Column: Chicken dinner tonight? It's been served here since our foundingI am walking down an aisle at Hy-Vee looking at frozen chicken offerings. What is this? Sweet and sour chicken. Cheesy chicken and rice. Sesame chicken. Chicken rigatoni. Chicken fettuccini alfredo.
By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — I am walking down an aisle at Hy-Vee looking at frozen chicken offerings.
What is this?
Sweet and sour chicken. Cheesy chicken and rice. Sesame chicken. Chicken rigatoni. Chicken fettuccini alfredo.
(I am going to pause for a commercial. Television taught us we can’t have news, weather or a dirty story without an interruption for a commercial.
(In this commercial, there is a huge crowd of people, all clapping and cheering. The thing they are excited about: Kentucky Fried is erecting an expanded restaurant at Worthington. The reason everyone is cheering is because Kentucky Fried still features chicken dinners — two or three pieces of fried chicken, potatoes and brown gravy, cabbage salad, a biscuit. No fettuccini, no rigatoni, no sesame. Announcer says, “Minnesota/Iowa fried chicken dinners — the way chicken was meant to be.” End of commercial.)
A great long time ago the suggestion was made that it would make more sense for Worthington to celebrate a Rooster Day than a King Turkey Day. There is no denying there probably were 200 chickens processed at Worthington for every turkey that was processed. No one ever picked up on the proposal for a Worthington chicken celebration. Someone said, “Every Sunday is Chicken Day.” The tradition of chicken every Sunday did not originate at Worthington, but Worthington people observed it. Religiously.
There is a newspaper clipping from 1872, from the year Worthington was founded, which offers a variation on the chicken dinner theme. The clipping suggests how to make chicken soup.
You put a chicken (whole) in a pot of water and let it boil. After an hour — whatever — you add salt, rice, noodles, celery, sliced carrots. Boil some more.
When the soup is done, lift out the chicken (whole or in pieces), place the chicken on a platter and put it in the pantry. The chicken is for tomorrow. Today we have chicken soup.
There was a chicken story that once was told at Worthington. A young Lutheran professor (at Augsburg, at Augustana, at Concordia, at Gustavus Adolphus, at St. Olaf) was so caught up in studies that his wife seldom saw him. The wife decided to raise chickens as a diversion. The young hobbyist was moved to squeal when one morning she went to her improvised hen house and found a red hen with seven newly-hatched chicks. She put them in a box with a light bulb.
Next day a good neighbor lady stopped by. The professor answered the door. “What are you feeding those chicks?” the neighbor wondered. “They don’t look a bit well.”
“We don’t feed them anything,” the Professor said. “The hen provides them with milk.”
There was another chicken story — the Minnesota farm wife who had no young chickens for a fried chicken dinner for threshers. She apologized to the neighbor, Chris Hanson, and to an itinerant thresher, Lief Larson.
“Oh, don’t you fret,” said Chris. “To be honest, we have had a chicken dinner every day the last nine places we threshed. It has got so that Lief crows in his sleep.”
Chicken dinner. Nearly sacred. When the Minnesota legislature voted approval of the proposed 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, extending to women the right to vote, good ladies of St. Paul made a trip to the Capitol with heavily-laden hampers. They spread white table cloths and a dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet corn and pie for every legislator.
I was reading an account of a man traveling in Mexico in 1894. He was at a Mexican ranch where there also was a focus on chicken dinners.
“Almost every Mexican rides well, and looks well in the saddle,” the traveler wrote. A sport of the Mexican cowboys was to ride across a ranch yard shooting at chickens with revolvers. The point was to shoot off a chicken’s head. It took marksmanship. The prize was either a newly-beheaded chicken or first choice of pieces when the fried chicken was served.
This brings to mind a story my dad used to tell. The platter of fried chicken would be passed around the Sunday dinner table, with the youngest at the table being the last to have a choice. My dad claimed, “I was 10 years old before I knew there was anything to a chicken but the neck.”
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.