To Kill a Clucking Bird

"Jay-zon", a few seconds of silence, "Jay-zon" again, a raspy yet kind voice called out.  The moon was high, and I was lightly dreaming when I heard my accented name. Groggily, I got up to see what Rocky Bittika wanted.  Rocky is a stocky, strong Karen man and one of the full-time residents at PunPun.  Imagine him as the Burmese "Wolverine", a gruff, good-hearted outdoorsman. Over the past few days, we had bonded over gardening, badminton, smoking cigarettes, and table tennis.  That night, Rocky had something on his mind.  In two days, he would be leaving the farm.  He was en route to the Burmese border to celebrate the ceasefire between a faction of Karen rebels and the Burmese military.  He wanted a grand send off.  "Maybe I will get a fish, or a chicken...or something like that.  We can kill it, and you can cook it,” Rocky said to me, as we puffed some of his aromatic tobacco and papaya leaf blend in the moonlight.  I was honored that he chose me as the chef.  Killing the animal is an important link in the food chain, and being a city boy, I'd never experienced it.  I was excited. Anxiety welled up in my chest.  Fresh blood would flow.  By firelight we would sacrifice a chicken, in honor of Rocky, and feast on its flesh.  I was also tired, and when our meeting was over I stumbled to bed, my head met the pillow, and forgot about our tete a tete.

 

The next day was busy.  In the morning a group of volunteers and I, led by Rocky, went to plaster a neighbor’s earthen house.  After lunch, Rocky took a few of us to fish in some nearby ponds.  We were on the hunt for "snakehead catfish".  Snakeheads are indigenous to Southeast Asia and known for razor sharp teeth, aggressive behavior, and delicious flesh.  I was volunteered to hold the middle of a long net.  Rocky and another local guy stretched it to opposite ends of a small pond.  Before tip-toeing in, I was convinced that the murky water was hiding leeches and poisonous snakes, eager to sample the exotic flavor of a foreigner.  As we dragged the net across the pond, I realized that we were hunting for Rocky's going away dinner.  My daydreaming ceased. A fish got caught in the net and struggled until it was inescapably tangled.  My imagination pictured slippery, angry snakeheads, teeth poised for an attack on some soft part of my body.  But no, just a dozen or so tiny tilapia which we threw back. Our full day continued with a tour of P'No's property.  P'No is a sculptor, and good friend-neighbor of PunPun.  He showed off his impressive collection of different chicken breeds, his sculpting gallery, and his wild forest land.  I was tired when we got back to the farm, but in following with clichés about rest and weariness, it was on to restoring Rocky's garden.  Enter Lucas, a key character in our own "Chronicle of a Death Foretold".  Lucas is a young man from Colorado, by way of Florida, who found himself volunteering at PunPun.  His charge was to return Rocky's garden to prominence while he was away.  Together, we weeded, built a garden bed, and replanted lettuce.  It started to get dark.

 

"So now we can go get a chicken," Rocky reminded us.  We were going to snag one from the coup.  This was to be a discreet operation.  Only one chicken was being nabbed. We didn't need everyone on the farm coming for a piece. The secret nature of our mission added to my anxiety and excitement.  I ran off to find Paige and include her as an accomplice.  Unfortunately, she was predisposed with things other than chicken abductions.  Back at the coup, I heard a little bit of clucking, then one panicked hen's vain call for help.  Lucas walked out of the roost, smiling mischievously, with a cute white fowl nestled under his arm.

 

I went off to do something or other for a few minutes, and they started without me.  I missed the killing.  I have been known to harp on about meat eaters killing their own meat.  We should be at peace with taking life, experience blood, and understand the gravity of sacrifice.  I strongly believe that a person who wouldn't kill an animal, should not eat one.  This was my chance to prove I was worthy of meat, and I missed it.

 

When I got back to Rocky's adobe house, this is what I saw: Lucas was standing over our chicken, using his feet to pin the bird on the ground by its wings.  Its head and neck were inside a bowl where the blood was draining.  Just seconds ago, Lucas had used the machete he was still gripping to slit the poor girl's throat. Let's call her Lucy.  As I approached, Lucy looked up at me, terror in her eyes.  She was trying to cluck her last pleas for mercy. All that came out was a bloody gargle.  Our eyes met, and I felt I should comfort her.  She was dying, face down in a pool of her own blood. I pet her head once, as if it meant something.  Soon, she had her last breath, and Lucy transitioned from sentient being to poultry.

 

Rocky deftly blanched and plucked the chicken, and it was my turn to perform.  I approached the bird, confident with a task I had undertaken many times before. After eight years as a chef, cutting chickens is like tying shoes.  In that time, however, I had never encountered a freshly killed chicken.  I laid it on its back, feet pointing towards me.  I saw something I had never seen before: a bare chicken anus was staring at me, as surprised to see me as I was it.  Now, I was in unfamiliar territory.  It was a little embarrassing.  Big bad chef, never gutted a chicken, in front of Rocky, a man who only eats meat he has killed.  I was more squeamish than I would like to admit.  The flesh was still hot, and the aroma was pungent. Instincts kicked in, helping me save face.  After a few hacks of the machete and some pulling and scraping, the hot entrails laid in front of us on our makeshift banana leaf table.  I saved the bits that I knew to be tasty: the liver, the heart, the kidneys, and some of the underdeveloped eggs that were attached to the guts.  The rest were relegated to a separate pot.  Lucas and I were not interested in those parts in the least; our intention was to throw them away.

