“Mum, I haven't got time to chat, can you quickly tell me how to make your black bread?”
I was sitting in the driver's seat of my car with a notebook and pen, hoping to get a recipe I could add to the day's bread baking experience.
Not once in my life had it occurred to me to learn the things my mother knows. Mum's Irish black bread was her own ‘thing'—not mine. Now, with a flood of recipes and practical knowledge around me at the Morgan farm, I realized I didn't know anything particularly practical beyond tying my own shoes.
They even make their own toothpaste25, for heaven's sake! Who does that?
“Oh! Molly, yes, hmm. . . have you got a pen and paper, dear? Where are you? Are you at that farm?”
“Yes Mum, we're going to bake bread in a mud oven today, and I wanted to try your recipe. I should know it already, but I don't. Can you tell it to me over the phone?”
“Oh, that sounds lovely. How far away are you? Can I just come over and help you with it then?”
“No Mum, it's nearly three hours drive. Just tell me the recipe, and I'll give you all the details later, okay?”
“Well, alright. . . that does sound like a bit of fun though.”
Mum's voice was wistful and I wondered if she was an oddball herself, in her own world. Mum, who was forever taking care of Dad and keeping herself busy in the kitchen. Mum would like it here, at the Morgans. She'd love the garden.
I scribbled down the recipe and said goodbye. As I sat there, in the quiet of the car, Will Morgan walked by, headed toward the barn. He had an armload of unrecognizable gear, most likely the electric fence I'd heard mentioned earlier. He didn't see me sitting there. In his unaffected aloneness, Will was more handsome than ever. His expression seemed faintly smiling, as though his thoughts were glad. His eyes glanced up at the trees and the sky, not searching for anything, just looking, enjoying his surroundings.
Gosh-darn it. Why is life so complicated? I've almost reached my goal, and now. . . am I always going to wonder if I could have had this? Is there a guy like Will Morgan in the world I live in? And even if there is. . .
Will disappeared into the barn and I went back to the house, where a flurry of activity had already started.
Ramona stood by the table with her arms and hands covered in flour. She was kneading an enormous lump of dough. Her hair hung down her back in a thick braid, and a red scarf was tied around her head. Turquoise hoops swung from her ears and the muscles in her arms had clear definition as she folded and smashed the dough again and again. She looked strong, capable and beautiful all at once. I tried to recall the way I felt in a lab coat and squared my shoulders.
He probably wants a girl like his sisters, I thought, with a mixture of resentment and grudging admiration. I sighed and shook my head, angry at my own discontent.
Susanna popped through the kitchen door and announced that she and Meg Morgan were in the kitchen, making chocolate chip cookie dough26 and granola. Before I could answer, she disappeared again.
“Is the mud oven really huge?” I asked in surprise. “How can you fit all of this?”
Ramona laughed, and began cleaning the sticky dough off of her palms and fingers.
“No, we don't bake it all at once. The oven stays hot for a long time once it's heated through and through. This batch of dough is going to be pretzels27. Did you get your mother's recipe?”
“Yes. She wished she could join us. Mum would love this,” I answered, putting my notebook down on the table and turning it so that Ramona could read what was written there.
“Is she a good cook?” Ramona asked, covering the bowl with a large cloth.
“Yes, I think so,” I answered. “Although honestly, I haven't done enough cooking myself to know what a good cook would look like.”
I tried not to sound defensive, but even in my own ears my voice sounded brittle. Ramona's look at me was only attentive and interested.
I added lamely, “I guess I feel inadequate compared with you and Susanna. Even Anna can make tea and she's only six.”
“Five, actually,” Ramona answered, laughing gently. She reached for my notebook, to look over the recipe, and then glanced up at me again.
“You have spent your time and energy learning other things. We don't expect you to know the things we know.”
“That's true,” I agreed, feeling a little better. Then honesty forced me to not accept being completely absolved of my ignorance. “But I guess every woman should know how to cook. . . if she wants to have a family someday. I could have learned a lot more from my mom than I have.”
Ramona put down the notebook and looked at me seriously. There was more respect in her glance than I had ever seen directed at me before. I was puzzled at her response; I had just admitted a flaw, not an achievement. She glanced toward the open door of the kitchen as she answered me.
“The familiarity with cooking is a valuable thing, but. . . Mom always says that a good woman is one with the heart to love her family more than herself and the will to learn how to care for them the best way possible. She says motherhood is a journey in which the only arrival is constant pursuit.”
“Constant pursuit,” I echoed, feeling the familiar rise of my eager will-to-win. I'm nothing, if not tenacious. Ramona's words were like a hand-mirror held in front of my own face. Constant pursuit was something I could do.
“I think you have what it takes,” Ramona said simply, and then turned away. She carried the bowl of bread dough with her into the kitchen. I followed with my notebook.
