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“As Scarce as Hen’s Teeth”

December 3, 2005

The picturesque town of Leesville, nestled in Lexington County, South Carolina, is renowned for several things. Shealy’s Barbeque attracts travelers from near and far with some of the best barbeque pork served in the state. A meal at Shealy’s buffet will satisfy even the heartiest appetite. Except for a week in the summer and a week after Christmas, Shealy’s is open year-round.

Another of Leesville’s claims to fame is the Annual Poultry Festival. Scheduled for late May, the Poultry Festival celebrates chickens. The weekend features carnival rides, concession stands, various contests, music of all kinds, and fireworks. Public places and private residences are decorated with fanciful renderings of the chicken. Some are made from painted plywood. Others are glazed ceramic. Visitors to the Poultry Festival may see sheet metal roosters or papier-mâché biddies trailing behind a mother hen also fashioned from newspaper and glue. The symbol for the Poultry Festival is a rooster wearing a top hat. Hialeah, Florida, may have pink flamingos as its symbol, but Leesville, South Carolina, has red, white, black, and brown chickens.

The weekend of the Poultry Festival, Shealy’s does a booming business. As tasty as Shealy’s vegetables are, as savory as their barbeque is, fried chicken is their finest fare. I have eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken at Colonel Sanders’ original restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky. Shealy’s fried chicken is equally delicious. The cooks in the Leesville restaurant cut whole hens into pieces the old-fashioned way. The pully bones, wishbones to some, are left intact. In fact, it is possible to order a bowlful of pully bones, as well as fried chicken livers, and fried chicken gizzards.

Chickens, like all other birds this side of Jurassic Park, have no teeth. This simple fact, of course, gave rise to the expression, “scarce as hen’s teeth.” Instead of teeth, deep inside birds have a gizzard, a strong muscular organ that aids in digestion. When a bird eats, food is received in a crop, also called a craw. With the food, the bird ingests small bits of stone and sand. This fact gave rise to the expression, “grit in your craw.” Grit is stored in the gizzard. In the bird’s digestive tract, food moves from the crop to the gizzard. The muscular gizzard containing grit pulverizes everything a bird eats, functioning in the same manner as human teeth. Turkey gizzards are strong enough to grind whole acorns and uncracked walnuts. When a chicken is cleaned for cooking, the gizzard is usually split open to remove the grit before the gizzard is cooked. Fried chicken gizzards are considered by many to be a Southern delicacy.

When Lewis Mitchell proposed to Dena Rheney, he presented to her a lovely engagement ring. The modest diamond was beautifully but precariously set in an old-fashioned Tiffany style. Lewis and Dena Mitchell lived in Leesville following their marriage in 1907. The diamond was lost out of the ring several times over the course of their fifty-five year marriage. Once the gem disappeared down the kitchen sink but was later recovered from the curved plumbing trap beneath the counter.

Lewis and Dena Mitchell were maternal grandparents to my wife, Clare. The Mitchell family raised chickens; laying hens for eggs and plump fryers for Sunday dinner. Dena Mitchell, known to her grandchildren as Mother Dee, prepared her own chicken for frying. Frugal as she was, every part of the chicken was used.

One summer afternoon, Mother Dee noticed that the diamond in her engagement ring was missing. The family undertook an all-out search for the small stone as they had on other occasions. After several days, hope waned. The diamond was lost and was nowhere to be found. About three weeks later, Mother Dee prepared Sunday dinner for her family. A suitable fryer was selected from the chicken pen, plucked, and cleaned as usual. As Mother Dee cut up the chicken, she came to the gizzard, splitting it open as she always did. She noticed a piece of grit larger than the others. Upon closer inspection, she discovered that it was the diamond from her ring! Apparently, it had dislodged from the setting while she was scattering feed for the chickens weeks before.

A diamond in a chicken gizzard? Such grit in the craw is as scarce as hen’s teeth!

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, December 2005

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