Letters From Alabama

Turkeys-Hatch Ratio

The Historic FoodieI was pretty lucky to get three Bourbon Red turkey eggs – that I hatched in the incubator – considering how late in the season I bought the trio. They were already moulting, and I was pretty sure I wouldn't see eggs until spring, but Henri and Etta surprised me. Of the three poults, two so far are toms, and the third, younger by a couple of weeks, I'm not sure about yet. If No. 3 ends up being a tom as well, we'll be eating home-grown turkey sooner rather than later.  


turkey humor 

Big FootI'd named one of the birds Scarlet because of the breed's coloring, but when I went out to feed them over the weekend and Scarlet dropped her feathers, ruffled up, and fanned out her tail I realized she's a Rhett instead of a Scarlet.   

Our birds made it through Thanksgiving without finding their way onto a platter, but as they continue to multiply we'll control the number of toms in the flock through butchering and cooking.  

For more:  see my Historic Foodie blog.

Ducks: Cute, Cuddly and Stinky

The Historic FoodieWe have Pekin and Rouen ducks in our flock and of all our birds – turkeys, geese, chickens and guineas – the ducks are by far the messiest and stinkiest. If I’d gotten them first, I might have been far less inclined to get the others. Between the droppings, splashed water, dropped feed, and a heat light to ripen it all, the stench is pretty overwhelming.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the weather was warm enough with the sunshine we could take them out and let them have a much needed bath. I carried them (4 weeks old) out in a Rubbermaid tub, and put warm water into clean tubs for their bathing pleasure. Afterward I took them back in and put them under the heat light to dry them quickly and prevent them from catching a chill. The result? Clean, odor-free ducklings that were once again as cute as they could possibly be. How long did it last?

Ready to go out for a bath

Pekins enjoying a bath

The Rouens bathing

Under the heat lamp drying off

Approximately 48 hours and they’re back where they started.

Martin is building a brooder box for them to last the couple or three weeks until they’re old enough to tolerate the weather outdoors and to use for future hatchings. He built it with a framed screen bottom (half-inch mesh) so that the splashed water, droppings and feed will fall through to catch pans underneath. Those pans can be hosed off and replaced, and washed with some soapy bleach water as often as needed to control the odiferous atmosphere that enshrouds these lovelies.

The new brooder box

Another view

It also has a hinged chicken-wire lid that will open for ease in feeding and watering and keep any chicks or guineas from flying the coop so to speak. He’s done an awesome job, and I cannot wait for the weekend to get it painted, get it set up in the lean-to on the potting shed I recently painted, and get those stinky quackers into their new digs. 

For more, see Thehistoricfoodie's Blog.

Reclaiming a Small Homestead

The Historic FoodieThere is an expression in the South, “Too many irons in the fire,” and we currently live up to that sentiment with continuing to update and upgrade the place (outbuildings, fences, porches, etc.), raise and house a lot of chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas, plant a small orchard (along with things like Jerusalem artichokes and asparagus) while trying to reclaim some old existing fruit trees, etc. The list is almost endless.

There is an L-shaped privacy fence around the back patio and we decided to hook on to the back side of it, adding three sides, to create a larger chicken/duck/guinea pen. That sounds like a simple task except that, like everything else, you have to fix something before you can fix what you actually want to work on. The end post on the wooden fence was rotten at ground level so that had to be dug out and replaced first. That is done, and now we can start putting up the pen. I’m sure the birds will appreciate a larger, permanent enclosure and house.

A while back when I tried to dig a hole I discovered there was concrete underneath the grass down the side of the potting shed so, being a classic type A personality (or obsessive compulsive, whichever you prefer), it bugged the crap out of me until I could uncover that concrete pad. The grass is so thick, tough and tangled, I literally had to cut it then lift it out, which was more than I bargained for but it’s done and it looks awesome. At some point we can install the outdoor sink we want there and have a nice concrete pad to stand on when using it.

Said potting shed had tilted forward over the years before we bought the place so that there was a 4-inch drop from the back wall to the front. We used 6-by-6-by-16s as leverage poles to raise the front of the building up enough to level it. I climbed a couple of steps up a ladder, then carefully and slowly turned and sat on the end of the 6-by-6 while Martin wiggled concrete blocks underneath the front of the building until it was level all around. Now I can walk upright inside without tilting like a grazing mountain goat.


Another after shot


I painted the inside of the potting shed – not so much to look pretty as to lighten up the very dark wooden interior. I was thrifty and used thinned out leftover paint from the interior of the house and gave it more of a whitewash than an actual paint job. It is much brighter and lighter inside, which will make working in there much more pleasant. I was quite the contortionist half standing on the ladder and half swinging off a rafter to reach the ceiling corners. Next up: a new layer of plywood on the floor.