“So this is it,” Meg Morgan said, as I presented the notebook to her. “It looks delicious and healthy, and we have all the ingredients.”
“How can you tell?” I asked, looking at the recipe again. I half-expected there to be a full-colored photograph of Mum's bread somewhere on the page.
“Oh, I just know what we have, and we have all of those ingredients,” Meg answered, handing me an apron.
“I mean how can you tell it's healthy and delicious?” I asked, putting down the notebook again, to lift the apron over my head. It was blue with a pink flowered print, and I wondered momentarily if she had given it to me because it matched my blue blouse.
“Well. . .” Meg answered, and then paused as she tied a tiny apron around Anna. She had climbed a stool and was standing next to me.
“Molasses is very high in iron, which most of us gals need, because of our monthly cycles. The whole wheat is full of vitamins and minerals. The fresh buttermilk is rich in proteins and minerals. The caraway is good for digestion, and is antioxidant. I know the wheat and molasses together will make it a little sweet, and the caraway will give it a unique flavor. . . am I right?”
Meg Morgan tied the apron behind me and then pulled my hair together at the nape of my neck and tied it with a ribbon.
“You're all set to be a baker now,” she said, and turned me around.
“Yes, you're right,” I answered her question. “Am I going to make it myself?”
“You are. But, since your bread doesn't need to rise, we'll start with other things first. We're going to butcher and pluck a couple of chickens and get them ready to roast later.”
“Oh,” I said weakly, feeling the blood drain out of my face. “Am I going to do that too?”
Susanna stuck her head through the back door to announce, “I've got them! Hurry up, they're hanging upside down from the fence.”
In spite of my dread, curiosity drove me out the door behind Ramona, Meg, and Anna. There, hanging from the garden fence were two red-brown chickens. Their necks turned and bobbed as they tried to see what was going on.
I noticed that Ramona had a butcher knife in her hand, and that Meg was holding a pair of heavy duty scissors. I tried to make myself as unnoticeable as possible without actually leaving.
“There is an artery right here, behind the chicken's ear,” Meg said, turning around to look for me.
“Chicken's have ears?” I responded in surprise.
“Right here,” Meg answered, turning the young rooster's head to one side to point out a little indention I took to be the ear. The chicken rolled his eye around to look at me as I bent closer. Meg massaged the area behind the chicken's ear, at the top of his neck, and then glanced at me again. “Do you want to feel it?” she asked. “That's the artery.”
“I. . . uh. . . ” I gripped my right hand with my left, shaking my head and giggling nervously. But suddenly a surge of determination gave me courage and I before I knew it, I was feeling the artery in the chicken's neck.
“I'm going to cut that artery, and the chicken will bleed out, without panic or pain,” Meg said, reaching out with the butcher scissors. She clipped through the edge of the chicken's neck, cutting the artery I'd felt rolling around beneath my fingers only seconds before. The chicken made one surprise squawk. A stream of blood began to pour out into a bucket that Ramona hung from a nail in the wooden wall, right underneath the chicken. The chicken flapped and jerked inside the bucket for a few seconds and I backed away, shuddering.
I can't believe I'm here. I thought to myself. I know somebody somewhere butchers the meat I eat. . . and I bet they're not nearly as humane as Meg Morgan. . . I just never actually expected to see this!
“This is nature,” Meg said to me, and her voice was so gentle, so at ease, I was able to focus again. I was dimly aware of Susanna and Ramona watching me. Anna played in the garden, completely disinterested in goings-on that were already very familiar to her.
“All things live and die,” Meg went on, clipping the neck of the other chicken. “There is only sadness when a life is wasted, when it is destroyed without thought or purpose. The chicken's life was a good one; he had good food, other chickens around, and the freedom to range the farm and enjoy foraging. Now he has died easily and without distress, to provide food for us.”
Her words and her voice seemed to reach inside of me and turn on a light. The fear and dread left me like a child's imagination of a monster that isn't real. The two chickens, hanging there upside down, bleeding out, didn't seem horrific anymore, just natural.
Why had it frightened me? The fear didn't even make sense anymore.
I looked up at Meg; she smiled and nodded.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered firmly. “I'm alright.”
“Good. Now we have to pluck them. The chickens are dead from blood loss. Now we're going to scald them in boiling water for a few seconds, to loosen the feathers, so they will come off easily. Are you ready?”
Ramona and Susanna were untying the chickens from the fence, now that there was no more blood draining out. They paused briefly near the outdoor table and Ramona chopped off the chicken's heads with two swift blows of the butcher knife.
“I'm ready.” I answered, following them around the house to the wood burning stove on the porch. Their dog, T-Rex, stood up from where he'd been sleeping in the sun, and sniffed the air eagerly as we passed by.
“He knows he's going to get a treat soon,” Susanna laughed.
“Are you going to give him the. . . the leftovers?” I asked.
“The guts,” she answered cheerfully.