 

I habitually stick my nose in the cavity of a chicken before I cook it, to check for freshness.  This obviously very fresh chicken got the same treatment.  The familiar earthy-sweet aroma of the compost bucket in the kitchen inundated my palette.  After every meal, the veggie scraps from the kitchen were fed to the chickens, and the meat smelled of it.  Not in a bad way.  It smelled the way a chicken does when it's sitting on a bed of aromatics, waiting to be roasted.  Those who claim industrial chicken is the same as pasture-raised, need go no further than a side by side smell test.

 

Thus far I missed some key moments of an experience that I really wanted to focus on.  My chef skills where somewhat in demand at PunPun, and on that particular day I had spread myself pretty thin.  Right as I was about to cook this chicken, I stole away to find Paige so I could include her in the action.  On the way, I ran into a promise I was forgetting to keep, in the form of the resident yoga instructor, Por.  I had told her I would show her how to make my coconut pancake batter.  My forehead muscles were tight with frustration as we ran to the kitchen to quickly get this done.  Sometimes I hate keeping promises.

 

Meanwhile, some changes were happening to our chicken.  While I frantically sifted flour and beat eggs, I imagine, someone walked by our pile of refuse organs and said in Thai, "certainly this perfectly good meat isn't being thrown away!"  After saying a hurried good night to Por, I rushed through the darkness, to get back to the action.  Sitting on our banana leaf was a treat.  Chef P'Daeng, PunPun's head chef, had come to see what was going on.  She took the intestines and stomach that Lucas and I were so afraid of and fried it.  It was simply sprinkled with toasted chili powder and salt.  In my mind, intestines fresh out of the chicken would taste like their contents had (poop?).  But skepticism aside, a young woman from the farm was carelessly snacking on them, and I would not be branded a coward.  As always, a step into the unknown was rewarded with new knowledge.  Chicken intestines are delicious!  We snacked on the intestines, the stomach and the raw underdeveloped eggs.  I will be forever grateful to P'Daeng.  She transformed something I considered garbage into delicious food.  In doing so, she opened my eyes to my wasteful ways.  There was another important change that occurred while we waited to cook the bird which would become apparent later.

 

Now it was time to start cooking the glory pieces, the legs, breast and wings.  This I could do.  At my disposal was a wok, and a hot wood fire to heat it on.  For seasoning we had garlic, shallots, thai chilies, sour tomatoes, ginger and soy sauce.  Over an open fire, we used the wok to make a rustic stew.  Quick thinking encouraged me to grab some nearby banana leaves and cover the concoction.  Now we waited.

 

Without booze to drink it wouldn't be a proper send off.  While the stew simmered away, we sipped on small glasses of ya dong, a rice whiskey, aged in bottle with tree bark and herbs.  Ya dong is a little too easy to drink.  Be careful with this stuff.  We all had a good buzz when I checked on the chicken.  The sauce was so tasty! Right then I thought I'd nailed it, but the chicken was tough.  It wasn't dried out from over cooking.  It was more like sinewy stew meat that still needed hours of braising.  I wondered if maybe the active lifestyle of this bird contributed to a chewier meat.  Most of the chickens you can buy in the supermarket can't even walk on their own.  Maybe industrial meat really is more tender.  Then I remembered what I learned from watching TV detective shows.  After something dies, within a few hours rigor mortis sets in.  While we waited to cook, our chicken's muscles were tightening up and becoming almost inedible.  Well, that sucked, but we ate it anyway.  Our primal muscles went to work.  It was fun for us to use our jaws and rip flesh from bone.  For cooking a freshly killed chicken, cooking within minutes of death is recommended.  Otherwise, wait a full 48 hours for rigor mortis to subside.

 

While we all chomped away and chatted, Rocky was up to something.  Into a pot he put some sauce from the stew, some water, and the rest of those guts.  When it came to a boil, he cooked some instant noodles in it.  The crude method of cooking reminded me:  there was delicious food before Escofier.   People just threw some stuff in a pot and boiled it.  It was food, it tasted good.  Here Rocky was offering the ovaries, the bladder, and some other parts.  Emboldened by my last taste of offal, I took a bite from the ovary.  Eureka!  It was tender.  It tasted like egg.  Inside there was boiled yolk.  It was better than our rigor mortis chicken legs.

 

With some sadness, I said my farewell to Rocky after we had polished of the ya dong.  I stumbled down to Paige and my room and laid in bed.  Reeking of wood fire, my fingers still a bit greasy, I struggled to get comfortable.  The blood soaked face of Lucy the chicken swirled around behind my eyelids.  The image didn't make me happy or sad.  It made me ashamed.  I always thought I appreciated the animal that died so I may eat.  I was wrong.  I appreciated a chicken thigh.  My gratitude was to Tyson.  They handled the dirty work.  I was thankful to them for raising chickens stacked three high, with no place to move.  For running them through giant slaughter machines.  They allowed me to live in blissful ignorance, eating excessively large plates of fried chicken just for the hell of it.  Shame turned to anger.  I was mad at myself for not giving the process my undivided attention.  I wasn't there to slit her throat.  In my distraction I let rigor set in.  Her meat was tough.  We did not enjoy on the level that she sacrificed.  Despite the screaming voices of self degradation and disparagement that were dominating my thoughts, I could feel something else.  A new sense of gratitude was emerging from the ruckus. I was thankful to Rocky for forcing me to think.  With his guidance through the experience, I was able to learn about flavors, food, culture, and myself.  Comforted by the thought that my mistakes had helped to educate me, I finally drifted into an uneasy sleep.