I have told this story many times. It occurred in 2011, and was written down just recently for you all, in honor of the season. I find it hilarious, but I thought I should warn you that an animal was, in fact, harmed in the making of this story. If you dislike non-vegetarian acts or descriptions of death, please do not read any further.
The second year I worked as an English teacher in China, my American friends and I decided to have a Thanksgiving celebration. In China, it’s almost impossible and very expensive to get a turkey, so we opted to get a chicken. Everyone contributed something different, and because I had a different work schedule than everyone else, and couldn’t cook the day of our celebration, I volunteered to do some of the shopping the day before, including buying and prepping the chicken, which I would then deliver to my friend for cooking.
In China, or at least in the city I was in, the supermarkets didn’t sell whole chickens, however, the farmers market did. I had learned early on that farmers market didn’t mean organic, or really better quality in any way, it just meant less processed, and more likely to be fresh, although with animals it was better to pick one that was still kicking, just to be safe. With that in mind, I picked out a live chicken, and had the vendor of the market stall strangle it for me. It was the first time I’d ever seen a chicken strangled, but as shocking as that was, it didn’t actually put me off meat, or even off chicken. I’d been more aware than the average American what goes on in the meat industry since childhood, had many friends who were vehemently vegan or vegetarian, and I understood all the arguments. I knew what I was getting into when it came to choosing an animal to kill for my dinner, and I had made my peace with it. I was emotionally prepared for the death of a chicken, but what I was not prepared for was dressing the carcass.
The chicken vendor took my dead chicken and me to another stall where the single bird cleaning station for the whole market was set up. I guess there was only enough work for one. The proprietor of the cleaning station chatted amiably with my chicken vendor as she dipped my dead chicken into boiling water, then dropped it into a drum that spun my chicken like laundry in a dryer. As the chicken bounced, a small corner of my brain wondered vaguely about post-mortem bruising, and would that affect the flavor of my chicken. The chicken emerged featherless, except for a few tiny stragglers, and apparently unbruised. The proprietor deftly turned my bird back and forth, efficiently plucking the last little spiny looking feathers, which showed black against its pale skin. Then she just as efficiently sliced open its butt, pulled out its internal organs, and sorted them, asking me which I wanted to take home. After I had chosen the heart and liver, which I vaguely knew what to do with, she slipped them into a tiny bag, which she tucked inside the gutless chicken, and, grabbing it by the feet, stuffed it head first into another plastic bag, the kind with handles that are usually used in grocery stores. The bag wasn’t quite big enough to contain the whole chicken and its feet waved limply at me out of the top of the bag as I took it and tied it carefully to the handlebars of my bicycle. Every bump I hit on the way home caused those feet, poking up just higher than my handlebars, to wiggle and shake in a way that was almost alive. I felt a little ridiculous, but none of the Chinese people I passed gave the feet a second glance. My face got more than a few second glances, but I was used to that. In that neighborhood, foreigners stand out more than a black three-piece suit on a tropical beach.
I am not an especially good cook, nor do I cook often. I was also prepping my chicken in the kitchen of the apartment I rented, which had a dinky sink and a few very dull knives that didn’t take much of an edge when I attempted to sharpen them. They were all inadequate for the task of beheading and de-footing the chicken, but after nearly an hour of hacking, swearing, sawing, and trying each of the knives in turn, I finally managed to have a chicken ready for cooking. In hindsight, I wondered why I hadn’t thought to have the chicken-cleaning lady do it for me. Her knife was certainly sharper than any of mine.
Apartments in China generally don’t have ovens, but two of my friends had bought countertop ovens, which, small as they were, were big enough to hold a chicken. I delivered the chicken for cooking, scrubbed down my kitchen and took a shower, because…dead chicken juice, and fell asleep, exhausted.
Fortunately, Thanksgiving dinner turned out wonderfully edible, with stuffing and everything. The chicken took longer than expected to cook, and the stuffing was a little singed around the edges, but despite that we had a lovely dinner, and leftovers for nearly a week. I told my friends about my chicken adventure, to much laughter, and I smiled as I thought to myself “Well, at least it makes a good story.”