We’re headed into the Deep South this week as I reconnect with a former student at his farm in Extension, Louisiana, but first…
Fun New Word: Squeam!
Neologisms – brand new words – pop into our language all the time – words like selfie, bromance, fracktivist, staycation, and other things people have made up. I happened to stumble on a pretty good one not long ago and grabbed a screenshot from an online dictionary…
I kind of like it. We use it fairly often now in our house, sometimes to refer to the gooey greasy stuff you have in a broiler pan after roasting a chicken and want to make gravy – “Dear, get as much of that chicken squeam as you can out of the pan” – so it’s not always used pejoratively.
Spread the new word!
Extension, Louisiana?? Where’s that?
I taught high school for a few years after getting out of college, and every now and then I’ll connect with a former student or two – each of us discovering what we’ve been up to after all these (lo, these 40?) years. That’s happened a few times with Jack Dailey, a farmer in Extension, Louisiana, who just last week sent me gobs of material about his life and family and his cotton farming in the South, and quite a bit more – including a recipe for spatchcocked game hens (see below).
Back in the early 1970s, Jack was in the school’s photography club (which I was advisor to) and one of a group of five or six kids that my former wife and I were friends with. And I recall back then he was already leaning hard toward a life in farming, in the South.
Some years after I left the school, I learned Jack was on his family’s farm, The Boeuf Prairie Farm, in an unincorporated “place” known as Extension, in Franklin Parish, just a 30-odd mile muddy walk from the banks of the Mississippi in the northeastern corner of Louisiana.
Having trouble finding this “town” on maps (in pre-internet days), I penned this little bit of doggerel for him:
Unlike myself and Jack, that poem does not improve with age. But Extension continues to be nearly unfindable. Maybe it’s because Boeuf Prairie Farm takes up a fair amount of the area, so it doesn’t work to ask where Extension is, but instead, “How do I get to the old Dailey place?”
Your family’s been here since… when?
And old it is! Jack writes,
“Our farm was started by my Great, Great, Great-Grandfather Samuel Dailey, in about 1820. He was one of the earlier settlers on Boeuf Prairie. Our farm is adjacent to the Boeuf River which was the “road” for steamboats until about the 1930’s. When Samuel died he had some bales of cotton, a log chain, etc. His son, Milton Dailey was actually killed in a duel over a slave. One of Milton’s slaves had gone to a neighbor’s farm to visit a friend. Pierce, the owner of that property, killed the slave and so a duel was at hand… Milton borrowed a relative’s pistol. It misfired and Milton was shot in the stomach. He then killed Pierce with a second attempt. He lingered a few days, but wrote in the family Bible to tell the kids he had died in self- defense.”
Jump ahead a couple of generations, and we have Jack and his father (now 91) managing the place together – some 250 acres in cotton, 200 soybeans, and 1100 corn – all laid out in perfect rows by GPS-guided tractors. Add to that hayfields and pastureland for some 40 “mama cows,” swamp and ponds and pine forests, and you have a substantial operation.
Cotton has been the heart and soul of the farm since it started. Jack writes,
“Cotton has long been the mainstay of the farm. As you know, with the advent of the gin and the industrial age, people could have more than one set of clothes! So, it was a cash crop for southern farms. I tell people that being a 6th generation farmer, you would think we would be more prosperous…”
“As you know cotton is really more of a desert type plant; in that it will survive without lots of water. It is also a perennial, grown as an annual. This leads to challenges because the plant is not geared to have to reproduce each year. Yet, the fruit is what we are after. We must control its height to pick it. It also produces fiber and a high protein seed. In fact, about 60% of the crop is seed. It is also a beautiful crop through all its stages of development. Beautiful yellow and pink flowers, lush green foliage, and of course a field of white before harvest. A few short years ago, Louisiana had over 1 million acres of cotton and now has less than 200,000.”
Those $%#$%^$ Boll Weevils!!
(You might remember Brook Benton’s “Boll Weevil” song… )
“The Boll Weevil primer. The boll weevil arrived via south Texas in the late 1800’s. It advanced across the cotton belt all the way to Virginia at the rate of 20- 30 miles a year. It hit Louisiana and the delta just before the depression and the 1927 flood! There were efforts to control it. Burning shed squares (buds) that were harboring the larva, calcium arsenic which was shaken in a burlap sack while riding a mule (not much in the way of worker protection back then). The advent of crop dusters and some other hard organic chemicals allowed the crop to still be grown, but it was expensive. The weevil, it turns out, has a weakness. To attract a mate it uses an aggregating pheromone that lures both males and females. This pheromone was synthesized and used in a trap.”
