“Johnny Carrol, run get me one of them white roosters.”
It’s been four decades since I last heard those words. Hearing them now, only in my memories, still makes my mouth water. Those words meant we were having my grandmother’s chicken and noodles for dinner.
Granny was a master, as many poor folks are, at creating simple yet delicious meals from humble ingredients. This particular recipe called for a couple of eggs, some flour, milk, salt, pepper and that one unlucky rooster.
The roosters were rejects of industrial agriculture. They came to my grandmother’s rural acreage from Valmac Foods (now Tyson Foods) in Dardanelle and grew up among her flock of assorted laying hens.
The laying hens had it good. Granny kept a dozen or so in a big, shaded pen, and they all enjoyed afternoons outside the pen chasing grasshoppers, being chased by grandkids, but generally living the chickenest life they could hope for. The roosters had it good, too, but food and board for poultry at my grandmother’s came with a price. The hens paid with eggs. The roosters paid with their lives.
Catching a rooster wasn’t so hard. Granny would throw out a handful of feed, and they came running. I’d squat nearby with a metal coat hanger fashioned into a snare of sorts by bending an open loop on one end. It was one of my first predatory exercises, tame as it was, and the excitement, the great enormity of the moment, tremored through my little body as the universe seemed to narrow into each sliver of a moment for the task at hand.
But I somehow maintained my composure, and once everyone was busy pecking, it didn’t take much stealth to slip the hanger around a rooster’s foot and pull him in, squawking and flapping. Then my grandmother’s surprisingly nimble and determined hands snatched up the rooster by his yellow legs, stepped on his noggin and pulled on his feet until his head popped off.
When she let him go, the headless rooster bounced and flapped as if possessed for nearly a minute as electrical impulses fired through his nervous system, jolting the bird into escape tactics even after decapitation. Blood sprayed and splattered on the grass, often on me and always on my grandmother.
After what many would consider a barbaric spectacle (that all of the grandkids had gathered to watch), my grandmother, standing less than 5 feet tall—the most gentle, soft-spoken and loving person I’ve ever known—would wipe dots of chicken blood from her glasses with an apron. Then she grabbed the mostly motionless rooster (they often offered a few feeble kicks when touched again) and plucked its snowy feathers outside before bringing the carcass inside for further processing. And this, to me, was the most natural thing in the world. How else could we have chicken and noodles for supper?
I think about my grandmother as I walk to our shed and open the lid on our deep freeze. I’d piled five whitetail deer into it that were butchered and packaged by my own hands during last year’s deer season. Each deer yielded, on average, 55 pounds of boneless meat, and the frosty mound of vacuum-packed protein was a comforting sight. Deer meat would be “what’s for dinner” through the coronavirus shutdown. But venison had been what’s for dinner in our home nearly every night for the past 27 years.
As the dense fog of uncertainty—a byproduct of the ongoing (hopefully, once-in-a-century) pandemic—envelopes the world, not much has changed about my day-to-day existence. I never experienced a “Where were you when this happened?” moment when it comes to the coronavirus. I don’t say that flippantly. I say it with a clear understanding of my good fortune as a freelancer who works from a rural home. I say it also with a clear understanding of the innate privilege of my heritage and culture.
When the shadows of COVID-19 spilled outside of health worries and into concerns for our economy, then later into the logistics of the nation’s food supply, I worried a little about my health and the health of those I care about. I worried a little about my revenue streams. But I didn’t worry about food, not after that soothing look into the deep freeze, anyway. And when we do run out of food, I know how and where to get more.
In the shed, I take a quick inventory of fishing gear. Even as a primarily catch-and-release bass angler, I have some basic tackle on hand for meat fishing, which would mostly be panfish and catfish because limits are more generous for those categories. Years of experience with waterways, lessons learned by trial and error about cover, structure and current—the foundation of angling knowledge for any species of fish—now seem like an investment in something more than a pastime.
I take a rough count of shotgun shells and rifle cartridges. There are more than 500 .22 cartridges in various boxes for squirrels. I’ve got a couple of cartons of shotgun shells sizes 4, 5, 6 and 7 1/2, along with some buckshot and deer slugs. A box of .243 rifle rounds is unopened. I haven’t killed a deer with a gun in more than 25 years—an arrow is my preferred projectile for whitetails—but it’s nice to know the option is there if needed this fall.
There’s a hoe, shovel, pick/mattock and even some materials for raised garden beds in the shed as well. Somewhat shockingly, given the circumstances, this is one of the only years that we didn’t plant a garden. But that’s because our neighbors Bryan Moats and Meredith Martin-Moats (who also happen to be good friends and our landlords) have tilled a sizable portion of their yard for a garden. We’ll help with weeding and other menial farming chores in exchange for vegetables, but bartering will figure heavily into the equation as well.
