Monday, January 18, 2010

This Woman's Place is (Sometimes) in the Kitchen

When we arrived in the Valley in 1978, families still held butchering days. Back then, I never would have thought the Austins would have a butchering day. But recently—ugh—we did.

“Butchering” was when a whole family—brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and children—set aside a day to kill hogs, butcher, process and package them. I attended my first one in 1979.

When we arrived in mid-morning, the butchering was well underway. Several long tables were piled with raw meat and entrails. Huge black kettles hung from tripods, bubbling over a blazing fire. Everyone was busy. Cutting, slicing, cooking, stuffing, stirring, scraping, talking, teasing. They knew what they were doing.

The husband and I were put to work immediately. Someone shuttled me into the kitchen to help the women cook dinner. The woman in charge told me to make mashed potatoes. A bit sexist, I thought. I’d rather be outdoors with the men.

The potatoes had already been peeled, cut and boiled before I got there, so my job was to mash them and get them into the serving bowl. This I was glad to do, because I made really good mashed potatoes. When the husband and I got married, he hated mashed potatoes. Then he tasted mine and was hooked.

But nobody was interested in my Yankee way of making mashed potatoes. The woman in charge supervised me every step of the way. I’d always whipped the potatoes by hand, but she handed me electric beaters. After beating them for a while, I thought they were done, but the mistress told me to “keep beating ‘em.” Every time I stopped she said this. My first lesson in Southern cooking.

When butchering a hog, every part of the body is used. The intestines are used for sausage casings. One black pot was filled with fat. It was boiled until it separated into liquid lard and cracklings. Another pot was for all the otherwise unusable parts, along with white corn meal and seasonings, to make pon hoss.

If you grew up with butchering, the tasks involved may seem routine. But for me, it was gross. In December, we butchered 40 roosters over two days.

Thanks to a neighbor, one aspect of the process was made easier. Dude, who has a butcher shop, loaned us his de-feathering machine.

The husband set up the process: He swung the chickens around, hung them by the feet on a wire and, with pruning shears, clipped off their heads. Then he dipped them in boiling water, a huge pot of it on our gas grill. Patrick, our grandson, had the de-feathering job. My job was to cut off the feet and neckbone and gut them.

The first day was extremely difficult for me. It was cold. A member of our family was going through a crisis, and I was feeling anxious and stressed. As the husband showed me how to pull out the guts, I felt sick.

When I began handling my first chicken, it made a noise. The voicebox was still intact. I pushed down on the chest again. The noise was pretty loud.

I didn’t want to hear this again, so the first thing I did with every chicken was to cut that thing out. Then I cut off the neckbone and feet. Doing this on a chicken that was alive 10 minutes ago is not easy. It kept sliding around.

Then I had to cut out the anus, making a wide hole. I put my (rubber-gloved) hand into this hole and reached all the way up to its neck to pull out its innards. I held the bird over a bucket and looked away, crying. It’s stuff like this that make a real woman out of you. Not.

After I’d done five chickens, the husband was done killing, so he took over my job. My new job was to take the butchered birds into the kitchen for fine tuning. I pulled out stray feathers and guts, rinsed them and packed them into freezer bags.

My kitchen was warm and dry. I put on some music.

Over the past 30 years of country living, I’ve learned to do many things I did not grow up with. I’ve split and stacked cords of firewood. I’ve nursed sick calves back to health. I’ve hauled buckets of manure. I’ve done all these things without complaining.

But butchering? Only if I can stay in the kitchen.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Defiance: Who Does It Really Hurt?

Out with the old, in with the new. When the new year comes, there’s always a sense of getting a fresh start. Leaving the past behind, getting on with our lives. But is it really possible?

Sometimes even simple changes like losing weight, arriving at work on time or getting organized can seem impossible. We fail at them over and over. It is easy to blame somebody else, a situation or circumstances, but the fault is usually our own.

The answer to many of our problems lies buried in the past.

My life now is somewhat orderly, but it hasn’t always been that way. As a young mother, my house was always trashed. I had numerous unfinished projects going on, stuff in little piles everywhere. I could never find what I needed. I spent so much time looking for things like keys and shoes, it made me angry.

Then I got a book, “Getting Organized” by Stephanie Winston. The principles she put forth in the book were extremely helpful, but I could find those things in other books. It was the opening chapter that made a profound change.

“I believe that many people get trapped in a sort of time warp in which they live out their present lives responding to forces that were in operation many years ago—as much as ten, twenty, thirty, or more years,” Winston writes. “The majority of people who are consistently (as opposed to occasionally) troubled by the issue of order and disorder and by the logistics of managing their lives, are still, as adults, often living out guilty defiance of a childhood authority—usually a parent.”
She gives the example of a parent who expected you to do things the “right way.” They nagged you about this over and over.

“At some point defiance begins,” Winston says. “The young person digs in his or her heels and mentally says, ‘I won’t. I won’t be orderly or disciplined.’ ”

We grow up, not imprisoned by our parent’s rules, but imprisoned by our defiance. We adopt lifestyles that justify being disorderly. We become busy, frantically busy, too busy to impose order on our lives. Or we become creative and artistic, too involved in creative activity to do something mundane like being orderly.

Often, our model for order is the one our parent taught us, the “right way.” We decide it is impossible to achieve and say, “The heck with it.”

As adults, our defiance no longer hurts our parents, but it does hurt us. In my case, I was sabotaging my own life.

In Alcoholics Anonymous there’s an expression, “Don’t analyze; utilize.” I didn’t spend a whole bunch of time delving into the past. I merely acknowledged within myself that this was true, that my defiance of my parents was ruining my life.

I began putting Winston’s organizing principles into practice. I did not become a super-clean homemaker or super-organized woman, but my life has some order. I put my keys in a certain spot. I put my shoes in the closet. I put the bills in a file.

Eventually, I found my own way of order that’s right for me. Winston writes, “… true freedom, in the context of this book, meaning a system of real order, intrinsic to the person that you are, that liberates rather than constricts.”

Of course, this leads us to ask other questions about defiance. What else did your parents try to impose on you? Career plans? Choice of friends? Religious beliefs?

A friend of mine grew up in a strict Mennonite home. He had to sit still during long church services several times a week. His parents quoted Bible verses to enforce their ideas about work, play and discipline. As an atheist, my friend insists that he is free of his religious upbringing. Yet he refuses to consider that God may exist. I think his defiance of his parents has blinded him.

I, too, as a child, had someone’s ideas about God imposed on me. When I grew up, I was able to separate my parent’s loyalty to an oppressive institution from the hunch that God may not be a tyrant, that God may be good and loving.

So, when our attitude, opinions and behavior are based on opposing certain beliefs or people, are we not still imprisoned by those beliefs and people? Aren’t they dictating our life to a greater degree than ever before? Should we be biased against orderliness? Against God?