In my childhood, people the age that I am now would double over at rubber chicken jokes. Some geezer on the Art Linkletter show would pull out a rubber chicken, a lovingly painted rubber likeness of a plucked and eviscerated chicken with the head and feet still attached, and my greying babysitter and her skinnny sister would start laughing. Merely waving the chicken around would cause them to have difficulty holding on to their glasses of beer (no lady drinks beer out of the bottle.) With the clarity of a small child whose perception far outstrips their social skills, I thought this was inane.
I had similar thoughts about the ladies with the heavy arms who gathered on the stoop in front of our apartment building to complain about the tasteless food in the supermarket, a newly opened A & P that would fit comfortably inside many current gas station convenience stores. I thought they ought to have something better to do with their time, or at least come up with a new topic. Their arms fascinated me, the broad forearms and large biceps gone slack with decades of city living. They were stout, those ladies, but mere thickness in the middle is nothing compared to the morbid obesity which was nearly unknown when I was a snotty little kid on the stoop. The ladies seemed ancient at the time, but actually they were barely older that I am now. Perhaps our overlapping life spans go back a century.
That century was the century of industrial agriculture, when food and cooking were transformed. My middle aged babysitter and the ladies with the heavy arms were farm girls from Wisconsin, who moved to the city during the Roaring Twenties, or the Depression, or after World War II. By mid-century, they were living in apartments with gas stoves, central heating and vacuum cleaners, their formidable upper body strength turning to flab.
The ladies had a point about the food. They had recently encountered cake mix at the A & P (an endless topic of derision.) Cheese puffs, frosted toaster pastries, "lite margarine" and my favorite food idiocy, human dietary fiber in flavored drinks (beans, my friends, and oatmeal..) were still to come. The dreck got so bad that the natural foods movement went mainstream. Meanwhile, science tells us that broccoli has doubled in size and lost 90% of its nutrients, starting from the exact time that the ladies were complaining about supermarket vegetables tasting like cardboard.
Chickens still came from small farms at that point ("You can't get a decent chicken these days.") The grower model of farmers raising birds on contract for central processing companies was just starting to get traction. Actually, the chickens, and especially the turkeys, weren't too bad back in the day, not compared to Frankenchickens raised in 10,000 bird lots without room to move around, soaked in antibiotics to combat the toxic chicken house environment. The swollen, gummy breasts are almost too soft to survive cooking and even the legs are limp. Industrially produced turkeys have been rancid since the 1980's.
[Edit: Gene Logsdon has the explanation for the fishy taste of industrial poultry in his August 3, 2011 blog post. Apparently it is caused by feeding the animals too much corn.
Now I’ve found a farmer who agrees with me more or less. He was an Englishman writing in 1893. He might have been a bit prejudiced about anything from America but nevertheless his words are most interesting. I found him quoted in Farm and Dairy magazine in a regular column, “Let’s Talk Rusty Iron” by Sam Moore. After stating that corn’s merits have been considerably exaggerated, the Englishman went on: “Maize, although useful, is not a perfect food for pigs and poultry, as, although it’s fattening, it certainly produces an inferior quality of meat, having a somewhat coarse and fishy flavor, particularly objectionable in poultry.”
Sadly, the unpleasant effects of a high corn diet are easily achieved, even in a backyard operation. Since the high cost of corn caused many commercial poultry growers to shift to feeding wheat, perhaps even commercial birds are better this year.]
However, we have plenty of recipes for Frankenchickens. Figuring out how to cook a true free range bird is a whole different undertaking. The free range bird of commerce is quite decent. Clearly the growers are struggling for middle ground between people's expectation of chicken and real food. Often, they are accused of raising insufficiently free ranging birds, and for excellent reasons.
I'm just here to tell you, a real free range bird can be the stuff of rubber chicken jokes. The tender roaster is best kept penned, fed plentifully and killed young. The standard meat chicken is a Cornish Cross, an animal bred to grow giant breasts in record time. Even when raised in a natural environment, they are almost too stupid to go outside. They grow so fast that their skeletons can't support the meat and they become crippled if allowed to live.
I like happy food best, food that gets a chance to hang out with the goats and eat bugs. Last summer, I met dinner. The Cornish Crosses were running around the pen in circles, while the Buff Orpingtons were perched on the rail, laughing at them. I took dinner home and slaughtered it, delicious happy food. The interesting thing was that even the overbred Cornish Cross had tough legs, best cooked by stewing, when it came out of a back yard.