With the world paused, then reanimated in slow motion, we’re living the story of mankind in microcosm on this dirt-road acreage. My family is mostly stuck in our savage Pleistocene ways—our meat comes from catching and killing wild animals. We mark where the blackberry brambles and muscadine vines grow in the modern electronic extensions of our brains. Bryan and Meredith are just across the chicken coop from us but living in another era—the Neolithic—with rows of vegetables, flocks of ducks and laying hens, and a few cultivated fruit trees breaking the monotony of a Bermuda-grass yard.
I envision our respective eras converging in the coming months of semi-isolation with the swapping of venison for eggs, catfish for tomatoes, and fresh-cleaned squirrels for roasting ears.
In his book Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash talks about how rural American culture is a straight derivative of pioneer culture. A pioneer existence was romanticized by those residing “back east” or in the Old World and even through the 20th century in movies and literature. But life on the North American frontier—for those actually living it—wasn’t glamorous. Sentimental thoughts rarely crossed the mind of the Euro-American man, woman or child who grew, foraged and killed everything they ate while surviving on the edge of Western civilization.
We’ve romanticized it quite a bit, no doubt, but this is the stock we—Bryan and Meredith, my wife and me—come from. We’ve held on to these old ways for various reasons—a sense of independence, an homage to our ancestors, a symbolic connection to the land and, at the core of our being, a profound sense of satisfaction found within mastering the defining skills of humanity. It’s a lifestyle that, through our good fortune, we were able to choose.
We’re social-distancing. We’re wearing our masks in public. We’re mindful of all of the recommended safety precautions to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. We’re more earnest, perhaps, in our methods of securing food. But despite the pandemic, our lives here in the shadow of Spring Mountain aren’t much different than they would be otherwise.
I’m talking catfishing with Don and Missy Freeman, who live just down the road, picking Don’s brain, really, in their front yard under the shade of a tall red oak on a breezy spring day. It’s a regular scene in rural Arkansas, except that now, in 2020, we’re all more conscious of our personal space—at least 6 feet apart— which makes the conversation hard to follow when a rogue gust bends the oak limbs.
“You need to use a trotline,” Don says, “and I’ll tell you the best bait.”
“You won’t believe it,” Missy says.
I’ll believe it. I’d believe Don on just about anything. I don’t know him well. We’ve only just met, actually, but I know his people. Just prior to the catfish discussion, I discovered that Don is from Hector, in northern Pope County, close to my former residence and home to the school that my mother, an aunt and an uncle graduated from. Also, I’m fairly certain that somewhere in my southern Ozark lineage, a branch of Freemans juts from the family tree. But that doesn’t matter. I’ve found that in rural Arkansas, if you’re one degree of separation from “good people”—not Flannery O’Connor’s idea of good people, but good people for real—you might as well be kin.
“You will tear them blues and channels up on Irish Spring soap,” Don says.
But Don doesn’t stop with tried-and-true recommendations for catfish bait. He tells me exactly where to go, a few different locations, along with the approximate water depths. Don doesn’t fish or hunt much anymore, and I’m thinking that might be why he’s so keen to share his learned secrets. But the more I visit with Don and Missy, the more I think that back in his catfish-catching heyday, he would’ve invited me along.
My thoughts on the Freemans’ generosity might have something to do with the hunk of chocolate cake Missy has just handed me. It’s Don’s birthday, and even though we’re barely half an hour into getting to know one another, Missy insists that I join the celebration with a slice that’s roughly the size of two, or maybe three, normal slices. She says I don’t have to eat it all, but I know I will.
Rich cocoa tones combined with a hint of cherry are a perfect combination. Before I dig in for another bite, with a plastic fork that Missy thoughtfully handed to me still in its plastic wrapper, I ask Don and Missy how the coronavirus safety precautions altered their lives.
“About the only way it’s affected us is that we might be a little more careful,” Don says. “We don’t go see people hardly anymore.” Don is among the more at-risk, and precautions aren’t debatable with him. But Don doesn’t go to town very often anyway. It’s for the same reasons I don’t go to town very often. People in small groups are fine, but neither of us cares for a crowd. “What’s that you say?” Missy asks Don with a grin. “I like them all equally? No, you dislike them all equally.”
Don smiles and nods. I smile and nod.
I ask Don if he thinks rural people, in general, are worried about other aspects of the shutdown/slowdown in the wake of the coronavirus. Are they worried about food as the nation, en masse, hunkers down and tightens their belts?
“I doubt it, cause most of us grow our own vegetables and our meat,” Don says. “Most of the time.”