Weekend before last I slapped on a coat of barn red paint on the outside and this past weekend I painted the trim white. The “before and after” photos show the transformation. It went from unusable to quite nice for the cost of a gallon of paint. There is an old barn on the property that will eventually get the same treatment, and the chicken, duck, goose, turkey, and guinea shelters will sport the same color scheme. It is amazing how much satisfaction I get from reclaiming the old features, and Martin is doing an awesome job of building new shelters for our birds. Life is Great! 

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Feasts From the Past

The Historic FoodieWith the holidays fast approaching most of us have our minds on the feasts we will share with friends and loved ones so when I saw this account of a Sunday Dinner from the 17th of August 1617, “for the Lords’ Table,” I thought it was well worth sharing. Even holiday cooking will seem simple after thinking how many people it took to make this feast given the cooking techniques of the time.

“First course—Pullets, boiled capon, boiled mutton, boiled chickens, roast shoulder of mutton, boiled ducks, roast loin of veal, pullets, roast haunch of venison, burred capon, hot pasty of venison, roast turkey, burred veal, 1 roast swan and 1 for to-morrow, hot chicken pye, roasted goose, cold rabbits, boiled jiggits of mutton, snipe pye, boiled breast of veal, roast capons, pullets, roast beef, cold tongue pye, boiled sprod, cold roast herons, cold curlew pye, hot mince pye, custards, roast pigs.

Roast goose from our 2013 Christmas dinner 

"Second course—One hot pheasant, and one for the King, six quails for the King, partridge, poults, artichoke pye, chickens, roast curlews, buttered pease, rabbits duck, plovers, red deer pye, burred pig, roast hot herons, roast lamb, gammon of Bacon, roast pigeons, made dish, burred chicken, pear tart, pullets and grease, dryed tongues, turkey pye, pheasant pye, pheasant tart, dryed hogs cheeks, cold turkey chicks.

"Sunday Night’s Supper, the 17th of August, 1617.

"First course—Pullet, boiled capon, cold mutton, roast shoulder of mutton, boiled chicken, cold capon, roast veal, boiled rabbits, pullet, roast turkey, hot pasty of venison, roast shoulder of venison, cold herons, sliced beef, umble pye, boiled ducks, baked chickens, pullet, cold neat’s tongue pye, roast neat’s tongue, boiled sprod, cold baked curlews, cold baked turkeys, neat’s feet, boiled rabbits, fried rabbits.

"Second course—Quails, poults, herons, plovers, chickens, pear tart, rabbits, buttered pease, made dish, ducks, gammon of bacon, red deer pye, pigeons, wild boar pye, curlew, dry neat’s tongue, _____tart, dried hog’s cheek, red deer pye.

"Monday Morning’s Breakfast, the 18th of August, 1617. Pullets, boiled capon, shoulder of mutton, roast veal, boiled chickens, roast rabbits, roast shoulder of mutton, roast chine of beef, pasty of venison, roast turkey, roast pig, roast venison, boiled ducks, pullet, cold red deer pye, four roast capons, roast poults, pheasant, herons, boiled mutton, wild boar pye, boiled jiggits of mutton, burred ditto, gammon of bacon, chicken pye, burred capon, dried hog’s cheek, umble pye, tart, made dish.”

The banquet room of Hoghton-TowerThis tremendous amount of food by today’s standards was literally fit for a king. Sir Richard Hoghton (knighted by Queen Elizabeth and created baronet May 22, 1611) served in several parliaments in capacity of knight of the shire for the county of Lancaster, England, and Hoghton entertained King James the First at his home when the king was traveling to Scotland in 1617. The preceding menus are those from the king’s visit.

Notice the almost complete lack of vegetables on this menu. One would think that they simply weren’t listed were it not for the one mention of "buttered pease" (peas). A “made-dish” refers to anything that is made from a number of ingredients. It is anyone’s guess what went into these particular dishes.

Several labourers (servants) were required to prepare the vast amount of food served and each was probably highly skilled. “For the pastries—John Greene, Richard Blythe, William Aldersey, Alexander Cowper.  For the ranges—John Coleburne, Elias James, John Rairke, Robert Dance.  For boiling—John Murryer, William Parkes.  For pullets—John Clerke, John Bibby.  Chief Cooks—Mr. Morris; Mr. Miller.”

Entertainment was as lavish as the food served during the king’s time at Hoghton-Tower and a long poem read before the king has been faithfully preserved along with the menus in the family archives. Hoghton-Tower is available for weddings and special events.

The banquet room of Hoghton-Tower 


Burred: No definition found that would be pertinent to food preparation, probably cooked over hot coals.

Capon: An emasculated rooster. When performed at a young age the meat is rendered more tender.

Chine: a cut of meat containing the backbone

Curlew: A bird in the snipe family, having long legs and a curved bill.

Gammon: a cured ham, or an end of a side of bacon.