Ah, that's it. Cut up the bird, possibly marinate it, but in any case cook it slowly in plenty of liquid. Roasted, your true free range bird may have the consistency of eating rubber bands. Stewed, the meat has texture and taste, and stands up well to strong flavors. Some Indian chicken recipes call for marinating, simmering and then grilling, treatment which causes American commercial chickens to disintegrate.
The little cull roosters from the order of straight run layers have very little meat on them at the point that they become too obnoxious to keep around. Soup, or coq au vin rouge. Old layers are mostly feathers, fuss and egg laying apparatus. Excellent soup. Our holiday bird was a particularly loud and obnoxious gander, seven pounds dressed. Marinated, browned and stewed. The gander had a little over a cup of fat, nothing compared to the Shelton's Natural goose I roasted last year. The Shelton's goose produced four cups of schmaltz and the digestive experience that inspired the saying "goes through you like goose grease." Fine roast goose, and very well received, by the way. Shelton's has good turkeys as well.
I get the arms now. After a few of summers of subsistence gardening, my biceps will no longer fit into the sleeves of my tailored suit jackets. Time for new jackets to go with my new chicken recipes.
Stovetop Peking Goose
Four quart heavy pot, goose, unpeeled whole garlic cloves, handful of coarsely chopped shallots or onion.
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
4 whole cloves, 1/2 teaspoon each whole cumin, peppercorns and coriander, crushed in a mortar or ground
2 whole star anise
1/2" peeled and sliced ginger
Cut the goose legs, wings and breasts off the backbone and cut the breasts in half so they fit in the pot. Rub with the spice mixture and pack into a deep bowl. Pour 2 tablespoons each vegetable oil, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar and sherry over the meat and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
Brown the goose pieces on medium high heat, then remove from the pot and plunk back into the marinade. Pour off excess fat from the pot. Cook the garlic and shallots on low until onions are starting to turn translucent. Return goose pieces to pot. Add the marinade, 2 cups apple cider and 2 cups apple juice and cook on medium low heat until tender, about three hours, occasionally rearranging so that all the pieces cook evenly.
Excellent with Mandarin Tortillas
Smash together until uniform in texture:
4 cups whole wheat bread flour
1/4 cup sesame oil
scant 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Add about 1 cup boiling water, adding slowly and stirring until it sticks together and you can work it into a soft ball of dough. Let sit 15 minutes. Put 1/2 cup of unbleached flour into a shallow bowl. Pull off ping pong ball sized balls of dough, roll in the dry flour, and knead briefly with your hands. Roll it in more flour if it is too sticky to work. You will feel the texture become more elastic. Form into a flat disk about 2" across, flour generously and stack up. When you have a nice stack going, use a tortilla press or rolling pin to flatten the disks into a thick tortilla shape. Cook on a comal, an unheated flat cast iron pan.
See Celt's Garden - Start with a Live Chicken for directions on how to slaughter poultry and a recipe for Coq au Vin Rouge.
Yer basic chicken noodle soup recipe:
Old layer, dressed, or wings, back and neck from purchased chicken or turkey
The old layer goes straight in the pot. Purchased bird parts are best cooked first, either by starting with leftovers from a whole roast bird or by cooking at 300 degrees F in a shallow pan for an hour.
Just barely simmer one hour, a slow glub, glub. Remove the meat from the bones. An old layer may take longer to soften up. Return the bones to the broth and simmer two more hours. Strain out the bones and return the meat to the pot.
Add chopped carrots, onions, celery, garlic, a bay leaf, a pinch of rosemary, parsley and thyme and cook on low heat. When the vegetables are soft, add spaghetti or other long thin noodles, broken into 4" pieces, and cook until the noodles are al dente.
Two additional thoughts: Sometimes all that is needed to transform a backyard bird from chewy to sublime is a good rest. I bought a dressed turkey from a buddy years ago and stuck it in the fridge, overcome by some other crisis. I finally got around to cooking it 36 hours later and the muscles had relaxed. It was great.
If you slaughter your own goose, they take a while to pluck. Use water just off the boil for dunking the carcass to strip the feathers off. After being defeathered and cleaned, it still took me 45 minutes more to get the pinfeathers out with needle nose pliers. I used to keep a pair of pliers in the kitchen utensil drawer back when I was living in other people's countries and shopping at open air markets. The warm feathers inspire thoughts of feather stuffing, but I didn't keep them clean enough to use when I was plucking. I put them in the garden for mulch instead. The rich meat goes well with fruity sauce: hoisin sauce, mango chutney, cranberry sauce with a little shredded chipolte pepper, your pleasure.