Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I don't eat birds

   Rooster Ferrell is a hard-working, honest man.  He lost a job once, two weeks before Christmas, because he couldn't sell cheap lumber to a man who had paid for prime. Seems the owner of the store didn't have a problem charging customers for premium materials then substituting a less-expensive version at delivery time.  Rooster did.
      "When that man come to pick up the lumber he'd ordered, I just couldn't let him walk out of there with that cheap wood.  I told him when he come to the register to pay for it that he wasn't getting what he had ordered.  I got fired for that, lost my Christmas bonus too, but I just couldn't do it."
     He walked out of that job with his head held high and his moral compass pointing in the right direction, but sorely missing that paycheck and bonus two weeks before Christmas.  It wouldn't be long, however, before Rooster was working again. He was blessed with the ability to build or fix anything and had an honest character, and that meant work was never far away.
       It was his usual time to arrive this morning and the secret "signal" telling him it was O.K. to enter the house was on (a little ritual he and my mother had developed: Rooster arrives at the back door,  peeks in the window, checks to see if the red light of the coffee pot is on, indicating that everyone is up and he can come on in). The light was on full force, with the second pot of coffee brewing, and we were sitting in the den chatting when Rooster came in the door with samples of trim to select for the family room bookshelves. As we discussed the trim and the quality of the lumber, Rooster had chuckled and told us the story of losing his job as a lumber salesman.
     Earlier, Sissey had asked him if he had a real name. Unlike Rumplestiltskin, she did not have to spin straw into gold to get the answer.  It was Harvey, he said. She then asked why he was called Rooster, and in his patient drawl and with a slow smile, he told her.
    "Well, Sissey, you see, we come up on a farm, and when you come up on a farm back then, seemed like everyone got an animal name. Don't really know why, just did.  I had three brothers and a sister. We all had animals names. I was Rooster. I had one brother called Turkey, 'nother one went by Hawk, and then there was Mule. My sister was Cooter. She had two girls, and they got animal names, too. We called my nieces  Doodlebug and Cricket. We all still get called by our animal names. I don't even know how they picked'um, that's just the way it was."
     Sometimes in life, the answers are so simple you wonder why you asked.  That's all there was to the story.  It was just the way life was: you lived on a farm, you worked with animals, you got an animal name, you kept it for the rest of your life.
     I had just happened to bring two things back from Richmond when we returned the day before: terrapin stew and goose hash.  I thought it rather ironic that I had soup made from the same animal his sister was named for and insisted that Rooster try both the stew and the hash. The terrapin stew had come from the Commonwealth Club in Richmond and was a rare treat served only once a year at the annual meeting.  Rooster said he loved "cooter stew" and used to make it all the time.  He and his brothers spent many days going to the river to engage in some "cooter grabbing" (sticking your hands in the murky water and trying to catch the turtle by the tail before he caught your hand in his mouth). When they managed to land one that was "eating size" they'd throw it in a bag, haul it home, and toss it in a pot of boiling water,
       "That ole cooter would just clean hisself when you threw him in the pot of boiling water. Before he died, he'd scrape all the shell and bones off''im and leave nothing but the meat.  All you had to do was lift that meat out the pot, cut it up, and through it in the stew pot with some vegetables. That was some good eating."
     When I brought the terrapin stew out for him to try, I was convinced he would love it.  However, the rich, brown Virginia soup turned out to be a whole lot different from the tomato-based Carolina cooter stew he used to make.  Rooster looked at the strange concoction in the bowl.  He wrinkled his nose at it, nibbled a small bite, and said it might be "aw-right" on top of some rice or mashed potatoes.
      He declined anymore. I wasn't about the tell the chef at the Commonwealth Club that his terrapin stew hadn't cut the mustard down south.
     "Well, I know you're going to love my hash," I tried next. 
       He had a spoonful almost to his mouth when he stopped and asked, "What kind of hash did you say this was?"
     "Goose hash."
     "Uh-huh, " he shook his head and put the spoon back down. "Nope. No thanks."
      What's the matter?" I asked. "You're not going to try it?"
      "Nope," he replied, handing me back the bowl and untouched spoon. "I don't eat birds."
       "You don't eat birds?"
       Rooster said he didn't eat anything that flew. Didn't touch any kind of poultry. Not a thing. No ma'am.  Not even chicken.
      Well, I had that coming, I guess.  Should have known that a man named Rooster was not going to consume one of his own.
     I wasn't about to tell his sister, however, that he had tried the cooter stew.

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