Since moving to France, I have had to think about renegotiating my relationship with meat. Pre–Paris we had an understanding. I didn’t eat much and what I did buy was very good quality. In exchange, the meat came clearly marked, in nice plastic packaging from the supermarket or pre-cut and wrapped in paper from the butcher. Now in Paris, all the rules are being broken.
Last Sunday, I got in the line at the chicken lady’s stand, or poulailler, at the farmer’s market around the corner from our apartment. The number of different types of chickens daunted me. The range extended well beyond the caged, free-range, organic, corn-fed options I am used to. There were different varieties and subsections of these varieties. I just wanted a chicken, chicken. I wanted a normal, well-treated chicken.
I was relieved when a simple “Un poulet, s’il vous plait” was all that was needed for the woman at the front of the line to secure a chicken that looked ok to me. I could say that. This was going to happen. I was going to get my chicken.
However, when the chicken was removed from the refrigerated case, the neck and full head of the chicken, previously tucked neatly under the bird’s body out of sight, dropped down and swung back and forth. Yes, beak, comb and both beady little eyes – left and right, left and right.
This was a clear violation of our previously negotiated understanding. Heads, feathers, eyes, combs and beaks, for goodness sake, were definitely out-of-bounds. I didn’t know if I could go through with it.
Then the lady in front unknowingly threw me a lifeline. She said something in French that resulted in the chicken lady unceremoniously removing the head – CHOP – and then, taking out the insides. I’d forgotten about the giblets, but these too can be removed by request.
The game was on again and it was my turn.
“Un poulet, s’il vous plait.” Then I pointed. As before, the chicken body was removed and the neck and head dangled. However, I was only partially equipped for the next stage. I knew there were magic words that would make the next necessary step happen, but I didn’t know what those words were.
But I had to do it and thank goodness for the onomatopoeia and sign language.
“Je voudrais le chop et le scoop.”
These words, accompanied by the corresponding hand movements, got me, some giggles from the chicken lady and the rest of the chicken line, as well as, a chicken I was prepared to cook.
Or so I thought. I got home and unwrapped the chicken. The chicken lady had removed the head but not the rest of the neck. The chicken and its neck lay stretched out on the cutting board. It lay there and I prepared potatoes. It lay there and I chopped carrots. It lay there and I talked to my sister on the phone. I had to do something about this. Come on Jennifer, you can do this. Thankfully, living in a furnished apartment in France, a meat cleaver, the knife needed to perform this job, was in the drawer. Otherwise, I am not sure how it would have all gone down. Even with the right knife it took several determined blows to do the necessary. And then I was left with my chicken, which I put in the oven, and a neck that looked a bit too much like, well … let’s just say disgusting. Help!
I didn’t want to touch it. I felt really wasteful if I threw it away. This chicken had died for my next few meals, the least I could do was treat it all with respect. However, I’d have to touch it even if I did throw it away. Come on Jennifer, be a big girl one more time. I quickly picked it up with tongs, put it into the pot and covered it with a lid to wait for the carcass to make stock. I felt like I wanted a cigarette.
The chicken wasn’t the only offender. I’ve broken the rules of the agreement too. In the original rules, I’d agreed to high quality meat, which meant for me, well-treated animals, free-range situations and organic methods, if possible. I’m afraid foie gras falls outside this category. Force feeding geese to artificially enlarge their livers makes gruesome viewing.
My first offence was outside of my control. We were at a dinner party hosted by one of my husband’s French colleagues. It was a beautiful meal and perhaps one of the few we might experience in a French home. Our hosts had gone to enormous trouble to prepare a wonderful French-style meal that complied with all of my food issues (no gluten, no dairy, no fish/seafood). I wasn’t going to say no to the first course. And I didn’t want to. I knew I liked foie gras and this was delicious.
My second offence was much more flagrant and audacious. I went to the restaurant knowing that I was going to order a steak burger with foie gras. The restaurant had been chosen specifically for this dish. The scene of the crime was, the perhaps aptly named, Grizzli Cafe (7 rue Saint-Martin). The medium-rare fillet of beef, sautéed onions, and red wine sauce topped with a slice of foie gras and served with thick-cut fries prepared in beef dripping was lovely. I enjoyed it so much, but have been feeling really upset about it since. Talking about this meal I find myself apologizing. I don’t think I’ll be ordering foie gras again. My pleasure does not justify bad treatment.
So, after indiscretions on both sides, I am not sure where my agreement with meat stands. However, looking your food in the eye is a good, and sobering, exercise.