Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hand-Wringing Over Neck-Wringing

One of my favorite cookbooks is New Orleans Recipes, a wee tome originally published in the 1930s. While the book contains authentic Creole recipes, it also reflects a distinctly different sensibility, complete with cringe-inducing, Aunt Jemima-type cover art and a way of preparing food that’s quite removed from today’s comestibles that too often are: 1. heat-and-eat 2. dump-into-a-bowl-and-stir-in-a-cup-of-water or 3. pick-up-at-a-drive-through-window-from-a-surly-teen.

The cooking fat in this book is typically lard, and as for precision of measurement, you’re instructed to “get a knob of lard about the size of a walnut.” Occasionally it will tell you to fry something “in a heaping tablespoon of butter.” A chicken recipe will tell you to go out and get a chicken that weighs about two or three pounds, and of course, that means stepping out your door and selecting the appropriate chicken from amongst those pecking around in your yard--and killing and cleaning it--before you ever get started on the recipe. (It goes without saying that dieters and vegans were not considered a part of the cookbook-buying public in those days.)

This was a reality of my mother’s growing up years in the country, but since she helped my grandfather with the farm chores, my grandmother was the one who always took care of chicken detail. My mother knew this was something she should learn to do, too. So one afternoon she attempted to dispatch a chicken using the same fling-n-twist action she’d seem my grandmother perform. Unfortunately, she succeeded only in tearing the skin away from the neck, so that it pulled down over the chicken’s head. Then she lost her grip, and the chicken got away from her and raced blindly around the yard, as if it had a turtleneck sweater pulled over its head. Finally, my grandmother had to run out and catch it and put it out of its misery. (While my mother has always been willing and able to take on difficult chores, that remains one of the few times she has ever attempted to wring a chicken’s neck.)

To the average cook these days, the most difficult part of preparing chicken is buying a whole one and having to break it down. (Of course, with rising food prices, it’s a skill that can save you some money.) Largely, we’re spared such chores, so most everyone forgets that dinner started out as a sentient being, minding its own business in the farm yard. It’s much easier to eat meat when you don’t do battle with it first.

Not that I want to slaughter every piece of meat I set about to eat, but having spent my early years witnessing the cycle of life and death on the farm makes me appreciate it all the more. One thing I hate most is having to toss out meat that I’ve left in the fridge too long. It seems disrespectful to the animal it came from.

There are some who see any meat consumption as inherently disrespectful of the animal, but I agree with Fergus Henderson, Tony Bourdain and all the other chefs who talk about respect for the living thing that died so you could eat: The best way to show your regard for these critters who are raised to feed us is to take full advantage of all they have to offer. That’s what Fergus’ nose-to-tail cooking and eating is all about.

And as for that neck-wringing business, I'd say those chickens lived a pretty fine life pecking and scratching around on the farm up until that final moment, and in the hands of my grandmother, the pro, the end was quick and merciful.

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