JUST BETWEEN US ...
By Tootie J. Tootums
Photography by Carole Ann Sayle
Even though I, Tootie J. Tootums, am educated and wear gold-rimmed glasses to prove it, I don’t type. My farmer, Carol Ann, has fingers instead of flight feathers (poor thing), so she will translate my thoughts from Chickenese to English.
She says it’s my turn, as Head Hen, to cackle about this seasonal stuff. Fall, as you all know, is the two-day transition from a horribly hot summer to a most likely frigid winter. And we, the “henizens” of the hen house, disapprove of both extremes since we live in rather substandard housing (her fault), and thus have an intimate relationship with the weather. We dislike wind and rain too, except for the fact that after a rain, a scratch in the mulch will turn up the tastiest worms. The critters travel upward in moist soil, and since it’s easier for us to scratch up soft dirt, we usually nab some slick but delicious morsels. We do not sauté the worms, as we prefer them soft, not crispy. And besides, though my farmer has let me in the farmhouse kitchen at times, she has never offered the use of the stove. I might poach a worm or two if she changes her mind.
After all that protein, we hens need some greens. Like you, we are starved for them after a summer of what my farmer calls “native greens.” Finally, in September, she and the other humans plant a lot of delicious gourmet greens, apparently just for us: kale, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, lettuce and, our personal favorite, Brussels greens. Of course, being party girls, we like to eat out, so we prefer to peck these leaves right off the plants in the field.
When there are not so many of us (and how I long for those days before the recent influx of bratty young hens, which of course I had to help raise), she lets all of us out to sample our favorite foods. Her rule is that we are allowed to nibble plants in the first six feet or so of each crop’s bed. Cluck, cluck, obviously that’s a rule that should be flexible. We like to take a few triangular bites out of this leaf and then that leaf, as we browse our way down the row. But, in truth, most of us who have our wits about us will not venture very far into the field, as there may not be a place to hide if a hawk comes calling. So, perhaps the six-foot rule is slightly prudent.
But these new “chicks”—especially the Spotty Dotties and Boss Chick and her Babes—are without boundaries and possess not a grain of common sense. They’ll blithely follow a mulched pathway for 100 feet, their pointy toes excavating worms and plowing up newly planted beds as they go. A good hawk scare might be just what they need.
Their impertinence gets to the farmers, who are horrified when the hens scratch out young transplants or sowings of carrot seeds. The farmers will “shush-shush” through clenched teeth (they have teeth instead of beaks; odd, isn’t it?), wave their featherless arms pitifully and even throw dirt clods at them! In the case of the Spotties and the Bossies, it’s deserved, for their greediness often ruins the buffet for the rest of the flock.
Of course, greediness is not a problem for me, or Toesy, or even Babette of the Boss Chicks. We are our farmer’s favorites because we carry on conversations with her and we (usually) follow the rules. We love working in the field, and are very attuned to the fact that her “hoe”—a very long toe with a huge toenail—scratches up good worms faster than our chicken toes. Toesy, however, is a bit shy around that hoe toe. She’s already wearing a nub in the place of one of her own wee toes lost in an earlier chick disaster. Meanwhile, with us cultivating the crops, the rest of the luckless flock is detained in the large henhouse run, where they look at us enviously.
Pitying them, our farmer harvests the big lower leaves of the brassicas (broccoli, Brussels, cauliflower) and hauls wheelbarrows full of the delicious fall and winter greens to the run almost every day. We all know that these mature leaves have the most nutrition and flavor. Once the greens are dumped in, we attack them ferociously. Unlike humans, we don’t cook our greens; we prefer them raw. Holding the leaves down with our feet, we peck them all the way to the stems. The feasting is so joyful that even Toesy, Babette and I elect to dine in. We can be homebodies, after all, if the food is that fresh and good!
Tootie J. Tootums, 2003-2010. She would claim that her demise was not the result of eating too many fall greens, nor was it an overly exuberant anticipation to her 15 seconds of fame as a "penning hen." Actually, it was just her time, and after a few days of feeling puny, Tootie J. Tootums—still wearing her gold-rimmed glasses—died in her sleep on August 3, 2010. She now rests with her mentors, Aunt Penny Barrrock and Mrs. Elvira Bentley in the in the soil that nourishes the cemetery pecan tree on the farm.—Carol Ann Sayle