Every spring the mailman delivered at least a hundred baby chickens to the Rang household. Mom had cardboard boxes ready for the chicks lined with newspaper, furnished with water and food trays and equipped with shielded lightbulbs to keep the little peepers comfortable.
When they were big enough they were moved to a cage in the chicken coop and soon they were sharing the coop and yard with the hens and rooster that had overwintered with us. We always kept one rooster “to keep the hens happy,” as Dad used to say. Though Mom usually ordered pullets, she would include a carton of “as hatched chicks.” All but one of the cockerels would simply end up a bit sooner in the frying pan or soup pot.
One fateful year a carton of mixed chicks included a Barred Plymouth Rock cockerel destined to become the “The Terror of the Yard.” I was nine years old and had been recently introduced to the art of tying my own trout flies by Gus, our farmer neighbor who had taught me how to fish for trout. Several of the patterns used barred rock hackles, so when it became apparent that we had a barred rock rooster on our hands I begged to be allowed to keep him for the feathers.
Because older roosters have better feathers for making good dry flies I had a persuasive argument for letting “my rooster” rule the henhouse for more than the usual one year term. The incumbent rooster went in the soup pot, and the three year reign of “The Terror” began.
The first year was fine. My rooster guarded the hens and woke us up dutifully every morning with lusty crowing. Disturbing portents marked the second year as my rooster became more protective of his flock. He would make bluff charges and try to keep us out of the chicken coop when we went to gather the eggs.
At two years of age he was a handsome rooster: seven or eight pounds of muscle covered with beautiful grizzly feathers. Ominously, his spurs had grown to inch long weapons, but I pointed out that he was now better equipped to protect the hens.
The “Reign of Terror” began the following summer when he began chasing everyone who approached the chicken coop. He spent time every day sharpening his spurs which were now well over an inch long, and he knew how to use them, using his wings to lift himself off the ground and provide leverage for scratching anything running away in front of him.
We devised a strategy for gathering the eggs. We kids would saunter towards the chicken coop until my rooster came running to defend his territory. He would usually take up a defensive position in front of the coop until we got pretty close, at which time he would scream, start flapping his wings and chase us into the front yard. If we tried to return to the back yard, he would patrol the approaches to his domain.
Our plan worked well for most of the summer. When we had lured my rooster into the front yard, Mom would hurry out the back door, gather the eggs and be back in the house before he had resumed his guard duty. Even now I do not know what went wrong. Maybe Mom went out the door too soon or my rooster may have glanced into the back yard as he pursued us. Whatever the explanation, the result was catastrophic.
When Mom finished collecting the eggs in her apron, she turned to find nine pounds of angry rooster standing in the chicken coop doorway. As an experienced farm girl she knew what to do. She shouted “Shoo!” and charged the bird who had enough sense to dodge 150 pounds of determined housewife.
However, once she was out of the coop, she was running away. The rooster gave chase, wings flapping and spurs flashing. Eggs were flying and Mom was shouting. She made it into the house without any eggs but only a few scratches.
When Dad came home from work that day, Mom met him at the door with “You have to do something about that rooster.” Dad got his axe and headed out to finish off the bird. I remember pleading, as if it were yesterday, “Don’t ruin the feathers.”
But my rooster was not to be found. Obviously he had observed the trip to the tool shed. Checks of the coop, the yards and even the road to the garden were fruitless. He had obviously decided to stay out of sight until tempers had cooled.
Dad leaned his .22 single shot rifle against the wall next to the back door, propped the screen door open and we all sat down to supper. Near the end of the meal he put down his fork, aimed the rifle and dropped my rooster with a bullet through his head. Dad said, “Well Chuck, I didn’t ruin many feathers.”
I sorted the feathers and stored them in envelopes and tied a lot of flies with them. I still have a half dozen or so in an envelope and tied an Adams with one a few years ago. I even caught a brook trout on it, but the barbs are brittle and the fly did not hold up very well.
My rooster ended up in the soup pot. He was too old for making Country Captain, but he made a good soup. The next time you go to the supermarket you might want to pick up a nice young chicken that you can turn into a delicious dinner.
I found this recipe in a fascinating biography of James Beard, Epicurean delight: The Life and Times of James Beard by Evan Jones. It was given to me by Beth shortly before she became our daughter-in-law.
Beard named this recipe “Cecily Brownstone’s Country Captain.” It is a chicken casserole that is thought to have been developed in the southern United States flavored with spices brought from India by ships’ captains. Some versions are baked in the oven, but this one you cook in just about 30 minutes in a covered skillet on top of the range and serve over rice.
2 1/2 to 3 lb. chicken
1/4 cup flour
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
4 T butter
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
1/3 to 1/2 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
1 large clove garlic
1 1/2 to 2 tsp. curry powder
1/2 tsp. crushed thyme
1 can stewed tomatoes (about 2 cups)
3 T dried currants
1 cup long grain white rice
2 cups water
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. butter
Blanched toasted almonds to pass at table
Wash and cut the chicken into eight pieces or buy a fryer already cut up. Peel the outer skin from the onion and garlic and wash and remove the seeds and white membrane from the green pepper. Chop the onion and pepper and mince the garlic.
Mix the flour with the salt and pepper and coat the chicken pieces. Heat the butter to foaming in the skillet and brown the chicken. Remove the chicken from the pan and let excess fat drain into paper towels on a plate. Turn the heat down to moderate and add the vegetables and spices to the skillet. Cook for one minute, then add the stewed tomatoes with the liquid.
Return the chicken to the skillet, cover and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes. Add a little liquid (wine or water) if there is not enough sauce. Stir in the currants and simmer another minute.
While the chicken is cooking, put two cups of water in a saucepan. Rinse the rice to remove some of the starch and put the rice in the pan along with the salt and butter. Bring the pan to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer and cook until the water is absorbed, about 20 minutes.
Serve the chicken with the rice and pass the almonds.
NOTES: You will find blanched slivered almonds in the supermarket. Toast them in a small frying pan without any oil on low heat for a few minutes until they just start to turn golden brown.
There are different kinds of curry powder, some spicy hot, others mild and sweet. Use whichever you prefer.