It was fall when I first had the chicken.
We had spent what seemed like all day in the car with mother, heading south through the winding hills of Jespersen County as the smoke from hearth-warming fires piped from the chimneys of the homes that dotted the local highways. The leaves were spare and sometimes we could see right into the homes, into the lives of the families we passed.
There were mothers setting tables for autumn meals, fathers tinkering as fathers do in Jespersen County, children playing, passing the time that seemed for us, in the back of mother’s Chevy Citation, interminable.
My sister, Odessa, pointed out a pair of children who must have been our age sliding down a rusty old slide beside their log house. Their arms flailed in the air above their heads, their freedom all the more obvious to us, confined like mice in a cage in the backseat of the Citation.
After stopping at a filling station where Odessa and I were denied beef jerky, as it might spoil our dinner, we were back on the road, which, by then, was slick with fallen leaves. Mother piloted the Citation as an expert. After all, these were the roads she grew up on.
The closer we got to Grandmammy’s house the more mother began to point out landmarks of her childhood.
There was the hill where she learned to ride a bike. There, the holler where she had her first kiss. The clearing where grandpappy taught her the best way to skin a bear cub; the stream where she’d fish with her sisters; the parking lot where she was inducted into the local motorcycle gang.
“Blood in, blood out,” she whispered to herself.
It was only mid-afternoon but the sky was darkening and soon, Odessa and I could no longer see the comic book we were sharing.
We asked our mother to turn up the heat, but she didn’t respond. She only muttered her mantra again and again.
“Blood in, blood out.”
We arrived at Grandmammy’s to find her waiting on the porch, apron tied tight around her bulbing hips, her arm stretched high above her head, waving at the Citation.
In her other hand was her beloved wooden spoon, which mother once told us Grandmammy would use to strike the skulls of her children when they got out of line.
It cracked once after a particularly vigorous beating, mother said with a slight laugh. But Grandpappy mended it with wood glue and gave it to Grandmammy that Christmas. She was overjoyed.
“Better than the slippers,” she said.
Odessa and I unstrapped ourselves from the back of the Citation and ran to Grandmammy, who wrapped us both in a single hug and dragged us inside. Her house was rich with the smell of the chicken, as it crisped in the oven.
Grandpappy was down in the basement, she told us. He had recently bought a second VHS player and had taken to dubbing together what he deemed were the best scenes from his favorite shows; The Commish, Airwolf, Thunder in Paradise.
Oh, how grandpappy loved Hulk Hogan.
Mother asked how we could help and grandmammy shooed her, telling her to sit, to gather us at the table.
After a glass of apple cider for me and Odessa, grandmammy pulled the chicken from the oven and placed it at the center of the table.
She screamed for grandpappy to come up, else he’d miss the fresh chicken, which sat at the center of the table, piping hot with moisture rolling down its charred skin.
Grandmammy took her knife, the big one she’d once used to fend off a cabal of local Satanists, and cut into the bird.
The smell of fresh chicken and autumn in Jespersen County filled the room. It filled our hearts.
Anyway, roast a chicken for an hour and fifteen minutes at 350 degrees. Remove from heat and cover with aluminum foil and allow it to sit for thirty minutes. Add paprika if you’re into paprika. Or not. Whatever. ❏
Michael Venutolo-Mantovani is a writer and expatriated New Yorker living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Photo by Michelle Golden, and this is a bonus recipe—Peruvian-Style Roast Chicken with Cilantro-Lime Mayo—from her cooking site GFChow.
There’s nothing like the smell of a chicken roasting in the oven to bring family together!