaspoons of baking powder. Add ¼ cup sugar if you desire. Stir together dry ingredients. Add one cup milk and one beaten egg and 2 tablespoons of shortening or bacon grease, melted. Stir lightly until lumpy/mixed. For raised cornbread, let your batter set 2-3 minutes before cooking in a greased pan. Cook at 400 for 15 to 20 minutes or follow directions above for a Dutch oven.
CHICKEN ABOUT CHICKEN
A 1 ½ pound chicken makes a good broiler, but you'll want 3 pounds on up for a fryer. A healthy chicken has bright eyes and a red comb. It's easier to corner her in the hen house or to catch her when you walk up to feed her, but if you can't, make a chicken hook out of a clothes hanger with a miniature shepherd's crook at the end to catch one of the legs.
Great Grandmother Roberson preferred to wring the chicken's neck by grasping it firmly by the upper part close to the head and twirling the body rapidly until it separated from the head. (Well, she did!) Once it was dead and had stopped flopping around, the chicken had to be "picked" which was done dry or by scalding, but had to be done immediately before the flesh got cold. Burning or singeing came next to get the down and very fine, long hairs off.
There was more. Cleaning or "drawing" the chicken meant to remove the innards, head and feet before putting it into very cold water to plump it before cutting it into pieces. By now, you will surely have vowed to purchase your chickens at the grocery. However, if you insist on killing a chicken, call an old-timer. For a more modern/roughing experience, try cutting up a whole chicken on your own!
A FAMILY TRADITION - FRIED CHICKEN
It takes a cast iron skillet. No ifs, ands or buts. Granny's family shallow-fries chicken rather than deep fries it, so place shortening (it would have been lard) about 1" deep in the skillet. The grease should be warm when you put the chicken in, but will smoke and/or pop if it is too hot. Keep it at an even temperature so it doesn't scorch, yet the meat cooks as the skin browns.
Cut up a 3-4 pound chicken. Salt each piece and dip in flour. Place in heated grease, turning when golden. Drain & eat! Cimarron Hotel Not-Secret Method: Soak the chicken in brine, in heavy salt water either for several hours. Dip in flour and place in heated grease, turning when golden.
Remove chicken from the pan. Keep ¼ - ½ cup grease or warm that much stored grease. Add ¼-½ flour, stirring constantly until lumps are gone the flour is cooked very lightly browned. Still stirring, add 2-4 cups milk until gravy reaches desired consistency. Add salt & pepper to taste.