“Let everything go,” I told her, “except the blueberries.”
This was the directive I issued to my partner, Chris, last December when I was spending the weekend in Philadelphia with June, our ten-month-old baby, while she and our four-year-old, Grace, were enduring the worst ice storm our town had seen in 30 years. They had been without power for three days and weren’t expecting it to come back on for at least another two. The food in the deep freeze was beginning to thaw. I could deal with the loss of salmon burgers and frozen burritos, but I was not letting go of the 20 pounds of wild blueberries that we had stored for the winter.
“What about the chickens?”
“Forget about the chickens,” I said. “There’s no way to save the chickens now.”
The chickens in question were the five chickens we had raised and “processed” with Meg, our neighbor up the road. And by “we” I mean Chris. When Meg asked if we wanted to raise chickens with her I said, “No way,” and Chris said, “Sure.”
“I’m not doing anything for those chickens,” I told Chris. “I’m not feeding them, and I’m not killing them. I don’t have time. And you don’t have time either.”
“I want to try,” she said. “I want to be more connected to the food I eat.”
I suggested that learning how to make lasagna might be a more reasonable place to start.
‘You won’t have to do anything,” she told me. “Truly.”
In the end I didn’t have to do anything. The chickens lived at Meg’s house with her rooster and laying hens and geese. They roamed around the yard eating grubs and grass and grain mixed with molasses. When Meg was on vacation Chris and Grace fed the birds and chased them into their coop for the night.
One morning in September Meg stopped by our house on her way to work. “I think the chickens are ready,” she told me. “I think we’ll butcher them this weekend. Tell Chris to read this,” she handed me a book called The Essential Guide to Raising Chickens, “and to bring a sharp knife.”
Chris came home from butchering the chickens long after dark. She was so tired her hands shook when she bent down to untie her shoes. That morning she had done a triathlon, during which she had gotten a flat tire on her bike. “I don’t have time to kill chickens,” she told me as she lay on the living room floor doing the hamstring stretches she had been meaning to do ever since she finished the triathlon, nine hours before.
We put the chickens in the basement deep freeze right between the salmon burgers and Trader Joe’s shrimp shu mai. Every time I opened the deep freeze in the weeks that followed I would look at the chickens and think, “I really should roast one,” and then I would grab a box of waffles and forget all about them.
* * * *
June and I came home from Philly on a Sunday night. As I drove up the hill from town the trees became icier and icier, and my heart felt as heavy as their bending branches. I had just spent three glorious days in a hotel in Philadelphia, three days of taxis and lattes and clean towels. And now I was going home to a house with no running water and no lights.
On Tuesday the power came back on. On Wednesday morning Meg called. “How are your chickens?” she asked.
“Thawed,” I told her.
“Oh, I knew I should have come down for them!” she said. “We borrowed a generator for our deep freeze,” she explained, “and we could have put yours in with ours.”
“That’s okay,” I told her. “It’s really no big deal.” Like I was ever going to cook them anyway.
“Well, today is my day off,” she said. “I’ll come down and help you cook them.”
Cook them? Cook five eight-pound chickens? In one day? One day in which I would also be caring for a ten-month-old who wasn’t so into napping and a four-year-old with PTSD from the five days she spent playing Polly Pockets by lantern light and washing her hands over a bucket? One day in which I would also be trying to somehow clean five days of accumulated grime from the sinks, toilets, and floors of our house, not to mention dealing with the five days worth of laundry piled on the mudroom floor?
“I can’t,” I said. “I don’t have time.”
Long silence. And then: “I would hate to waste that meat.”
I knew what she was saying. She would hate to waste the grubs and the green grass, to waste the evenings Grace spent chasing the chickens into the coop. She would hate to waste the ache in her muscles after a day of butchering, not to mention the ache in her heart. She would hate to think that she raised those birds for slaughter only to see them thrown away. I took a deep breath.
“Come down around noon,” I said, “and bring a sharp knife.”
Together we devised a plan: two would be roasted, two would be poached and the meat shredded for burritos and chicken salad, and one would be cut and baked with barbeque sauce. I normally can’t stand preparing chicken to be cooked — I hate how you have to constantly wash your hands and try not to touch the faucet with your chicken-slime fingers. But this was different. These chickens smelled sweet and there was no chicken slime. The skin felt good under my hands, soft but not slick. I put the two whole chickens into roasting pans filled with onions and potatoes and massaged butter onto their skin, remembering that Julia Child always gave a chicken a little massage before roasting because she thought the chicken liked to get it, and she liked to give it.
Chris came home early and played with the girls while Meg and I finished working. We made broth by putting the carcasses in large pots with water and a little vinegar to draw the calcium out from the bones. As one chicken came out of the oven, another went in.
Soon the sun went down and — with great pleasure — I went around the house turning on all the lights. Meg’s sons came to the door with a loaf of bread and a few bottles of beer, and together we sat down to eat. We ate one whole chicken and all the roasted vegetables and every last crumb of bread. We drank beer and wine and cranberry juice and everyone shared stories of the ice storm. After dinner I sent the other roasted chicken home with Meg and her boys because there are few things in life more satisfying than feeding a roasted chicken to boys who have spent their day working in the field and the barn.
I fell into bed that night and my pillow smelled of chicken. Everything smelled of chicken.
We won’t raise chickens with Meg this summer. Chris is officially okay with a little distance between her and the food she eats. But we have vowed to eat more meals with Meg and her sons. I like every seat at our table to be filled; I like to see our neighbors’ faces and hear their stories. That is what feeds me during the long winter.
That and a big bowl of wild blueberries.