On the wood burning stove was a large stainless steel pot full of scalding hot water. When Meg lifted off the lid, the steam from the water rose into the air. It left beads of steam on Ramona's eyelashes as she bent over the pot and lowered the chicken, by it's feet, into the boiling water.
“The water is around 148 degrees,” Meg informed me. “And there's a half cup of baking soda in it to minimize the smell and help the feathers come out a little better.” She moved around Ramona to get closer to the pot of hot water.
Once all the feathered parts of the chicken were submerged, Ramona turned the bird a bit, swirling it, and jiggling it underwater. Then she lifted it completely out, and dipped it all the way under again, repeating the swirling and jiggling underwater. When she lifted it out the second time, Meg reached out and pulled on a large wing feather.
“Not ready yet,” she announced. Ramona dipped the chicken again. Meg tested a large wing feather two more times, before it slipped out easily into her hand. She tried another one and it also slipped easily into her hand.
“It's ready,” Meg said. Ramona walked over and laid the wet chicken on the nearby table cover with butcher paper. Susanna stepped up and dipped her chicken in the same way.
“Now we pluck it,” Ramona explained, pulling a handful of feathers out. “Put the feathers into this bucket,” she advised, pushing a bucket nearer to me with her foot.
I'm not about to “chicken-out” now, I thought to myself, and reached for a handful of feathers. Susanna and Meg joined us and in less than a minute the chickens were plucked bare and looked like chicken you would buy in a supermarket, but better. Wet feathers stuck to my arms and apron.
“Now we have to clean them,” Meg said.
The girls carried the chickens back around the house and laid them on a table near the buckets where they had bled out. I watched as Meg carefully snipped the thin skin of a chicken's belly, just below it's breast bone, and then cut downward, toward the tail end.
“We've got to be careful here, not to cut anything inside, especially the gallbladder,” she said. Then she pushed her hand inside, and with a scooping motion reminiscent of a backhoe, pulled out all the chicken's innards.
“Ewww,” I said, grimacing. Meg scooped the guts out and over the edge of the table into the bucket the chickens had bled into. Susanna was separating out the liver, heart, and gizzard into a neat pile. Meg finished cleaning the chicken out, detaching everything inedible, and then passed the chicken to Ramona.
“I will go back and dip these in the boiling water too,” Ramona told me, as she cut off the feet with two hard blows of the butcher knife. “The outside layer will come off and they'll be clean and white. Chicken broth is made with chicken feet.”
“Oh,” I said, finding that hard to believe. “Really?”
“Really,” Meg answered. “Along with the leftover bones, skin, and pieces of meat after we roast and eat the chicken. We'll throw in the organ meat as well, and some vegetables. The broth will be rich and delicious.”
“Is that how everybody does it?” I asked, following Meg into the house. I carried one of the ready-to-roast chickens.
“That's how a lot of small farmers do it, anyway,” Meg answered. She took the chicken from me and put it next to the other one in a basin of cool water where she rinsed them both until they were perfectly clean.
“Molly, would you go over to the barn for me and ask for one of the boys to come back and help us with the baking now? The horno should be good and hot.”
I was going to shake the remaining chicken feathers off of my apron but decided to let them stick right where they were for a little while longer. Holding the corners of the skirt of my apron, I went back out of the house through the front door.
I walked out onto the pasture behind the barn to find the men standing around a small electric fence enclosure. The calves I'd met the day before were running around, eating snatches of grass and licking each other. Will saw me first but he didn't seem to notice my apron. I stopped where I was and shook the feathers off.
“Hi Molly,” Jake greeted me. “Is the horno ready?”
“Yes,” I sighed, disappointed no one had noticed the chicken feathers.
“I'll come scrape it out for you,” Will offered, starting toward me. I nodded and turned to walk with him.
“Hey, has a chicken been in here?” Will exclaimed, stopping suddenly to look at the feathers on the ground. “Oh man, I hope T-Rex hasn't become a chicken-eater.”
“No, those came off of my apron,” I replied nonchalantly. I looked down at my apron in an effort to keep a straight face. “We were butchering chickens.”
“You were butchering chickens!” Will echoed in surprise. I darted a quick glance up at his face and then over at the others. Jake, Jeremy, and Jon Morgan all stopped talking to look at me.
“How did that go?” Jon Morgan asked with the hint of a smile.
“Fine,” I shrugged. “They're ready to roast now.”
Then, in spite of myself I started to smile and I heard Will chuckle low in his throat. I couldn't hold back an answering giggle.
“Your mom talked me through it,” I admitted.
Will laughed appreciatively and stepped toward me. For a minute I thought he was going to pick me up, right off of the ground. But then he stepped away and touched the brim of his hat in a gesture of respect.
“Well then. Molly the Farm Girl,” he said.
I blushed bright red again; but this time, I didn't care.