I lived in Cyprus off and on in the early ‘70s before the Turkish invasion that split the island into two irreconcilable political entities, one Turkish, one Greek. Our village, on the island’s north coast, was Greek but there were Turkish citrus farmers on the plain below and both sides amicably shared water rights through a series of irrigation channels controlled by the waterman, a quasi-mythical figure who, at specific hours of the day and night, opened gates or closed them according to plan, divvying the water among all the farms. Sometimes late at night I heard the water start to surge down the channel past our house and knew that the waterman was out there at his task.
Once or twice a week a stout Greek woman named Youla came from a neighboring village to clean and tidy the house. In the early morning, she would walk along the irrigation channels over the mountain, often swinging a string bag that contained eggs from her chickens or a whole fat chicken itself, ready for roasting.
But not quite. Although the birds were slain and plucked, they had not been cleaned. Their innards were intact and it was my job to clean them out—liver, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines, and sometimes little golden blobs that would have become eggs had the chicken lived. It was an unpleasant task, made more so by the fact that the bird, slaughtered that morning, was still warm with body heat. It made me quite sick to my stomach to reach inside that warm corpus and pull out vital organs that might have been pulsing with life. Of course, they were not really throbbing, they had been dead for some hours, but the unhappy association of corpus with corpse was brought poignantly home to me.
Still, someone had to do it and that someone had to be me. I came of age in an America already used to meat neatly carved in portions, presented on styrofoam trays that rarely showed a trickle of blood, the whole wrapped in transparent plastic so you could see it but not touch it, as distant from its source as could be. I have a vague memory of my father during World War II chopping off chicken heads, and of dazed and headless chickens staggering around the back yard but that was so very long ago that I may well have invented it. A chicken still warm with its life blood was something I had never encountered. But I had to do it. Otherwise we would not eat.
“The kitchen,” writes poet Sandra Gilbert in her fine book, The Culinary Imagination, “is the locus classicus where the dead—whether animal or vegetable—are reshaped and transformed into substances that can sustain the lives of others.” Sometimes, as in my kitchen in Cyprus, that is more apparent than at others. Listening to all the macho talk of nose to tail eating, pig roasts, whole hogs and butchering, in which so many young, mostly guy chefs indulge themselves, I sometimes wonder how many of them have ever actually dispatched a chicken. Or pulled its guts out when they’re still blood-warm.
The kitchen is a place of violence—the flesh is brought in dead or dying, and the vegetables and fruits have lost their roots or their attachments to the plants on which they thrived. It’s the cook’s job to translate all this lifelessness, all this death, into something edible, even delicious, seductive, something that will keep us alive—to translate it into a creation, cooked or raw, that is as remote as possible from the living creature, whether vegetable or animal. Historians say that’s how the fork came into being—as a way to distance ourselves around the table from the murder of life that is at the heart of cuisine.
(You may think including vegetables and fruits in this mayhem is a bit extreme. But if you don’t think plants are sentient beings that actually experience life and death, you have only to read Michael Pollan’s brilliant but overlooked article in the Christmas 2013 issue of The New Yorker, which contends that plants are not “the mute, immobile furniture of our world” but rather intelligent, successful beings, “protagonists in their own dramas, highly skilled in the ways of contending in nature.”)
On the Maine island where we stayed last summer, we cheerfully dumped living lobsters into pots of boiling sea water and listened to them scrabbling inside until the inevitable occurred. We thought nothing of it. But chickens are different. The one time I actually killed one by myself, some time after the Cyprus episode, was not successful. I had seen my neighbors in Tuscany, stout farmwomen, snapping and wringing their necks as a quick and efficient way to dispose of them and I thought I understood the gesture. But the unfortunate bird I was attempting to despatch seemed only to grow dazed at my efforts and would not give up the ghost. It took several tries and then the intervention of one of those farmwomen before the bird was safely despatched. I never attempted such a thing again, preferring to buy my chickens already thoroughly done for, and chilled to boot.
Roasting a bird, on the other hand, requires an entirely different set of skills, one that is fortunately very easy to master. You just have to make the initial decision, whether to do it Elizabeth David’s way, in which you first roast at high temperature, then reduce the heat to continue; or the Marcella Hazan way, which is the reverse procedure, beginning with a 350º oven and increasing the heat in the last 20 minutes to brown and crisp the bird. I sometimes do it one way and sometimes the other, but perhaps more often the Marcella Hazan way, since she was a most trustworthy Italian cook. Here’s how:
- 1 roasting chicken, weighing about 4 pounds
- Sea salt and black pepper
- ½ cup finely chopped fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, thyme, winter savory, etc.)
- ½ cup olive oil, plus a little more for the roasting pan
- 2 lemons, preferably organic, cut in half
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with the flat blade of a knife
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ cup dry white wine
Turn the oven on to 350º. Rinse the bird, inside and out, and pat thoroughly dry with paper towels.
Put a pinch of salt and plenty of pepper in a bowl and add the chopped herbs. Stir in the oil and the juice of half a lemon.
Rub the bird all over, inside and out, with the oil mix, being very generous. Add a couple of tablespoons of the mix to the inside of the bird, along with the remaining lemon halves, squeezing each one just a bit
to soften it. Add the garlic cloves and the bay leaves to the cavity. Truss the bird if you wish, tying the legs together and folding the wings in to keep its shape.
Spoon a little plain olive oil over the bottom of a black iron skillet or a roasting pan, large enough to hold the bird. Set the bird in the pan breast side down and transfer to the oven. After 30 minutes, turn the bird over to face breast up and let cook another 30 to 35 minutes. Now turn the oven heat up to 425º and cook 20 minutes longer, util the breast skin is brown and crispy. The chicken is done when a meat thermometer reaches 165º in the breast, or175º in the thigh—but not touching the bone.
Remove from the oven when done, transfer to a warm platter and set aside to rest for 30 to 35 minutes. While the chicken is resting, set the skillet over medium heat and when the juices are sizzling, add the white wine and cook down quickly, scraping up the brown bits and reducing the wine by about half. Carve the chicken at table and serve with the wine juices spooned on top.