Chickens have got it bad. Really.
No matter where in the world you go, chicken meat is bound to be a staple, on the menu of any restaurant or home meal. For many years now, my chicken has come to me in pieces, never whole and certainly not while still alive. A pair of deboned breasts displayed on a styrofoam tray and covered with taut price-tagged cellophane. A kilo bag of legs. A jumbo pack of thighs with bone in. And my all-time favorite: heaps and heaps of breaded, deep-fried wings smothered in hot sauce or, once in a while, barbecue sauce. The ranch on the side is a given, a nod to the birdie’s former home. Though, generally, the term is “chicken farm” not “chicken ranch”, not so?
Speaking of, then, it’s been a long while since I made the living, breathing, brief acquaintance of a chicken that would soon be my dinner and lunch. As a little girl in Addis, I had often been present at Mercato, when the lucky fellow was handpicked by my mother from amongst his luckier basket mates, had his feet tied by the seller with a length of soft tree bark and was passed over upside down into her waiting hands in exchange for somewhere between 50 and 100 birr (yes, that’s how old I am).
The Chosen One would then take the ride home with us, his Green Mile so to speak, in the trunk of our white Renault, nestled between the onions and whatnot that would soon become his neighbours in his upcoming new home – our giant holiday pot. He might live a few days more, one foot bound by a long string to a stake in the ground, if he was purchased in advance of the cooking day to avoid the last-minute rush of shoppers, skyrocketing of prices and subsequent all the good chickens going to pot (haha, pun not intended, the best ones never are).
Sooner or later, though, the oldest male of the house would be summoned or, if he happens to be too civilized or too squeamish or both, one would be procured from the neighbourhood. He would go around to the back of the house all businesslike, a sharp sickle-shaped knife in one hand and the bird in the other.
It was usually at this point that I would follow this male and peek over his shoulder as he squatted by a drain or garden ditch and watch him crane back the bird’s neck, holding it in place with his thumb as he brought his knife to the fully exposed tightly pulled throat. It took but a touch of the blade to the flesh to slice it clean across and release a fountain of blood. Then the trick was to throw the writhing animal, which gets all panicky after the fact, down on the ground and trap it under a bucket before the spray gets too unmanageable. When the thumping and the scratching coming from the bucket become less frequent and eventually quiet down altogether the bloody limp thing is transferred to a vat of boiling water, the better to pluck out it’s feathers effortlessly.
After that things get a little boring. An extra fastidious cook will hold the de-feathered body over an open flame and turn it over a few times, until even the baby hairs are completely gone. Another one might rub it in shiro powder for added flavour. The gutting and the carving operations require surgeonlike precision and skill. The rest, the washing, soaking in lemon water overnight, the cooking that seems to take centuries, is history. A history of dozens of Christmases, New Years, Easters, births, weddings, birthdays, arrivals from abroad and departures to abroad.
It must have been on the occasion of my own departure to abroad that a chicken went the way of the garden ditch in our house. Maybe I sat watching that time too, or maybe I was too old to be interested by then, but over a decade would pass before I watched the process again in, of all places, yes you guessed it you genius, China.
The market, or the “stinky market” as I have Christened it, is one block in from the Ou river (also Christened the “Ew” river) and across the street from the fancy Wen Hua Gong building that houses so many activity centers for the children that are the bright future of China. Just inside the right entrance to this market is the chicken, duck and pigeon stall, where tens of said animals wait in cages to go home with the shoppers, either in pieces or whole, but definitely missing their lives and feathers.
It is them that have given the market its’ choking stink, specifically their poop, as I’ve been told by a long-timer. Mixed in with the humid summer air, the odor is indeed foul, possibly deadly.
So, going on my third month here, death is on my mind twofold as I approach this noisy, stinky stall. Once, because I am going to be the agent of death for one of these roosters here, and twice because I vaguely remember reading or hearing something about this being how the bird flu thing started and spread – chicken farmers and merchants getting scratched by antsy birds who developed the disease after living in cramped quarters much like the cages I stand before as I make my choice.
Rather, the seller picks one out for me and hands it over to the relaxed lady with the big knife. Close up, the stench is so awful that I have half a mind to accept the cigarette he offers me, that’s how bad I want something, anything to mask it. I am eager to watch every step of the process to see if it matches what I remember from Addis, but I also don’t want to come across as a geeky overeager tourist clamouring for an “exotic” experience. If not by words, then by poise and stance I need them to know that this is all routine to me, I’ve seen it all before and am just refreshing my memory.
So I take an easy stance and play it cool, all the while trying to steal as many glances as I can behind the stall. I catch the calm lady with the big knife as she pulls back the neck just the way the men of my family did and holds it in place with her thumb just the way they did. I see how she ever so gently touches the blade to the curved throat, and how the flesh almost opens up of its own accord, since it knows what’s coming anyway.
Her skill with the blood is remarkable, however. She dumps the bird into a bucket and traps it under the lid long before any blood has got anywhere, long before the bird has come into its panic mode, even. Bored, she waits for it to die.
Two big vats are behind her. I suspect one holds the boiling water. Sure enough, after a longish time, she transfers the now fully-dead bird to the boiling water. Bored, she waits for it to soak.
I suspect the other vat, which looks like some sort of spinning contraption – an industrial version of those spinners that fast dry your bikinis after a swim – is for de-feathering. Now that’s new. I can’t imagine how that would work.
It works super fast, apparently. She tosses the wet steaming chicken into the vat, presses a button and it spins. Moments later, a buck naked chicken emerges out of it. I am amazed. Boy they would love to have that in Addis, I think, remembering how the bird was de-feathered back home, clump by clump pulled out by scalded hands.
What happens next, the gutting, is out of my sight. I have to will my feet to stay right where they are. It seems to take a while too. I ask for the whole bird, rather than having them cut it up in random chunks. I want to see how well I can carve it myself.
I carry it home in a plastic bag, feet with their sharp claws sticking out of the top. I make sure to avoid those claws, again remembering the bird flu thing.
The carving is a mild disaster. On the obvious parts: legs, thighs, wings, I am good. I extract them cleanly. When it comes to the torso, and especially the breastbone which the cigarette man has carelessly chopped through at the wrong spot, I am a mess. Next time, I say, there’s always next time.
As there is a first time for everything, so is there also a next time.