Dorothy Cannell: When I was about seven my pet chicken Rhoda showed up on the Christmas dinner table. I don’t mean she went hopscotching between the platters of vegetables chirping out ‘Jingle bells’. She was dinner, stuffed and roasted. Horrible – repulsive in her plucked nakedness. My parents kept chickens and I’d known one would be selected to fill our tummies. But Rhoda was different. She was mine. Perhaps originally I would have preferred a dog or cat, but I talked to her every day, thought her prettier and cleverer than her sisters, was convinced she returned my affection. And now I felt ill.
I don’t remember how the announcement had been made that this was Rhoda. I know it could not have crossed my mother’s mind that I would react as I did. She enjoyed taking care of the chickens – feeding them and collecting the eggs. She didn’t mind cleaning out the henhouse. She took good care of them. And named every one of them. But she didn’t have a deep emotional feel for them. Perhaps only a child who desperately wanted a pet of any sort would go off the deep end about the festive sacrifice of a Rhode Island Red with a name to suit. I do remember that my mother was regretful and compassionate. She understood my reaction though it was outside her own thinking. I don’t know what, if anything, I ate of that meal, but I do know that she never expected me to eat chicken again. When it was served there was always another choice – usually ham.
The memory of that carcass turned me against partaking off any kind of bird – turkey, duck, pheasant, or whatever else is regarded as edible. My husband Julian took this quirk in his stride, and I don’t think our children thought me odd. Dad took them out for fried chicken or brought it home, made chicken sandwiches for them, and at Thanksgiving there was always turkey. Julian purchased the turkey and did all preparations. I made the sage and onion stuffing, but he was chef while I got well out of the way. By the time I re-engaged, the skeleton had been disposed of and remains innocuously sliced. My offerings of cranberry sauce, vegetables and pecan pie always gave me a pleasant sense of virtue triumphing over travail.
I confess to frequently feeling that the world is against me when it comes to this issue. When eating out I have to scan through item after item on menus featuring, Chicken Alfredo, Chicken Tacos, Curried Chicken Salad, Chicken Florentine, etc. in hope of finding something feather free. Fowl has become the favorite offering at weddings, banquets and dinner parties. Family and friends know about my quirk. The rest of the time I hope it won’t be noticed that I’ve done a camouflage job from what’s left of the vegetables, rice or pasta I could have eaten twice as much of. “Not eating bird is a social handicap” I frequently muse, hoping to sound pitifully charming, rather than a pain in the neck. Though the latter is what I have to be for anyone considering inviting me for lunch or dinner.
My sad story of Rhoda has to pale in comparison to the irritation of having to scour for a recipe involving, beef, pork or fish to substitute for that tried and true chicken in mushroom soup casserole with its dash of paprika and liberal slosh of sherry that everyone thinks takes hours to make.
It is during moments of introspection that I will think of myself as a character in one of my books. So often in writing it is something seemingly trivial, an idiosyncrasy that sows the seeds for fleshing out personality. I select a setting. Because I do traditional mysteries, and the current one takes place in an English village during the nineteen thirties, I will go with such. In this environment the fictional Dorothy (we’ll call her Edith) plays bridge. Not very well, but sufficiently to make up a table if the Major or the Vicar is unavailable. Unfortunately for those doing the inviting such occasions often include a luncheon or dinner and if it’s not bad enough that Edith variably leaves her reading glasses at home and has false teeth that click and has a tendency to sniff, she doesn’t ‘do feathers.’
I can hear Miss Willis from The Rookery grumbling to Mrs. Gillman of Spring Cottage: ‘Tiresome creature! Some ridiculous story about a pet chicken that showed up on the dinner table when she was a child. The need to draw attention to herself would be pathetic if not so irritating. One shouldn’t laugh at her for looking so like an old hen herself – that scraggy neck and yellow skin. And talk about a beak! You could stab yourself on her nose. I’ve always said you can tell lot about people’s characters by their noses. All that twittering on about good works, but she’s not a nice woman. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if she got herself murdered before too long, particularly if those whispers about why the church sewing circle disbanded has a grain of truth.’
A little bit of me transferred and trasnsformed. Merely a fragment. But fragments have impact which can sometimes turn into consequences. What I love about writing mysteries is turning a trait that does not herald menace into something dire.