Ode To The Chicken
I’m a bit obsessed with chickens and roosters, as my children often point out apologetically to guests when they enter our kitchen. I think they are beautiful, colorful creatures to look at, and I unashamedly like to collect pictures and handmade ceramics of the domesticated fowl. And, I like to eat them.
In the picture above, taken by my relative Mary Milec on a visit to Pivnice a few years ago, Mrs. Franka demonstrates how she can swing her finger back and forth and get her rooster to bob his head in unison and crow. When Mary wanted a closer look at the talented bird, Mrs. Franka put him down and the rooster ran over to Mary and began to peck at her toes angrily. He did not like Mary or her intrusion into his singing and dancing, I guess.
Chickens have been living with my family for centuries, providing a daily source of food. In Pivnice, Serbia they live freely in the courtyard of the family homes, wandering around the grounds and even living in their own room at the end of the house.
When I was a child of about seven I went along with my grandmother, Dorothy Plato, to a chicken farm in Wheatley, Ontario where I was allowed to select my favorite bird out of a flock running around haphazardly in the front yard of the farmhouse. My grandma grabbed the chosen chicken and swung an ax at its neck over a tree stump, as casually as if she were beating an area rug out the back door to free it of dirt. She set the chicken back down on the ground, where it ran around for a few seconds, it’s headless body spewing blood around the bare ground. While I sat dazed in the back seat of the car still reeling from the carnage I had just caused and witnessed, we took the recently deceased chicken home, still warm and wrapped in newspaper. I soon recovered from the shock of learning where white meat really came from, and in the garage she taught me how to pluck the chicken and to reach inside of it to pull out its innards. Strangely, I don’t remember the meal that night.
My husband Nick grew up on an apple farm where they once slaughtered 150 chickens. The chickens were given free to anyone who came to the nearby chicken farm and picked them up (they were roosters, and the farm was a layer farm. Apparently when you buy the little chicks, at first you can’t tell their gender. They get rid of the males when they can tell them apart). Nick and his three step-siblings joined in on the family bonding experience, and not necessarily by choice. First Nick would grab a chicken, take it over to where his stepfather Grant had dug a hole and had a tree stump and ax and one sibling would whack the head off and then hold the chicken until it stopped twitching. Then another sibling would hand the deceased to the person who would deflock them with a home-made de-flocking machine made out of a spinning wheel with sections of rubber hose attached. They ate all of those chickens over the next year. For some reason Nick doesn’t share the same affection for chickens as I do.
I love to eat freshly hatched eggs for breakfast, and enjoy the brightly colored yolks prepared every way – fried, poached, scrambled, coddled, hard or soft boiled, baked or in omelettes, fritattas, tarts, quiches – you name it. A delicious way that I like to prepare eggs for guests is to bake them in the oven: heat the over to 350F, then pour a spoonful of cream into a small round ovenproof cup (I use a muffin tin, sprayed with olive oil first), and gently crack the egg onto it. Sprinkle a bit more cream on top, then grind on some fresh pepper, a crystal or three of sea salt (sel de mer is best), then a few leaves of thyme. Place the tin inside a larger square pan that’s been filled an inch with hot water. Then place the whole thing into the over for about 5 minutes. In the 5th minute I cover the eggs with tinfoil, then take out the eggs after about 5 more minutes. The eggs are creamy and tastey and great on a toasted English muffin.
I also love to eat roast chicken, especially those who’ve enjoyed a good life – free range, organic chickens. They taste so moist and… chickeny, and not bland like chickens from the supermarket taste. In the DC area I go to a few places for the best tasting chickens. First, to the farmer’s market on Thursday afternoons in the Reston Towne Center (May-Oct) to the Amish vendor Country Meadow Farms who also sells great tasting fresh milk in glass bottles. The second place to go all year around is to the local butcher in Del Ray, Alexandria, called Let’s Meat on the Avenue. And finally, when I make it out to Middleberg for an afternoon of browsing through the shops, I’ll stop by the Home Farm Store butcher. Expect to pay $15-20 per chicken; they’re worth it. I think you will agree once you have tasted one of these chickens that you have never really had chicken before. And the leftover carcasses making a really rich stock.
Turns out the chickens sold at both butchers in Virginia are grown at Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, the farm-of-my-dreams place owned by Sandy Lerner (also the Home Food Store owner), co-founder of Cisco Systems. She also supplies the chickens to my favorite restaurants in town, including Patrick O’Connell’s Inn at Little Washington, The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettesville and Restaurant Nora in DC.
When in Southwestern Ontario, I’ll stop by Bradt’s Butcher Block in Leamington as he’ll order Redbro chickens for me upon request. Or, try the locally grown organic chicken farm in Ancaster, Fenwood Farm. For a delicious chicken dinner in a restaurant in Ontario, I head to Mephisto’s Grill in Kingsville.
I was sorely disappointed sorry to miss Koen Vanmechlen’s Cosmopolitan Chicken Project when it came to the DC area last winter. If it comes to your town, don’t miss it. Koen has been breeding and cross breeding chickens for over 2 decades now around the world, in an attempt to create the first world-mongrel chicken. I kid you not.
To close out this ode to the beloved chicken, I will leave you with an old Slovak children’s song, the Spotted Rooster.
The Spotted Rooster
You cannot go to the garden,
Because you’ll damage the lily
And the people will kill you.
And when you’ve been killed
You’ll be buried
In that nice garden
Where the birds are singing.
Isn’t it uplifting and cheerful? I can just imagine little Slovak pre-schoolers chanting this while chasing their chickens in the yard. Here it is in Slovak:
nechoď do záhrady
potom ťa zabijú.
A keď ťa zabijú
tak ťa pochovajú
do takej záhrady
kde vtáčky spievajú.