The Freemans are particularly good at putting food in the fridge, freezers and in jars as well. “Everybody says that if the apocalypse ever happens, they’re coming to our house,” Missy says. “We’ve got three freezers in the hallway and food on each side of the door all the way down the wall.”
I ask if they think they will ever run out of food even if this semi-lockdown carries on for months
“Not with him,” Missy says, nodding toward Don. “Not as long as he can walk.”
Barely hidden in Missy’s words is another hallmark of rural culture that plays a huge role in how many will weather the current crisis—grit, churned from generations of making do with what was available, which usually wasn’t much, along with a big dollop of stubbornness.
Self-sufficiency wasn’t always a political statement. It was the cold hard realization that if you didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to be done. Just a few decades ago, there were no grocery stores within affordable driving distance of many rural people in the state. The very concept of something like internet shopping was unimaginable. The responsibility of keeping everyone fed, hydrated, clothed and sheltered fell into the hands of the entire family as a unit, and even into the community. Spring water was piped to houses. Wells were dug. Cutting firewood was a year-round activity. Everyone knew how to sew. And everyone contributed to the cooking pot, often with whatever was at hand. Dad often talked about how Grandpa would take to the woods with his single-shot .22 rifle and fill a tow sack with robins when squirrel numbers were down.
Yes, that red-breasted, poeticized harbinger of spring proved to be fine eating when the pickin’s were slim. Dad said they were tasty.
While I don’t think we’ll sink back to the dark dystopian level of eating songbirds as the pandemic rolls on, you never know. But the Freemans likely won’t ever need another source of meat, no matter what happens. They’re utilizing the most tried and trusted livestock in the South since De Soto landed on Florida’s shores. They own a couple of hogs.
Fabulously fecund, easy to care for and edible in their entirety, pasture-raised pigs are the perfect meat animal, even outside of apocalyptic scenarios. But their attributes shine brighter in the murk of uncertainty. If you’ve got a breeding pair of hogs, your freezer should never run empty of pork.
The Freemans’ boar and sow give them a surplus, and the Freemans, in turn, give those pigs away to their grown children and sell one of them to a local doctor, but only because he won’t take it for free. It’s a tradition they started when they moved to Harkey Valley nearly 15 years ago. But really, it’s more than tradition. It’s who rural communities are at the core.
The Freemans don’t give just pork away, either. That huge garden tillered up by Bryan Moats was thanks to the Freemans’ tiller. Bryan and Meredith keep the Freemans in eggs, as needed, but no one is keeping score. Actually, if any score is being kept in the community, it’s a running tally of who can give the most.
“We don’t do it just because ….” Missy pauses. She stumbles with her words a bit, but the sentiment comes shining through. It’s not about giving so that you can receive. It’s about giving because you can. And then, as if the entire conversation has been building to deliver that point, Don asks: “Do you like green onions?”
“How about salad?” Missy adds.
I tell them thanks for the offer, but that we’re good. We’ve got a fridge full of veggies and a freezer full of meat. In fact, I say, I need to say my goodbyes and get home to start on supper right now. I’m midway through my standard list of why I don’t need assistance when Missy playfully interjects.
“Fine. We’ll just let the pigs eat it.”
I tell her that if it’s going to the pigs, then I’ll take it. But I do so grudgingly.
Onion stalks and leafy greens peek out of the oddly heavy sack she hands me. I start to look in the sack, but before I can, Missy hands me what looks like half of Don’s birthday cake enclosed in plastic wrap on a paper plate. “Your wife might want some,” she says.
This simple act is the essence of rural people I’ve known throughout my life. I say thank you.
Back home, I place the lettuce, onions and a surprise bag of radishes in the refrigerator’s crisper. Don’s birthday cake goes on the counter. Still in the sack, I discover 2 pounds of pork sausage, two large ham steaks and a pound of smoked hog jowl. I shake my head at Missy’s cleverness.
After dinner, I head back out to the shed with the sausage and ham steaks. Not that I, nor anyone else in the family, has ever complained about venison night in and night out, but homegrown pork will be a nice change of pace.
I set aside some round steaks for the Freemans and try to figure out a way I can get them to accept my humble gift. I think I’ll hand the sack of venison to Missy and tell her, “Just say thank you.”
And if we have any luck with the Irish Spring, I’ll bet I can barter catfish fillets for another ham steak or two.
Rural life has always been a few years behind the more populous areas. That distance in time is a mixed bag. During lean stretches, still being close to the food is a huge plus. Physical distance from crowds, which often amplify problems at hand, is a positive as well. But through the decades, country life has also lagged on modern conveniences. While I don’t recall a time without electricity in even the most remote homes of family, telephones were another matter. Some of my wife’s relatives still utilized an outhouse well into the 1980s.
