By Maraley McMichael
Senior Voice Correspondent 

Alaska, chickens and their $35 dinner


April 1, 2024 | View PDF

Courtesy Maraley McMichael

Free ranging Rhode Island Red hen and rooster April 30, 1993.

Back in the spring of 1992, my husband Gary and I decided we wanted to raise homegrown chickens to eat, something we'd done twice before. But this time he also wanted some egg layers, so in addition to the 25 Cornish Cross for eating, he purchased four Rhode Island Red and two Barred Plymouth Rock for egg laying.

The Cornish Cross grew fast and two and a half months later were all in the freezer. The remaining chickens were happier with a less crowded coop, but of those intended for laying, four turned out to be roosters.

Our two kids. 16-year-old Patrick and 14-year-old Erin, were part of the whole process and when mid-August rolled around, they decided to each enter a pair of chickens in the Alaska State Fair. After much discussion it was decided that Patrick would enter the Rhode Island Red pair and Erin the Barred Rock.

After giving baths to all four (which they really didn't need), we loaded them in boxes in the back of our Dodge Caravan. At the fairgrounds they had to go through a vet check. They hadn't been handled much all summer and were very nervous. In the poultry building, each pair shared a cage. In hindsight, we decided it was not a fun experience for them to be on display for 10 days in a crowded, noisy building, while being gawked at by a daily stream of people.

The kids were excited that both roosters won ribbons-the Rhode Island Red a blue first place and the Barred Rock a red second place. The fair ended and we brought them home. In the driveway, as soon as we released them from their boxes, the two roosters started to fight with the two Rhode Island Red roosters left at home. It was immediate, surprising chaos and probably would have been a fight to the death, except Gary intervened and lopped off the heads of two Rhode Island Red roosters and one Barred Rock. Erin wasn't happy about that, even after he explained that there is usually only room for one rooster in a flock. Winning a second place ribbon certainly didn't save his neck. The Barred Rock hen disappeared a week later.

So it happened that we had only one cock and hen left of the six "layers" to winter over. And it was an extra hard winter. The first snow in October "stuck" and we were still getting snow the next May. Gary installed a single light bulb in the shed part of the coop, put a heater under the water container, and built four snug boxes lined with hay. The hen laid an egg about every other day, but even with frequent checking, we often found the egg frozen and cracked. She stopped laying in March for about a month. The rooster quit crowing sometime during the winter. I guess he had nothing to crow about.

When they weren't huddled in their boxes or eating and drinking, they would perch on the fence or roost in the nearby willow tree. Many a moonlit evening and night we could see their silhouettes on the fence or in the tree, when we thought they should be in their boxes more protected from the cold.

As the temperatures got warmer in the spring, they easily escaped the coop and started exploring long before the snow had completely melted. In April I could stand at the kitchen window and see them, always together, heading off down over the hill and then a short while later, look out the bedroom window on the other side of the house and see them in the front yard heading somewhere else, while continually pecking and scratching the ground. Life was even better with the emergence of a few blades of green grass from the brown ground. The rooster started crowing again, all hours of the day.

The rooster was a "stand-by-your-gal" type of guy. When the hen decided it was time to head to the nest box to lay her egg each day, he went with her and stood guard nearby. As soon as that was accomplished, they were off again, together making their rounds.

In mid-May, when the snow was gone, but the landscape was still mostly grey and barren, Gary went (as usual) to a local plant nursery, where our friend Agnes worked. She helped him choose ten 2-foot-tall tomato plants at $3 each and five cucumber starts at $1 each. Once home, he promptly planted them in our greenhouse. A couple of hours later, he went to check on the starts and found 4 inch tall nubbins where the tomatoes should have been and absolutely no evidence of the cucumbers.

Courtesy Maraley McMichael

Patrick McMichael brought the hen and rooster into the garage during -40 degree wind chill factor weather, January 1993.

When he told this to me, I immediately thought of the chickens. I'd seen them coming out of the man door of the garage, but thought nothing of it at the time. They would have had to walk through the garage and another room to get to the door of the greenhouse.

Gary was upset, but couldn't begrudge the rooster and hen their gourmet meal after such a hard winter. (Although, the thought of turning them into a gourmet meal, did cross his mind.) He made a return trip to Bushes Bunches Greenhouse. When he requested a duplicate of the morning's order, Agnes looked at him strangely. He shook his head and he said, "Don't ask."

At the family dinner table that evening, he made the announcement, "If you go in or out of the greenhouse, never leave the door open!" and then told the kids about the chickens' $35 dinner.

Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at

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Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan now residing in Palmer.

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