I woke up this morning craving a chicken salad sandwich. Which reminded me of a story...
When I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar I updated a blog every few months, so my friends and family could keep up with the happenings. This was, hands down, my favorite post. It was published on May 12, 2010 on my (no longer active) blog called, "The 'Frican Bush Princess."
“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” ~ Harriet van Horne
The expression “I would take a bullet for you/him/her/etc.” is overused. It is dramatic and inaccurate. I (embarrassingly) admit that I am selfish enough that the list of individuals I would literally take a bullet for is pretty small. Minuscule. So, as a new marker of true friendship, I have a new way of quantifying my love and affection. Would I kill a chicken for you?
There are few things I find more enjoyable on a Saturday afternoon than a good chicken salad sandwich. Plain, on wheat toast. On a hearty whole grain with mayonnaise, pesto, lettuce, tomatoes, mozzarella, and salt and pepper. Or, if it’s the right kind of chicken salad, on a fresh baguette with bacon, American cheese, and honey mustard, heated up to a delicious, melted, artery-clogging masterpiece. Needless to say, my life here in Madagascar does not include Chicken Salad Saturdays.
Haley, my sitemate, shares my love of chicken salad, though I think she tends to favor it strait out of the container. So, for her birthday, I decided I would conjure up some chicken salad sandwiches as a surprise. As tends to be the theme of most of my endeavors here, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
A week before the big day, I asked my neighbor about the best way to get some chicken. The conversation went something like this:
Me: I want to surprise Haley with an American chicken dish on her birthday. Can I buy chicken in the market?
Madame A: Yes. Of course. But not every day. It’s only there sometimes. You should buy it today or tomorrow.
Me: But I do not have anywhere to keep it. It will go bad. (Oh, how I long for refrigeration.)
Madame A: Well I can keep it for you. In my chicken house.
At this point it finally dawned on me that we were talking about two very different things. I was talking about buying nice little clean parts from a butcher, and she was talking about buying a live bird. My quest for chicken salad was going to require a few more steps than I had anticipated. I went to the market, bought a bird for about two dollars, and gave myself a pat on the back for a clever birthday present idea.
The morning of Haley’s birthday, I went over to Madame A’s to get a lesson in turning a dirt-scratching, trash-eating, crack-of-dawn-alarm-clocking bird into a meal. While we sat waiting for the water to come to a boil, a small, unruly herd of kittens wobbled into the room. Not permitted in the house, Madame A. unceremoniously gathered them into a bunch by their necks, like a bouquet of thick-stemmed sunflowers, and chucked them outside. If this how life went for furry, big-eyed, baby animals, we would certainly be making quick work of that chicken.
Once the water had come to a rolling boil and was poured out into a large basin, it was time to do the deed. In the kitchen area, Madame A. already had one foot on the chicken’s wings, the other on its feet, and was pulling a bald patch to slit its throat over a dish. In the middle of the kitchen. The entire process, from clucking bird to clean, dressed meat, took no longer than three minutes. Once plunged into the boiling water to loosen the feathers, the skin was peeled off the feet in a complete piece, like the stripping off of yellow panty hose. The feathers came out easily enough, and before I knew it I was looking at something that resembled a small grocery store chicken.
Though this scene was a far cry from the earthy, methodical, “harvesting” process of thanksgiving and celebration, that authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan describe in their books, there was a “matter-of-factness” quality that prevented any part of it from feeling gruesome. The Crayola-red blood that coagulated on a plate as we worked, the chopped off feet I accidentally knocked off the counter, and the fistful of guts Madame A. slung into a trash bucket with a wet thwack! failed to strike any chord of “Ew! Blech! Gross!” or even give me the willies.
Fully educated in the ways of chicken harvesting, I took my prize home and immediately put it in a pot of water on the stove. While the water came to temperature, I ran out to the market for carrots and onions to add to the pot, and a few other ingredients for cake. The next few hours I worked like a madwoman, cranking out two loaves of onion and herb bread, homemade basil mayonnaise, and Haley’s favorite lemon cake with lemon glaze. The chicken salad that I got from the bird was just barely enough for two sandwiches; while wrestling bites of meat off the carcass I found myself daydreaming of Styrofoam-trayed, saran-wrapped, packages of boneless, skinless, chicken breasts. “Whatever!” I thought to myself as I pulled the last of the meat off the neck, “Purdue and all those CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) ain’t got nothin’ on this organic, free-range, flavor bomb.”
I will admit that the chicken salad was a far cry from the best I have ever had. That little birdy had a hard life scratching out its existence in a place where people do not always feed their chickens. What meat there was fell a bit on the tough and stringy side. But novelty value and hunger are my two favorite seasonings as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Muriel Barbery’s protagonist in Gourmet Rhapsody waxes ridiculous about wallowing “in the debauchery of simple mayonnaise.” I harbor a similar affection for the condiment, and firmly believe that homemade mayonnaise can improve any sandwich. Spread across the warm onion and herb bread and topped with a few bright slices of ripe, flavorful tomatoes, I reveled in what I was sure was the best sandwich I have ever had.
Then I remembered it was the first sandwich I had eaten since October 2009.