Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Future Chickens

I have been on a search for chickens.

Not the live kind, you understand. The killed, cleaned, plucked, and frozen kind like the one I bought a few months ago at the Abingdon Farmer's Market. The kind of chicken that made me understand, for the first time, what my grandmother was always moaning about.

"Oh," she'd said, every time she made homemade chicken soup, which was pretty much every time we came to visit, "you can't get chickens like you used to. These chickens, they're no good." She'd hold her fingers an inch apart and say, "I remember when the fat on the soup was that thick."

I did not want the fat on the soup to be that thick. I always thought she was making the chicken thing up. Then I bought the chicken at the Farmer's Market and my worldview changed.

I roasted it. I roast chicken pretty often, and let me tell you, this one was way better than ordinary. The skin crisped thin and golden. The meat cooked tender and succulent. The clear fat dripped onto the bottom of the roasting pan, and I could see why I might pour it off and save it for future cooking. (I didn't. Don't remember why.) It tasted miles better than any grocery store chicken I'd ever eaten, which was good since it cost about three times what a chicken would cost at the grocery store. But worth it. That chicken was why people used to eat roast chicken for Sunday dinner, back when Sunday dinner was the culinary highlight of the week.

I wanted to make soup from such a chicken. I wanted to consider frying one. But tennis season intervened, and with it all hope of my driving to Abingdon on Tuesday afternoons. Then the Bristol Farmer's Market (which is seasonal, unlike Abingdon, which is year-round) opened, so I went there one fine Saturday morning in search of a chicken.

Nothing doing. They had lots of nice vegetables (no tomatoes yet, and no corn, and I'd gone too late to get berries, but there were greens and beans and spring onions and squash) and some local beef and pork, but no chicken. I ran into a friend of mine, who's on the Bristol City Council. I told her I'd been searching for a chicken. "Oh," she said, "it's illegal to sell chickens at farmer's markets in Tennessee."

Well, who knew? Usually Tennessee is a pretty hands-off state in terms of legal intervention. Just look at the fireworks we get away with--you couldn't get within 50 miles of Indiana with them. I bought some grass-fed organic beef, and it was good, but it wasn't chicken.

So yesterday I made a special trip to Abingdon. (That's across the state line into Virginia--as is half of Bristol, but not the Farmer's Market.) The Market opened at 3, and I got there at 3:15, which my lawyer friend Janine points out you have to do if you don't want all the good stuff to be gone. I got early tomatoes and early corn, and a quart of local blueberries. I bought 2 lovely cantelopes and a big bag of half-runner beans. I bought a spinach-stuffed bread thingy from the Balkan Bakers, who were also selling baklava and strudel. I even bought myself a small cup of blackberry gelato.

I didn't buy a chicken. There were none. The meat vendor from whom I'd bought my chicken before explained that they'd gone out of the chicken business. Compared to cows and pigs, chickens were too labor-intensive. You don't have to pluck a pig. She steered me farther down the row, to a tall bearded man in solemn clothing (he could have been Amish, except for the belt) who stood behind a folding table embellished with small chicken figurines.

"Are you selling chicken?" I asked.

"I'm taking orders for chickens," he said.

"Excellent! When will they come in?"

He said October seventh.

He wasn't kidding. I paid a ten-dollar deposit each for four chickens, to be picked up October seventh, even though I already know I'll be in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on October seventh, helping my sister with her new baby and her son. I'll send my daughter to pick up our chickens. Or maybe I'll resell the rights to mine, if demand continues to increase. You never know. There may be a future in chickens.