“Jiggit” – a Gigot: a leg and loin

Neat: a cow (or beef), it could refer to a calf

Pasty (Pas’ti): A pie with crust all around it, a meat pie

Poult: Most often refers to a young turkey today, but may also refer to a young chicken, pheasant, or other fowl raised for food. Related to poultry.

Pullet: a young hen

Sprod: a salmon-trout when first returned from the sea. A fish.

Umble: From circa 1400, the edible inner parts of a deer or other animal (liver, heart, etc.)

Blissful Meals, one and all. I hope you enjoy the fellowship of gathering with friends and family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the meals that will be shared, and the blessings of the coming year. May God bless.

See: Abram, William Alexander. “Parish of Blackburn, County of Lancaster.” 1877. Blackburn.

Life on the Farm as Seen Through the Eyes of Aflac and Gertrude

Aflac and Gertrude 

Aflac and Gertrude

A fanciful conversation concerning newcomers to the barnyard.

Aflac: “Oh, she’s brought some new faces to the yard, let’s go over and see who they are. … Gertrude – COME ON, you’re always dragging up the rear.” 

Gertrude: “What do you suppose they are? They don’t look like us. They don’t look like the geese either, or the chickens, and they certainly don’t resemble the turkeys. They’re nowhere near as big as them.”

Some of our 4-week-old French guineas. 

Some of our 4-week-old French guineas.

Aflac, who is older by a couple of weeks and therefore the leader of this duck pack, did not want to appear backward so he simply ignored the question. Truthfully, he had no idea what these newcomers were. They really weren’t white like he and Gertrude were, they weren’t red like the turkeys, and they had frightfully pretty and intricate patterns in their wings the likes of which he’d never seen before.

Gertrude: “Look how they’re all moving around together at the same time. They’re a gang. Maybe they’re a biker gang.”

Aflac: “No stupid, birds don’t ride motorcycles, and why would they need to? They can fly. Just look at them flying all around inside that pen. All we can do is flap, but they’ve got thrust – just flap and they’re off the ground and zipping all around. Why, I bet they could fly to the tree tops.”

After watching them for a few minutes, Gertrude asked again what Aflac thought about the newcomers. They weren’t very friendly at all, moving off in a panic every time they were asked a question. Maybe they were frightened by that pesky little dog sitting nearby, but no, they didn’t seem to mind moving around to the end of the pen closest to the four-legged beast.

A young Buff Orpington and Ameracauna chickens. 

A young Buff Orpington and Ameracauna chickens.

Aflac: “Let’s try again to make friends. Hey you in the pen, what are your names? Where did you come from? We’re ducks, Pekin ducks to be precise. Those big white guys running across the yard and flapping their wings all about are geese. You can fly so you’re not a goose. The big guys in the other pen over there are turkeys – that Tom has two ladies and just between us, that’s about one more than he can handle. The big pen has chickens in it – there’s red ones and spotted ones, they’re OK. We hang out with them sometimes. I don’t think you’re chickens.”

All the while, the Dynamic Duck Duo are waddling around and around the pen trying to get the new kids to stand still and engage in a conversation, but they’re actually pretty antisocial, making no attempt at friendship.

Aflac tries again. “And that other pen, yeah, that one over there – that fluffy one in there is a chicken. The other one is a turkey who thinks he’s a chicken. They’re a little squirrely so we steer clear of them.”

The chicken (Boo Boo) and the turkey that thinks he's a chicken (Big Foot). 

The chicken (Boo Boo) and the turkey that thinks he's a chicken (Big Foot).

Gertrude: “They’re not very nice, they’re still not talking. Maybe they’re crows. Or they could be hawks and when they get big they’ll try to eat us.

Aflac thought that was a silly idea. They weren’t black like crows, and hawks don’t move in one big group like these guys were doing. Perhaps they could ask Tom Turkey if he knows what they are. He’s the biggest of all the birds in the barnyard so he must be the smartest. 

The all-wise Tom Turkey. 

The all-wise Tom Turkey.

Indeed, Tom and his ladies had come to the farm from a place that had lots of animals and he was pretty sure these new residents were guineas, but beyond knowing what they were he had no interest in the little folk. He was king of the barnyard and did not have time for such trivial matters. His job was to tend to his ladies and keep them happy. That was it – pure and simple. He didn’t even want to be bothered with his own offspring, which explains why the one turkey thinks he’s a chicken. He hatched with the chicken and grew up with the chicken so, well, he must be a chicken too. 

About that time Ma was coming around the corner with supper, and they quickly forgot about the guineas and where they came from and why they were there at the farm. After all, Aflac and Gertrude are ducks and their attention span was about played out so they waddled off to enjoy their evening corn and get ready for bed. As Scarlett said, they’d think about that another day.

Should I Assist With Hatching?

