Making Chicken and Children

Tina Turner blasts through speakers that aren’t supposed to be played at their maximum. The deejay sips a fresh, satisfying brandy and coke. He surveys the crowd, smiling, ignoring the cracks and tears pounding out of his tripodded black boxes.

You’re simply the best.

Better than a–ll the rest.

The song is rolling down from one of its crescendos. Many of the folks on the dance floor are howling along with the lyrics, some half a note behind but not caring to catch up. Mom and Dad are facing each other, slightly apart from the cacophony. Every now and again, though, they’ll look over at the mass of arms and legs and bobbing heads, and smile. She’s dancing the way she always dances: shoulders straight, body moving side-to-side, feet taking turns tapping neatly behind the heel of the other. Her arms swing gently to the beat, elbows stiff and wrists limp. The gold bangles from three special Christmases and two birthdays clink against each other and her auburn hair, blown dry in one slow inward curl, sways from shoulder to shoulder. Dad is pretending to be Bruce Springsteen: one leg in front of the other, body open, fingers snapping in a big half-circle, hips following the lead of his clicking fingers, back knee too. That’s exactly how the arm-jabbing rock star does it when he’s beamed onto our curved TV screen from concert stages far away from here.

Better than any–one.

Anyone I ever met.

We’re all at the Chicken Braai, the annual barbeque fundraiser that my dad started in his many years with Round Table[1]. Years of donated time, donated chicken product, free use of trucks, of equipment, of boys[2]; labor and resources. Years that he attended their monthly meetings, hosted their events, raised money, chaired their organization and did many good things for the community: new shoes for an orphanage nearby, zoo excursions for the underprivileged, a scholarship for a gifted townspupil. Years that earned him the honor of their new hall being named after him in 1993. The Dorrian Parker Hall. Those were also years that Mom spent many late nights waiting at home while his meetings turned into social hour. She telephoned different places and spoke into the green receiver through pursed lips that deliberately did not hide her anger. That same fury breathed into our bedrooms after night-nights; an unwanted contagion that gnawed deep and strong. Those nights ended in screamed conversations when Dad stumbled through the dark kitchen, down an even darker passage and into their bedroom.

I’m stuck on your heart.

I hang on every word you say.

Now Dad’s mouthing the words. And doing his other signature dance move: shoulders pulled up tight into his neck and forward, his top half crouching, knock-knees flailing out behind him in his version of a Charleston kick. His smile feels like it can carry the whole world, lift it up, make it better. His puffy, pink cheeks and large, veined Irish nose tell their own story too. Then his fingers point and shoot invisible bullets at his wife. Cupid’s Arrow? Or Buck Roger silliness? It doesn’t matter because they’re both laughing, in on their joke.

It’s a make-shift dance floor in his biggest hok—a chicken run cleared of live birds, peanut-shell bedding, chicken shit, red plastic feed containers, food pellets and water cribs, especially for the occasion. This is Lichtenburg’s famous Hoender Braai, chicken and socialites both served sticky, steaming, delicious.

Beyond the dance floor, bails of lucerne are arranged in big circles that barely contain the roaring groups that gather in, mill about, sit, drink, kuier[3]. Everywhere farmers and townspeople talk over the music: husbands wearing tucked-in khaki shirts and blue jeans and wives in layers of foundation and rounds of diamantes. A white-people-only gathering where friendships deepen over donated whiskey and honey-flavored homemade mampoer shots. All of the volk are here tonight. Everybody is having a merry time. Some are already hanging around the necks of friends (or an up-to-now avoided adversary) with limp arms and heavy heads. They’re repeating how much respect or love or loyalty (or regret) they feel in that moment. Eyes appear to be focused on something further away than the stubble they are nosed up against; brains no longer in control of corneas. Lots of people will get very drunk. Some will fight. There might even be a car chase along the 10 kilometers of tarred road between this party and town.

Outside the chicken run hundreds of candles flicker in brown paper bags along the gravel route that led caravans of cars from the national road to this fenced-off chicken site. Parking is organized and patrolled by a tall black man in royal blue overalls. He lives in a small, basic house tucked behind the hoks. This is his province all the other days of the year, seeing each cycle of chickens from day-old cheep-ing bundles of yellow fur to fleshy white-feathered fowls, ready for slaughter. Tonight his flashlight pierces the giant star-spotted sky as he makes his rounds of the parked cars in the exact intervals he was told to. He doesn’t question my father’s instruction or his own loyalty to Baas[4] Dorrian. The first car arrived long before the official starting time of 7pm and the last will leave just before sunrise. In his ten-hour shift he won’t hear a single dankie—thank you—uttered by cockeyed couples as they search through leather handbags for car keys, balancing shoulder-to-shoulder, meandering home.

When the song finishes my mom goes behind a strung black curtain. There Tabler’s wives fuss over tabletops of chopped lettuce, tomato wedges, cucumbers, onion, pineapple. Next to them white polenta and tomato ratatouille—pap en sous—steam in borrowed pots on borrowed hot-trays. Histrionic preparation before the grand reveal; graze will be served in half an hour or so. Dad walks back to the open fires, just outside the hok. There the husbands are braaing half-chickens on special grills that he made for them the year they started this wingding. Six hundred spatchcocked half chickens divided onto twenty gridirons, each made of two large mesh rectangles that close over the thirty placed pieces, locking their bounty in place. At first pasty, plump, raw; now charring. Rods extend out of each corner of the gridded grill and hook it onto the two walls of the galvanized metal fire trough. Twenty rosters, end-to-end, at the perfect height to ensure a slow, tender broil; all Dad’s doing.

Tonight the gathered guys wear neon jade golf shirts with pink and purple printing—a trendy choice suggested by the town’s only T-shirt printer, whose proud logo is stamped on one sleeve. The Tablers run up and down alongside the corridor of coals, grabbing the grills’ rods with metal hooks and turning them over. Focused yet relaxed, cracking jokes, perpetuating their brotherhood. On every second turn the sweating men dunk the gridiron into a container of tangy marinade that’s balanced across the braai and place the grill back on the furnace. Regimented, automatically knowing the next thing, grabbing their drinks between tasks.

All of the marinated meat is being cooked at the same time, a singular drill that’s rumored to be a Guinness World Record. In a separate drum, off to the side, thick stumps of wood burn into coals and someone scurries between the laughter with white-hot embers on a spade, refueling the fire where needed. It crackles in response. The chicken flesh swells and bursts through the shapes in the metal mesh retaining it. A soothing smell of brown sugar follows the sting of vinegar as tonight’s feast sizzles its way to being cooked through—burnt sienna in its sweet and sourness.

Grey smoke wafts from the braai area into the chicken hok. It is infused with the familiar grit of burning wood and the smell of crisping chicken skin. The syrupy carbon residue makes our mouths whet with anticipation and will stick to our clothes for days.



[1] An international philanthropic organization of men who raise funds and socialize; similar to Rotary Exchange and the Lions Club. Informally called “Table” and the members, “Tablers.”

[2] A derogatory term for black farm workers.

[3] Pronounced kei-yher, literally a “visit,” but used colloquially to indicate an immensely enjoyable, extended social interaction of connection and significance.

[4] “Boss”