Day 152 Smothered Chicken

Today it was time to move away from desserts and head to the meat section of the 1906 Berlin Cook Book. I am making Smothered Chicken using Mrs. Weir’s recipe. I had hoped to try it with a nice free range chicken but I am resorting to one from the grocery store. And no this recipe does not involve the actual demise of the chicken — no pillows are used — the bird is already dead! Instead the cooked chicken is covered or “smothered” with gravy.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to “open chicken as for broiling” but decided to cut the chicken along the breast bone until I could open it up flat. The next decision was how to place the bird in the dripping pan. I opted to put it bone side down and skin side up. I gave the chicken a butter massage and sprinkled salt and pepper on it. How much water? I added one cup. Next question was oven temperature. Usually I try 350 degrees F. first whenever the temperature is uncertain. The direction to “cook until done” isn’t as vague as it seems since the size of chicken will vary. I started to check on it after 30 minutes. I tested it just like a roast chicken. Do the legs move freely and does the juice run clear when pierced? A modern cook should probably use a thermometer. I removed the cover after 50 minutes and let it brown for 20 minutes.

The chicken in my oven today is a very different creature from the one Mrs. Weir would cook in 1912. Not only is it measured in kilograms (mine was 1.574 kg)  rather than pounds, but today’s commercial chicken has been bred to produce far more breast meat than its turn of the century Ontario ancestor. It also grows to market size more quickly than previous generations of chickens and it is easier to pluck the feathers than in the past. It lives a different sort of life as well and this could affect the resulting meat. A bird using its body walking around and eating a variety of things outdoors will end up with meat of a more “robust” taste and texture.

Domestic animals can become just as rare as creatures in the wild. There are organizations around the world dedicated to the preservation of old breeds of domestic farm animals like cows, pigs, horses, ducks and even the lowly chicken. Often breeds suit particular lands better than others. The chickens I saw years ago in rural yards in Thailand were well suited to their hot climate and they roamed freely. The result was an opportunity to eat chickens that were delicious and I imagine tasted more like a 1912 chicken.

Mrs. Weir could be Ella Hay (40) the wife of Barrister John Johnson A. Weir (50). They happen to be listed on the 1911 census very near to the Brickers. However, the Weirs live at 14 Weber St. with their four children age 9, 8, 6 and 4 plus a 20-year-old German Lutheran housemaid. The big surprise for me is the Weir family’s religion is listed as Christian Science. Sadly, based on information on the Waterloo Generations website, it looks like Ella dies in 1917. I’m very curious about how (if this is the correct woman) she got involved with this cook book. Was it through her servant? Was it from her neighbours the Brickers?

The final challenge was making the sauce to “smother” the chicken. I browned a tablespoon of flour in a pan and then added a tablespoon of butter. Finally I slowly stirred in a cup of milk. This is brown sauce (white sauce but with browned flour). After I removed the chicken from the pan, I added the sauce to the drippings in the pan and poured it all over the chicken.

The cooking technique for the chicken is great and makes carving easier. I imagine the taste would be more robust if using a chicken similar to those of 1906. Although browning the flour adds colour to the sauce and a bit of flavour, this is still a bland gravy. I had hoped that adding some drippings would improve it but I forgot the amount of water I’d added to the pan. I would suggest using less water at the beginning and perhaps just using the scrapings of browned bits from the bottom of the pan. This plain sauce is very typical of 1906 but it makes a good starting place for a modern cook to experiment with seasonings particularly when using a bland modern chicken.

Open chicken as for broiling, put into dipping [sic] pan with a little water, season with butter, salt and pepper, cover with another pan, cook until done. Take off cover and brown, make a gravy of milk and browned flour. Pour over chicken, garnish with parsley and slices of lemon.

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