The Historic FoodieTomorrow is my oldest son’s birthday and my experience with hatching bourbon red turkey eggs last night was vaguely similar to problems I had giving birth to him 35 years ago. I was having a great deal of difficulty during the delivery, which lasted 36 hours and culminated in another doctor coming in and immediately seeing that I was in distress and proceeding with a forceps delivery. I was there so long I had three shifts of nurses and doctors. Preparations had been made for a C-section and the situation was bad enough that my ex had been told the baby was not going to survive yet no one would take the initiative to intervene on the baby’s behalf.

A newly hatched bourbon red turkey, now known as Big Foot

Last night I had three turkey eggs pipping, one of which was taking much longer than the other two in hatching, but because I’d read so much that claimed I shouldn’t intervene, I was afraid to help. Some people say we should at least give the chick 24 hours after the shell first cracks before assisting because doing so could harm the poult, resulting in serious deformity or death. I heeded the advice not to be too anxious to assist and went to bed at 11 p.m. If it hadn’t gotten out of the shell by morning I would help out then.

By 5:30 a.m. when I got up, the little fellow was dead – still inside the shell. He’d managed to chip away at the shell successfully enough, but the membrane was dry and tough and he couldn’t break through it. There was a little section of it open when I went to bed, enough that it could breath easily, but apparently he wasn’t strong enough to rip it on open. Granted I might have harmed it had I helped out, but by deciding to wait the 24 hours I allowed the little fellow to die, almost surely drying out and sticking to the shell making hatching impossible.

I had water in the incubator to raise the humidity. With previous hatches it was enough, but it apparently wasn’t enough this time, maybe because there were more eggs in the incubator than in previous hatches. (There are still a dozen Ameracauna eggs and two more turkey eggs in the incubator). I think I will add a wet paper towel tonight, as I’ve seen some people advise, and hopefully that will bump up the humidity level and the next eggs to hatch won’t have the problem of the tough rubbery membrane.

Lesson Learned: There is a very fine line between interfering and saving the chick, and choosing which path to take is fraught with doubt and fear, but in some cases doing nothing means certain death while assisting offers at least a 50/50 chance at life. Had I trusted my gut instinct and helped out I’d probably have three poults instead of two today.

I can’t tell anyone else what to do in this situation, but I can tell it like I see it and hopefully anyone faced with the same situation can make a more informed decision about what to do.

Fall Arrives in Southern Alabama

The Historic FoodieWhen I was younger my favorite season was summer because school was out, first for myself and later for my children, and there seemed to be a freedom not experienced throughout the rest of the year, but now it is my least favorite of all. As I’ve aged I’ve become less and less tolerant of the heat and humidity in the deep South, and I find myself wanting to speed through the summer months. Fall is settling over us, and I welcome it with open arms.

We have had some amazing sunsets recently, and I find so much pleasure in the beautiful colors as the sun lights the evening sky. The house sits directly east and west so the back porch is the perfect place from which to enjoy the patterns and colors created by the setting sun.

Setting sun over the pasture 

The leaves are beginning to show signs of color and the cotton is being harvested which is always a sign of fall. As a child I can remember taking the money I made from picking my grandfather’s cotton and spending it on a “bought” Halloween costume one year. I’ve long since forgotten what the costume was but I remember I felt awfully special sporting a store-bought costume and mask instead of something we’d rigged up at home.

It’s been a long time since I’ve picked any cotton, but the sight of a snowy field can instantly transport me back to my grandfather’s farm and picking it with my cousins and a few aunts and uncles.

Alabama cotton field 

Cotton burr and bud 

My Buff Orpingtons are old enough now to go outdoors into the temporary pen and wooden house Martin made for them and, except for Boo Boo and Big Foot, my wash room, aka poultry nursery, is empty. I named the Ameracauna chick Boo Boo because I was convinced it was at death’s door and thankfully it proved me wrong. I figured I made a “boo boo” by counting him out too soon. The bourbon red turkey poult was dubbed Big Foot by Martin because its legs and feet were larger than the chick’s. I also put the young ducks outdoors where they spend their days playing with the chickens.

A newly hatched bourbon red turkey, now known as Big Foot 

I am enjoying a temporary lull in poultry raising, however, as I have several more Pekin ducks, some Rouen ducks and 15 guineas due to arrive via mail during October. They’ll go into temporary housing with the heat lamp in the wash room when they get here and once again we’ll raise them up to the point they can go outdoors.

After I fed the turkeys and geese and got the chickens and ducks taken care of last evening, I sat out on the back porch and watched the sun go down behind the horizon while listening to the sounds of crickets and other insects. Such a feeling of contentment washed over me that I realized all the rocky roads I traveled to get to this time and place no longer sadden me – I had to take those paths to fully appreciate my life and my relationships now. God is good, life is good, and farm life is grand.

Pepper the Rat Terrier showing some modicum of restraint looking at the Orpingtons 

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