I think that I can speak with some authority about chickens, having been dressed as one for my first Halloween. My maternal grandmother was a seamstress by profession, taught by the nuns at the convent in her small village in northern Italy. Her grandchildren always had the best Halloween costumes in the neighborhood. And I must have been around chickens enough even at that young age to know to run when my grandfather wielded an axe above his head, even a pretend one. I can distinctly remember where the phrase “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” came from, having seen at least one such sight as a child.
Chicken keeping has recently come back in style and for good reason. If you’re going to have a pet, it just makes sense to have chickens. They are low maintenance, give you a daily egg, and compost your vegetable scraps into fertilizer. For some they keep on giving, although personally I’d rather not consume poultry whose name I know. My grandparents obviously had no problem getting close with their poultry. My mother, to this day, has no explanation as to why she and her parents felt compelled to photograph their Christmas dinner.
I am now a third generation chicken keeper, at least here in the US. My grandfather raised chickens. My father has chickens, and now my youngest daughter and I also raise them. Allegra and I came about chicken keeping rather abruptly. I had been entertaining the idea, but wasn’t quite ready to jump in. My father had different ideas though when he saw how Allegra had fallen in love with a new little chicken that he had just been given by a friend. I should have known something was up when the two of them disappeared into his workshop one Sunday afternoon after dinner. They emerged, having put the finishing touches on a small coop that he had been working on so that Allegra’s favorite chicken could come home with us. Grandfathers, especially Italian ones, often have a weakness for wanting to see their grandchildren happy.
Since it was mid-winter and the quickly constructed coop was neither weather- nor raccoon-proof (minor, insignificant details to my father, Allegra’s happiness being the only issue of priority) Eloise, as the new chicken would come to be known, spent the rest of the winter in the small coop in our laundry room. Little did we know that we were keeping up an old Italian tradition. In the video below, Maria describes that keeping chickens in the house was commonplace in Italy not that long ago. But at least theirs got to spend the day outdoors, unlike our Eloise who spent night and day indoors making quite a mess.
Chickens fit well in the “Waste not, Want not” mentality of the Italian immigrant lifestyle, and having chickens has changed my attitude about food waste. I’m now more conscious of how much perfectly edible food (at least by chicken standards) is thrown away, especially by grocery stores and restaurants. I was tempted to reach over the counter and grab a large leaf of Romaine from the trash the other day after only half had been used on my bagel sandwich at a local deli. I kept thinking of how Eloise and Jane Lou would have fought over that tasty morsel.
Below, Michele talks about the benefits of keeping chickens and how he longs to have some of his own.
Although we now have the luxury of choosing to keep chickens as pets and not using them for meat, that wasn’t an option when food was scarce in post-war Italy, and that mentality remains prevalent there now as well.
It wasn’t too long ago when, even in this country, many people ate almost all parts of the chicken. My mother has fond memories of the “privilege” of sharing the comb and feet with her father because she was the baby of the family. My sister-in-law for years always loved the “mushrooms” in my mother’s risotto, until she found out that they were actually minced pieces of chicken hearts and gizzards.
In the video below, Fenice, a gifted story teller, shares her memories of raising her own little chicken when she was a young girl in Calabria, a time when food wasn’t taken for granted.
Have you ever wondered if chickens speak Italian? Well, here’s what “Cock-a-doodle-do” sounds like when you’re in Italy…
If you’re in the Pittsburgh area and want to learn more about chickens, there are two tours of backyard coops this summer. The third annual Chicks-in-the-Hood tour will be held this Sunday, June 9 from 9am-3pm. Click here for more information.
The Italian Garden Project™ is once again sponsoring Sewick’s Chicks, a tour of the coops of Sewickley, PA, on Sunday, September 8 from 10am until 2pm.
Domenico Carpico’s Chickens