The Depression Chicken



My dad was one of 13 children raised in northern Wisconsin, just a few miles south of mighty Lake Superior. Times were tough up there during the halcyon Roaring Twenties, and when the stock market collapsed and brought about the Great Depression, it got really tough. To compound things my grandmother died in 1934, when my father was 12, burned to death in a freak kerosene stove fire along with his beloved older sister, Dorothy. To put it bluntly, the old man was hard as nails because he had to be in order to survive the draconian conditions of his childhood. Yet as bad as it was for him as a boy he held many fond memories of growing up in the wild northwoods, trapping and hunting for food to survive, scrounging for whatever job he and his brothers and sisters could find to help put a couple of extra nickels into the family food budget, and he often regaled us with stories of his youth.

One of the things he would reminisce about to his own children (for whom he provided very well) was what he called the "Depression Chicken." As post World War Two Baby Boomers his kids had of course not experienced their father's hardships so his stories were not so much stern lessons in life's difficulties but rather pleasant little sojourns into dad's memory bank. It wasn't until years later that we realized exactly what he meant by relating these little tales, and just how difficult life had been for him. "What's a Depression Chicken?" we'd ask him, and he'd stir his spoon reflectively in his coffee, as if attempting to conjure up the past.

"You take your chicken," he replied after a pause. "You roast it in the oven with plenty of carrots, potatoes, celery and onions (cheap, plentiful veggies), and serve it to the family. After they've finished, you strip the leftover meat from the bones, add the leftover veggies and a lot of pan gravy made with the chicken drippings into a big pie plate, cover it with a flour and water crust and bake it in the oven for the next meal. For the next night's supper, mom boils the bones and adds more potatoes, onions, celery and carrots and makes soup, served with wedges of home-baked bread and butter."

He took a sip of his coffee, staring each of his own six children in the eye. I still remember that look. He could stare right through you, and it was impossible to meet his gaze and hold it. You had to look away. "That way," he said. "You get three suppers out of one chicken." We were young, and we were stupid, and we giggled at the absurdity of it.

A man who labored like a sled dog to support his family, he took great pride in his possessions. His tools were always hung in their proper place, and used with care. His automobile was spotless, his white shirts pressed crisply and his shoes always shined. We ate very well at our family table, but he didn't allow us to throw food away, including milk. If a glass of milk was half-finished, it went back into the jug to be served at the next meal. It encouraged we older children to make sure our younger siblings drank every last drop. We didn't want to see their backwash in our glasses at the morning breakfast table. To this day and because of his teachings, I love leftovers more than anything else. Like in his home, nothing goes to waste in mine.

Unlike today's spoiled, self-indulgent youth who believe a chicken only comes with two boneless, skinless breasts and that the government exists only to provide everything for them, men -- and women -- like my father respected the great opportunity this country had to offer: the freedom to work hard and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Some today believe that no longer exists in America, but I disagree. You can put your nose to the grindstone, roll up your sleeves, burn the midnight oil or whatever time-honored homily floats your boat and make your own way in life. It is the single greatest gift to its citizens provided by this greatest of nations. I believe this with every scintilla of my being. I believe it because my father told me so.

So when the going gets tough remember the story of the Depression Chicken and life won't seem so bad after all.

And please remember to save me a bowl of that soup.

Lenny Palmer 8/6/2011



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