Chicken Soup topped our family’s menu every Sunday in the cold
Ohio winters during the fifties. Soup making began in the late fall. Grandpa, Mom, and my uncle purchased several crates of live chickens from the Farmers Market. Our families met at Uncle Martin’s where he and Grandpa hauled in the stained, battered, old tree stump they used for this occasion. After making sure it sat level on the basement floor, they brought in the crates of chickens, which were clucking as if they knew their fate.
My cousins, brothers, sisters, and I sat on the steps and watched with anticipation as Grandpa placed a chicken on the chopping block. With one thump of the ax, he chopped off its head. The chicken dropped to the floor and raced around the basement without its head, still clucking. We now knew the saying running around like a chicken without its head came from.
Of course we thought it was hilarious. We’d laugh and take bets on how soon the chicken would plop over. One or two passes around the furnace and they toppled. My uncle followed them, picked them up, and placed them on a pile.
While the chickens were beheaded, Aunt Ruth lit the old stove in the corner and set two huge pots of water to boil. Grandma and Mom set up two long tables in the middle of the basement and covered them with newspaper. After Mom and my aunt dipped the chickens in the boiling water for a few minutes, they set them on the table and Grandma showed us kids how to pull the feathers.
The stiff wet feathers were not what I expected. Far from the image of soft and fluffy, they felt sticky and prickly and clung to our hands. The gamy odor of wet feathers prickled my nose. Wet feathers do not have a pleasant smell. We shook them off our hands, usually aiming at one of our siblings or cousins when the adults looked away.
After we finished pulling the feathers, Mom, Aunt Ruth, and Grandma slit them open and pulled out their innards. Never one to mind gory stuff, I wished I could do that part instead of the feathers. I watched in fascination as they often removed eggs covered with a thin-skinned membrane. Mom showed us the eggs and explained how they didn’t take on a hard shell until they matured. They gently placed the larger eggs in a bowl for later use in baking. The smaller eggs were discarded.
Next came the gizzard, it was removed, cut open, and cleaned out. They set the liver aside for later use, as grandma, my mom, and aunt used it in their cracker stuffing*. The heart was set aside with the gizzard to be packaged with the neck. Later they’d be boiled, then discarded, and the broth saved for the stuffing.
Once the insides were thoroughly cleaned, Mom, Aunt Ruth, and Grandma took the chickens to the stove. Holding them close to the flame, they singed off the remaining nubs of feathers. The stench of scorched feathers filled the air, and we kids ran upstairs to get away from the nasty smell.
They washed and packaged the chickens for the freezer, all but one that is. That one they used the next day for a big pot of homemade chicken soup.
Mom always stuffed the chicken with delicious cracker stuffing*, secured the openings with poultry nails and string, and into a large pot of water it went with carrots, celery, and onions. The delicious aroma of chicken soup soon filled the house.
When the chicken was tender, Mom removed it from the soup, placed it in an open roasting pan, and browned it in the oven.
The rich soup served with thin noodles, often homemade, warmed our bellies and the kitchen on cold Sunday afternoons. Mom usually made rice or potatoes, gravy, a vegetable and, of course, the stuffing to eat after the soup.
This was our traditional Sunday dinner every week in the winter. Mom never varied from it nor did Grandma and Aunt Ruth. I still make it, but not always on Sunday, and certainly not from live chickens.
Every time I make the soup it takes me back. Back to younger carefree days - days when nothing much mattered, helping our parents was top priority, and everything we did seemed like fun.
Grandma’s Chicken Soup
1 4 to 5 # chicken
8 – 10 carrots chopped or left whole
8 stalks celery – chopped or whole use some of the leafy ones from inside the bunch.
2 – 3 large whole onions-again chopped or left whole
Bunch of fresh parley
Clean the chicken in cold water and pat dry. After you stuff the chicken (recipe below) put it in a 12 quart soup pot. Add water to within about 4/5” from top of pot. Bring to boil. Skim with small strainer. Add carrots, onions, celery, and parsley. These can be added whole (which is what I do, since some of my children didn’t like onions,carrots, or celery)or chopped. Cover and simmer until chicken is tender. (It will take several hours for a stewing chicken, less for a roasting or frying chicken.) Remove chicken to roaster and brown in 350 degree oven until golden. Serve soup with noodles
When the chicken is browned, remove the stuffing from the cavities and slice. Carve chicken and serve with noodles, rice, or potatoes and vegetables.
Grandma’s Cracker Stuffing
1½ packages saltine crackers
1 T. black pepper
1/3 bunch of chopped fresh parsley or 2 T. parsley
Liver from the chicken, slivered (optional)
½ stick butter melted
Broth from boiling gizzard, heart, and neck or chicken broth)
Broth from boiling gizzard, heart, and neck or chicken broth)
Clean insides of chicken and pat dry. Place the neck, gizzard and heart in a saucepan with enough water to cover, bring to a boil, and simmer for approximately 20 minutes. This can be done the day before. Cool.
Crush crackers very fine in large bowl. Add pepper and parsley to crackers. Chop liver into sliver sized pieces and add to crackers. Melt butter and add to crackers, mixing well - making sure to coat crackers with butter.
Add 1 egg and mix well.
Add the broth to the mixture a little at a time, mixing well between. Mixture should be stuck together and pasty, not loose. More on the dry side.
Stuff chicken cavity and neck cavity with mixture. Using poultry nails and string, weave the nails through the skin to close cavities and tie with string to secure, just as you would for a stuffed turkey.
***Note: your can make the chicken without making the soup and make the soup from the leftover bones like you would for turkey soup.