Chickens and the Civil War: a roasted dinner from A LIFE FOR NANCY—THE DAUGHTER OF FRANKIE SILVER

Lean times are common for Nancy and her children as they struggle to survive in Danita Stoudemire and Riley Henry’s historical novel, A Life for Nancy—The Daughter of Frankie Silver (Bookstand Publishing, 2012). But when winter hits their rural Appalachian community in the midst of the Civil War, life becomes unbearable in the cabin where they all fight to exist. Two days before Christmas, however, Nancy—the daughter of the only woman in Burke County, North Carolina to be hanged for murder—finds a dead chicken lying on the ground outside. She decides to pluck the pitiful bird and bring it inside to share with her children for Christmas dinner. A small store of root vegetables and other sturdy produce remains buried in the hill above their mountain cabin, hidden from view should Kirk’s Raiders appear in the cove that shelters only a few remaining settlers. These heartless marauders who move from community to community, taking advantage of the vulnerability of the homesteaders whose able-bodied farmers have gone to war, luckily bypass Nancy’s farm, leaving what little she has left to feed her children.

I tried to imagine what Nancy would have had to work with when she plucked and roasted that lone hen. Herbs were plentiful on mountain farms in the 19th century. And I believe that Nancy, whose story was not exactly factual but based on oral history and letters from her loving husband, would have had carrots and celery, and most likely potatoes, left in her cool storage to cook with the Christmas chicken in the cabin’s wood-fired oven.

I enjoy roasting chickens in the simple manner that Nancy might have used. A bird, salt-and-peppered, laid atop a bed of vegetables, then covered in bundles of herbs, or a pile of roughly chopped aromatic leaves before being slow roasted, comes out of the oven tender, full of juices, and boldly flavored by the herbs. Sometimes I cook two chickens at a time so that I have plenty of moist and tender meat to use in other dishes, or for lunches through a busy week.

Homestead Herb Roast Chicken with Garden Vegetables

Ingredients:

Whole fryers

Salt & pepper

Carrots, peeled and trimmed of stems

Stalks of celery, trimmed

Root vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips, turnips, yams…

Bundles of fresh herbs such as mint, rosemary, parsley, basil, oregano…

Method:

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Lay vegetables in the bottom of an appropriately sized roasting pan or baking dish, depending on how many birds are to be cooked.

Tuck the wing tips of the chicken under the back to prevent them from drying and burning.

Season with salt and pepper.

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Lay the herb bundles or chopped piles on top to cover.

Roast for half to one hour at 350 degrees. Times will vary depending on the size and number of birds, but the heat should stay up until the chicken begins to cook and sizzle, and pan juices start to appear. The idea is to get things going at a higher temperature before reducing the heat to slow cook the bird(s).

Reduce the heat of the oven to 250 and continue cooking until a thermometer inserted between the thigh and breast reads 165, basting the chicken every 10 minutes with the pan juices as it starts to brown. Take the temperature in a few different places to make sure it’s fully cooked before serving.

Remove the pan from the oven and allow the bird(s) to rest for 20 minutes so that the juices can settle within the meat and won’t run out when carved.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter. The roasted vegetables can be placed around the bird to garnish.

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Slice and serve with the roasted vegetables. Drizzle on pan juices to finish.

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From a very early age I have read cookbooks like novels– curled up on the couch perusing recipe after recipe, scanning images of plated food that tell a story of their own. Even when immersing myself in a novel, I find I am more drawn to those in which culinary delights play an integral role in the lives of the characters. I am certain that this literary devotion to food, and the passion my parents helped instill in me for quality ingredients and companionable cooking are what led me to begin a professional cooking career as a young adult.