A girl in the kitchen with a knife and a chicken

On a mission, I bundled up Sunday afternoon and left my pre-war walk-up in search of winter boots and chicken.

Wind-whipped and weary, I entered Sanagan's and felt myself being transported through time, back before supermarkets existed. By the time I get there -- an hour before close -- it's bustling. It's not very organic, but I only head out with a plan. I don't look to see what's best, though this sometimes influences my decision. I wonder about these choices of mine sometimes. I pick recipes and I test them out, seeing whether my tweaks and tinkering pay off. Sometimes this works. But increasingly I'm turning away from recipes and back to my own table. I like to write about the stories associated with food, but stories, at least for me, seldom emerge from this sort of cooking. The genuine, honest stories that I fall in love with time and time again extend from simple home cooking, from humble lentils and run-of-the-mill potatoes. I don't need another bowl of beet-fennel soup. Surprisingly, the only meal I like complicated is breakfast, even if I'm rarely able to muster the kind of energy and brain power such a recipe requires before 10am and two big mugs of coffee.

Sanagan's makes me consider these things, maybe because it reminds me of walking through the butcher's at five years old, a pickle or hot dog in hand. Not only is it an entirely different experience to handle a dead animal from a butcher that deals exclusively with small, local farms than to handle a cellophane-wrapped one from the grocery store, but the intimacy of it all isn't lost on me, either. Despite my stance as an uncomfortable omnivore, I've fallen in love with the place. I adore that even when it's busy, which is often, the man behind the counter will talk to you and tend to your questions as though he has all day to chat. Sunday, I buy a whole free-range chicken -- $2.99/lb, the special of the day -- and once home, my new winter boots draining on a tray by the door, go about separating the parts.

I'm no stranger to this, but it's different this time. Dana Velden, a writer over at TheKitchn.com, said that "purchasing a cut-up chicken wrapped in cello does make it too easy for people to sidestep the fact that what they are about to consume was once alive and flapping its wings." What she says is true, I think. My bird is not pale pink, the way all birds are at supermarkets, because it has not been through a chlorine bath to ensure that it is "sanitary", fit for human consumption. My bird is slightly yellow-tinged, skin dotted with blood from where the feathers were pulled out. When I pull at the twine the legs relax, and I'm aware that yes, this was once a living thing. I'm almost overcome with emotion. I find intellectual discussion sometimes confusing because I'm often left with more questions than answers. And so, for me, what I know is what I feel. My eating and shopping habits are never far from my mind. If our lives are like bodies, then in a quiet, slow sort of way, my eating and shopping habits have become limbs, and everything works together in this indivisible cycle.

When my grandmother was growing up, she lived off turnips. It goes without saying that she can't even look at them now. Here I am, decades later, choosing between chickens. This is the thing that doesn't match up for me. For years, we scrounged and saved to afford to live. There was a purpose to all of that economizing. To say otherwise now is highly laughable -- certainly there is still poverty, even in North America, and even those with well-paying jobs still have to watch their expenses. But in the same breath, so many of us are not bargain hunting so we can live. What are we saving for? Where is our money going? I'm not asking these questions because I have the answers. I know we are writing a narrative, regardless of whether we realize it, and I know that what we do know will determine, at least in some small way, how the North American (and possibly the global) culinary landscape will look in the future. This is no small thing. This is a big thing. On a local level there is me with a knife and a chicken in a rental kitchen. There's a lot of story there.

Further reading:
Weekend Meditation: The Whole Chicken by Dana Velden for thekitchn.com
A vow for 2011: No cheap chicken by Francis Lam for Salon.com


Andrea Paterson said...

I grapple with the same issues every day. And I love your term "uncomfortable omnivore". That is definitely me in a nutshell. I do find some solace in knowing that I can make choices that matter. Perhaps I can't always afford to make the best ones but often I can afford to make better ones and I feel good about that. Educating others, as you do on your blog, is also a great way to alleviate the food choice stress. I applaud your vision and your keen awareness of food production and consumption issues in North America.

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