Column: The Great Depression - and great chickenMention of the kids and the coal prompted a question: “Is there anything from the Great Depression that you miss?” Truth is, there are many things I have missed.
By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — In a recent column there was mention of Menno Vander Veen scooping coal to the ground from Worthington’s coal chutes so that kids coming with their coaster wagons in the early evening, just after dark, would have something to keep the home fires burning. People called that coal lugnite.
Mention of the kids and the coal prompted a question: “Is there anything from the Great Depression that you miss?” Truth is, there are many things I have missed. There seems to be a notion that during the Great Depression Americans simply sat in tattered clothes and trembled. This was not the case. There was some measure of joy and excitement in every day, then as now.
Was there something I missed? I suppose I could have said Franklin D. Roosevelt or Shirley Temple or Hopalong Cassidy. The thing that came to mind (I don’t know why) was chicken. The Great Depression was a chicken era. There were chickens on every farm. Leghorns and Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds. Gathering eggs was a daily chore for very many farm kids.
There were chicken processing plants — three of them at Worthington — Worthmore and Boote’s and Farmer’s Produce. There were kids who made money by catching strays from the poultry plants, stashing them in gunny sacks and selling them door to door for a dime. Trucks driving along city streets with crates of chickens were a common sight.
Through the passing of a week there were chickens on everyone’s tables. Chicken every Sunday was a reality at homes up and down every block. There was roast chicken, fried chicken, boiled chicken, which is to say chicken in soup.
You did not find (in our neck of the woods) chicken alfredo, chicken fettuccine, chicken cacciatore or chicken cordon bleu.
I don’t have a special quarrel with these things. I have eaten chicken cacciatore homemade, direct from an oven. I see packages of frozen chicken alfredo and chicken fettuccine and hot wings nearly every time I’m in Hy-Vee or Fareway. I have eaten these, too — they are like spinach or egg plant. I can down them; I know they aren’t going to kill me.
I have the same feeling for Campbell’s chicken noodle soup — for any canned soup. Nothing wrong with it, but nothing really great. I have wondered for a great long time how they carve those tiny cubes of chicken meat.
There is nothing in the 21st century to match the chickens of the Great Depression. Cooking in that time was done mostly by women, and those women became experts at preparing chicken because they did it very often. There was no KFC in that time. Who would buy prepared chicken?
Fried chicken. I think most cooks fried the pieces until the coating was crisp and brown. Then they put them in the oven until each piece could be eaten with only a fork. The same for roast chicken; it was roasted until it might fall apart when you lifted the chicken from the roaster. None of it was a flavor you would mar with barbecue sauce.
I know that chicken raising and chicken preparation are not lost arts. I never fail to look in on the chickens in their cages at the Nobles County fairs. But chicken was a feature of the Great Depression that I miss in these thriving times.
I look through old newspapers. Chicken thieves and chicken thefts were a plague of those long-gone hard times when 26 of every 100 people had no work and there were no minimum wages.
There was one chicken stealing gang — this was in Lismore Township. A trio of young men got 45 chickens from a farm one night and 60 the next night. Five different farms in one week. Their downfall was their car. It had two Riverside tires on the rear wheels and a Pathfinder tire on the front. Nobles County Sheriff Elden Rowe tracked the thieves from their “car prints.”
Another farm gang went to the chicken house of “Mr. Mauch,” who scared them off by firing his shotgun in their general direction. The Nobles County Review said, “Mr. Mauch’s example should be followed by every farmer…”
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.