Boll weevil eradication – a done deal!!
Here’s Wikipedia’s story on the program. Pretty amazing – achieved almost entirely by cotton farmers all over the South uniting in single purpose.
“During the 70’S farmers across the belt got together with a plan. The traps would be used to monitor weevils and spraying with ULV malathion (a very safe insecticide) would wipe most of them out. The traps would finish the job. The effort would start in North Carolina and shove the weevil back to the Rio Grande. So, state by state the weevil was eradicated. It now is lingering along the Rio Grande in a tropical environment where Mexican drug gangs are hampering the effort. It is the most successful eradication program in the history of the United States.
As you can imagine, it took lots of meetings and discussions to pass laws in all the infested states to get everyone on board. But, without the boll weevil in our fields yields have jumped, there is less pesticide load on the environment, and we can focus on other aspects of raising the crop. I am proud to say I did my part in Louisiana to get that done.”
There’s too much here for one post, so next week we’ll continue with a closer look at farming strategies on the farm, and maybe a cajun recipe (this is Cajun country, after all).
Jack’s grilled Spatchcocked Cornish game hens
I need to be completely honest with you. I write about food quite a bit, and I’d never heard the word spatchcock or spatchcocked or spatchcocking until Jack emailed me last week with his recipe for spatchcocked Cornish game hens. But I don’t feel like a complete sheltered troglodyte illiterate, because when I was at Hannaford today, at the meat counter, none of the three butchers there had a clue what it was. In fact, this is how the conversation went:
Me, to butchers: “Hi there. Have you ever heard of the word spatchcock?”
Butcher 1: “I ain’t never.”
Butcher 2: “I ain’t never neither.”
Butcher 3: “I ain’t never neither either.”
Or words to that effect… So it might be more of a Southern thing, like country ham or biscuits and gravy or collards with lard.
I’ve done some research on spatchcocking, and every time I see a photo of a chicken or hen or game bird that’s been spatchcocked I swear it looks like it’s done a 60 mph belly flop off the 20th floor to the pavement. Nasty.
Awright awready, so what is it?!
Spatchcocking is flipping the bird on its breast, then using poultry shears or a sharp knife to remove its backbone – and sometimes the sternum as well. In this way, the bird splays out very nicely and flattens, so you can grill it just like a cheeseburger. I’d get right on it today, but my poultry shears need sharpening (as if I have them).
The origin of the word seems to be unknown. Some think it’s from despatch cock and others from a kind of eel, which bears precious little resemblance to a chicken (except for brain size).
So Jack writes:
- Spatchcocking a hen is easy. Just remove the backbone (neck included) with a pair of poultry shears. It also lets you re-clean the cavity (kidney parts, a little leftover lung…that kind of thing) (Ed. note: Jack means “squeam” here).
- After you have prepared the bird, I season it with Cavender’s all purpose Greek seasoning. It claims to be an ancient Greek formula! My experience is that you can not have too much of this stuff. Be sure to get lots between the thigh and breast area. This stuff is from Arkansas, so that means this is a Southern dish.
- Now, I head to get the grill hot. No gas grill. Kingsford charcoal preferred. Usually I start the grill before I cut the bird so everything is ready to go.
- Place the birds breast up, 7″ above the hot coals. Because the bird will lay flat, fold out the leg quarters so they lay flat (with the “outside” skin facing up.
- Lower the cover of the grill and leave about 1″ of airspace. Look at your watch. Note the time and then go in the house and pour a Scotch and clean the pan you seasoned the hens in. Line the pan with enough foil to cover the bottom and leave enough to cover the birds.
- In 25 minutes go outside and turn the birds over. Close the lid (leave the gap) and go back in the house. Do not mess with the fire. Check the level of your drink, and announce to your wife that the birds will be ready in 20 minutes. Grab your digital thermometer.
- After 20 minutes go get the birds. The temperature will be 175 or so at the thigh. You only check the temp to assure guests that the poultry will not kill them. They will be perfect after 45 minutes.
- Place the birds in the pan and cover with foil and let them rest for about 10 minutes. You can cover them with a towel and set them on a cork trivet to keep them warm.
- The great thing about this is now the legs quarters and breast just peel apart while serving so folks can have whatever piece they like. The birds will not be “dry”.
More next week. It’s a hoot reconnecting with this guy, and I think we’ll be staying in touch.
There you have it.