The making of a chicken pot pie

Published 9:17 am Wednesday, February 1, 2012

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

I am sent to the chicken house to capture a likely prospect for cooking. I don’t mind. I like being responsible (it’s one of those rare, feel responsible, moments), and I’ve done it several times before.

Our chicken house is beyond the backyard, fenced in with fruit trees that have been left to fend for themselves. Nobody knows how to tend fruit trees; all energies are reserved for row crops and livestock.

The orchard has become the chicken yard by default; fruit that manages to grow becomes chicken food when it falls to the ground. I detour by the woodshed and pick out a large piece of firewood and the ax, and set it up near the bell post.

Most farms have a bell set high on a post, with a cord hanging down to ring it. It’s used to signal mealtime or any kind of emergency at other times. The bell can be heard almost all over the farm.

I open the door at the end of the chicken house and retrieve the chicken catcher from its place, hung up on a nail. It’s a simple tool — just a wooden handle with a heavy straight wire extending about three feet.

A hook has been formed in the end of the wire, just a little larger than an average chicken leg, not large enough for the foot to pass through. It’s made to scoop up a chicken by the leg. We use the tool to catch chickens for market and cooking.

The process is not complicated; I spread a little scratch feed in the yard, and when a crowd shows up, I sneakily grab one using the catcher. They’re all about the same size and it matters little which is chosen for the great sacrifice.

I carry my prisoner to the backyard and prepare it for death. I’m trusted to use the ax; such things are standard practice on the farm.

The chicken’s neck is stretched across the piece of firewood and with a whack, its head is chopped off. The corpse is released to jump around in the yard until it decides that it’s dead. The head just lays there.

My mother and sister have a pot of boiling water ready, and the now unmoving chicken is dunked in the pot to loosen the feathers. My sister does the plucking this time, and the corpse is quickly nude, except for the fine pinfeathers.

A sheet or two of newspaper is twisted together and set afire like a torch. I’m not trusted with that operation. It’s probably a wise decision.

The “swinged” chicken is now cleaned. Heart, liver, gizzard and egg sac are saved; the rest of the innards are discarded. Another pot of boiling water is available, and the chicken is cut into pieces and added to the water.

While the chicken preparation has been going on outside, my mother has been preparing inside. She has made a batch of dough, as she would for biscuits, but now she is rolling the dough out on a floured surface.

It’s about an eighth-inch thick when she thinks it’s ready; then she cross cuts the dough into pieces about two inches by two inches. This is going to be a batch of chicken pie, or, as some call it, chicken pot pie, or chicken and dumplings, although my mother would make dumplings differently.

It’s one of my favorite meals. I seem to have a lot of favorite meals.

The chicken is boiled until done and the strips of dough are added a few at a time to prevent sticking together. I don’t know what other spices or fluids are added to the mix; I just pass through the kitchen every once in awhile to see how things are going.

I know we’ll enjoy that pie, as we call it, for a few days. Leftovers are as good as or better than freshly cooked.

Squirrel or rabbit substitute for chicken, on occasion; blackbirds brought down from migrating flocks are also used. Sometimes, in early summer, a pot of garden peas (green peas) is used instead of chicken. Then it’s garden pea pie.

We make chicken and dumplings today with a recipe developed by trial and error and help from a few cookbooks (some family, some modern). The concoction really is delicious, and leftovers are warmed in a microwave instead of on a wood or electric stove. It is made with love, one of the key ingredients when my mother and sister cooked it.

I linger over a warm, soul satisfying, bowlful; I am home.

JAMES D. ‘ARCHIE’ HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at