Most rural residents accept what they lack as an integral part of their chosen lifestyle. But as economies, infrastructure and society as a whole roll along on the wheels of progress, what once were mere conveniences become necessities. While utilities aren’t necessarily vital to life, they’re positively vital to quality of life and, often, income. The pandemic has spotlighted disparities—in particular, the lack of broadband internet.
Arkansas ranks 48th in the United States in broadband access, according to BroadbandNow.com. While about 94 percent of Americans have access to broadband, only about 77 percent of Arkansans do. With the closing of public schools since March, that disparity has proven even more devastating as children living in more remote areas are often left further behind. But it’s not just education for the younger generations that’s at risk.
My neighbor Meredith is director of the River Valley Adult Learning Alliance, a nonprofit serving Franklin, Logan, Johnson, Pope and Yell counties. Its purpose is to provide free instruction and support to literacy-seeking adults. With her and Bryan working from home—while living on the ragged edge of hot-spot-internet reach and with limited high-speed-data plans—she feels the painful lack of reliable rural internet. Throw in three school-age children who need access to the Dardanelle School District’s learning tools, and internet rationing becomes a necessity. But Meredith says her family is one of the lucky ones. Some of her children’s classmates and many of Meredith’s adult students are at a severe disadvantage.
“We’ve been offering online tutoring options,” Meredith says, “but for many of our students, this just isn’t accessible.” Public libraries helped fill this gap, but with limited access to the libraries’ free Wi-Fi during the pandemic, students of all ages suffer. “What we’ve seen is that access to broadband is a huge dividing line in our communities, and it only exacerbates pre-existing inequalities,” Meredith says.
The other, and perhaps most glaring, gulf between rural and urban residents is health care. Accessible health care is a function of socioeconomic forces, regardless of where you live. The latest numbers, representing 2018, show that the uninsured rate for Arkansans of all income levels under age 65 as 8.2 percent, or roughly 244,000 people. But 19 percent of working-age adults ages 18 to 64, living at or below 138 percent of the poverty line, were uninsured. That’s more than 77,000 people, and many of those are rural citizens.
Besides the financial means to pay for health care, Arkansas’ perennial rank at or near the bottom regarding all other health care metrics impacts rural families as well. And rural Arkansas averages just 69 primary-care physicians per 100,000 people, compared to 166 in urban Arkansas. It’s not just paying for health care when you live in the country, it’s the ability to physically find health care in a timely manner.
Of course, the obvious answer is to not live so far away. But 42 percent of Arkansans live in a rural county, compared with 15 percent in the nation as a whole. The reality is, for many Arkansans, it’s a long drive to anywhere for health care.
I don’t need to look in the deep freeze again. At least three or four times a week, I’m up to my elbows in it, taking light inventory, planning dinners for the coming days. I know what’s inside like I know my name. Still, insecurities likely generations old urge me to lift the lid and verify one more time. Yeah, we’ll be fine. There’s plenty to share as well. My thoughts drift to those denied all that I have taken for granted.
Despite my nods toward self-sufficient fortitude and the grit of leather-tough ancestors running through my veins, the reason for my food security and relative calm has a lot to do with privilege not earned. That fragile facade of “a country boy can survive” comes crashing down with just a slight tilt of perspective, and that point is driven deep as people of color fill the streets demanding the basic human rights, opportunity and understanding that have underpinned everything I am. I’m a white, middle-aged man, born poor, but privileged beyond anything deserved.
No matter where you reside—urban or rural—challenges will rise. For rural Arkansans, those challenges exposed more starkly by the pandemic have always been there. But a rustic grace settles over the rough spots, filling the gaps with what some would consider an unlikely blending of self-sufficiency and community.
As condensate billows into the humid spring air, I think back to Granny’s hands. After cutting up the chicken, those hands sprinkled flour and spread the dough with a heavy wooden rolling pin. At the dinner table, those strong, scarred yet elegant fingers, wracked by arthritis after a lifetime of hard work, were folded as she thanked the Lord for an abundance on our table.
Those humble utilitarian methods, clear understandings of how food made it to the table and deep gratitude for the most meager of blessings, shaped my worldview. Harsh realities of life were buffered by the gentle notion that we are blessed. We are truly blessed.
I close the freezer and fold my middle-aged hands. Pampered by the luxuries of a living made on the computer, my fingers are straight and healthy. But there’s some dirt under the nails. Callouses from archery practice add character to my palms. I offer a soft prayer of gratitude for the abundance provided simply by my good fortune of being born into this heritage.
Johnny Carrol Sain is an Arkansas freelance writer who frequents the dirt roads in search of stories about people and place. You can find more of his ramblings and links to published work at philosophicalhillbilly.com