This “recipe” is taken from a document in the Algonquin Files. It also appears in Square Table, published by the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council.
You get up early in the morning, about six. It’s October, cool, the leaves on the maple are turning yellow. Some honkers may be howling down the early morning sky. Your two black iron pots are already sitting in the front yard on their little sawed-off-pieces-of-two-inch-galvanized-pipe legs, which raises their bellies off the ground just enough to let you shove a little firewood up under there, and also leaves room for a good bed of coals to build up later. You’ve made sure they’re fairly level. The pots are freshly washed and the woodpile is piled. All you have to do at this point is light the wood and bring the water hose and have some coffee. It’s too early for beer just yet. You’ll have plenty of time for beer later. This day’ll probably run about 20 hours.
You put about 20 gallons of water in each pot and now is a good time to get some breakfast, while you can’t do anything else but wait for the water to boil. It’ll take a while, so you’ve got time for pancakes and bacon if you want them. Nobody else in the house is up yet. Nobody else has to do anything yet.
After breakfast you take all the chickens and hens and dump them into the sink and cut them out of their plastic bags and open them up, get the little paper packets out of there, chunk everything inside them but the livers. Five whole hens or chickens go into each pot after the water gets to boiling. The idea now is to keep the fire really hot and make those pots rise to a rapid boil. You have to leave the chickens in until they’re completely disintegrated. It’ll be ten o’clock or so by then. Chicken parts and bones and skins will be rolling in a yellow foaming broth. Once that happens, you pull the wood back from the fire and just let the coals keep the broth hot.
It’ll be past lunchtime by the time you pick through all the meat, all the (p.255) bones, all the skin, all the inedible parts like the joints at the end of the drumsticks, the cartilage in the backbones, that weird-ass wedge-shaped tail part, who wants to eat that? All the meat and about half the skin goes into some clean trays. All the other stuff goes in the garbage. You might be having a beer after all this work. But it’ll still be after four before anybody arrives. It’s getting close to time for most of the work to start.
If you’ve got invited helper friends, they’ll be there by then. Make sure you have plenty of lawn chairs in the yard. Music is good at this time, guitar playing not so good with those greasy fingers. But don’t despair. There’ll be plenty of time for fingerpicking later.
If you’ve got somebody to help you in the kitchen, she’ll be working on slicing about 10 or 15 pounds of potatoes and cutting them into chunks, peeling and dicing 4 or 5 big white onions, slicing up 4 or 5 packs of carrots, and it’s a lot easier to just get whole frozen okra to dump in later, 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 boxes of that, too. The rest of the stuff is in cans: whole peeled tomatoes, lima beans, kernel corn, English peas. All those cans have to be opened and brought outside, along with everything else. By now the meat is back in and you’ve built the fires back up but not as high as you had them when you were cooking the meat right off the bone. Just dump everything in, halving it between the two pots. If you have people who can’t eat onions, like my mama, who taught me how to make this, you can leave one pot onion-free. It’s pretty crucial to have enough tomatoes. You want it red. If it’s not red, you’ve got to get some more tomatoes. If it’s not red, it’s not chicken stew.
So you let everything cook for a while. You put some Cajun seasoning in it. Tony Chachere’s is good. Everything will be cooking together, and it’ll be getting on up in the afternoon a little. A few guests might start arriving early, but you’ll hopefully have all the coolers full of beer by then.
All this time, while all this has been going on, or ever since you dumped the meat and skin back in, somebody has to have been standing there stirring both pots with a long-handled wooden paddle to keep it from sticking. This is very important and requires the full-time services of an invited helper friend, who can be paid with beer and cornbread or crackers and a few bowls of steaming stew and perhaps a few quarts of it to take home. You wish you could extend this last courtesy to each and every guest, but that would require buying about 200 Ball fruit jars and then giving them all away. Not to mention having to fill them all up.
(p.256) So along about now everything should be smoking. Invited helpers have set up the tables and chairs, and have spread tablecloths to hold the crackers and plates of cornbread and cakes and cookies and pies the guests will be bringing to the feast. You might want to run inside and change clothes now, while you still have a chance.
Back in the yard in clean duds, a few people have gathered around the pots to witness the transformation. All day long it’s been a thin and chunky boiling red combination of vegetables and meat, well, fruit too if you want to count the tomatoes, but along in here at a point in time that’s hard to define, but easy to see, the ingredients in the pot somehow come together and maybe meld their molecules or something and they go from being 40 gallons of chicken soup to 40 gallons of chicken stew. It thickens. When it thickens, it’s done. A few taste tests are in order and you have to be careful not to burn your lips and tongue, because it is very hot when it comes out of that iron. If it needs any more seasoning, now’s the time to do it. You can pull most of the fire back, and just leave a few coals under it. But somebody has to keep stirring.
The sun’s hanging low in the sky when the first of the cars and pickups and vans and SUV’s start coming up the driveway. Soon the yard will fill with 200 people, and guitars will be hauled out, and friends will laugh and talk and visit, and, most importantly, eat together.