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The rooster's last crow

(article, Shelly Peppel)

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More than the desire for a good meal, it was the need for sleep that made me decide to kill the roosters.


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We already had plenty of feathered friends on our old French farm. My favorite part of the day was bringing the children home from school while our flock of geese darted across the field in a frantic race to the pond, where they knew the children would come to feed them as soon as their school books were set down. 

Snowy and tall, the bright orange of their beaks all pointed in one direction as the geese scurried about en masse. They laid marvelous eggs, always surprisingly large, which were coveted at school each Easter and made the richest chocolate cake I’d ever tasted.

We had ducks, too, who sweetly allowed us to stroke the oily feathers on their backs. And chickens, who, while not big on personality, laid eggs judiciously no matter how bleak the weather. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Roosters are noise machines."]

But the four roosters detracted from our idyllic life. They stole food from the doves, and pecked maliciously at my bare legs when I came to collect eggs in the early morning. They even seemed to bother the sheep, darting around them in a tiny army, swirling and squawking until the lazy sheep would move farther out into the meadow.

And whoever spread the myth that roosters start crowing when the sun comes up never lived on a farm. Several hours before sunrise, the roosters would start to crow. They were louder than I would have expected from such small birds, and once they started, they kept at it for an hour or so. 

There was no poetry in their singing. So after too many sleepless nights, I began to plan my attack. 

I would stock up on bacon, red wine, and root vegetables. I’d find the most authentic recipe for coq au vin that could be had in the south of France. And while the stew simmered and a new peace fell over the farm, I’d stack a pile of wood in our oversized stone fireplace and invite the neighbors over for a meal truly worthy of celebration. 

The recipe was first on my list. I turned to Julia Child, who surely must have suffered and solved a similar problem during her years in France. I hefted open Mastering the Art of French Cooking, only to discover that her recipe called for chicken, not rooster. 

Sure, I could substitute, but I wanted authenticity. If the roosters were going to give their lives to this endeavor, and actual French people were going to eat it, I wanted a recipe with a true appreciation of its ingredients. 

Cookbook after cookbook, I struck out. Until my chic neighbor to the south, Véronique, contacted her mother. Et voilà! A yellowed, hand-written recipe arrived with instructions. 

Instructions for cooking, anyway. I still had four roosters to do away with, and my suburban American childhood had given me nothing to work with.

Thankfully, my earthy Tunisian housekeeper, Fadaila, stepped in. Her husband, she said, would be happy to do it. And she knew a bit herself about plucking. Heck, she’d even clean and divide the birds if I took over from there. 

Bien sûr, I accepted her offer. The next day, her husband knocked at my kitchen door, pants pressed and shoes shined, his starchy collar tucked neatly into a woolen sweater. Next to him was their two-year-old son, come to watch Dad work.  

"Avez-vous un couteau?" Um, yes, I have a knife, and waved my hand vaguely toward the knife block. He pulled out one or two before settling on a modest butcher knife, not too menacing, at least to me. Then he and his son stepped out into the hard sunlight and, hand in hand, headed toward the roosters.

I hung back at first, not sure if I was up for the reality I’d set in motion. But then I got a surge of bravery — or maturity — and followed after them. 

By the time I’d caught up, he’d already grabbed the first flapping bird, wrestled it to the ground, and cleanly swiped the knife across its throat. There were no violent screeches, no prolonged suffering. The other three roosters quickly followed suit, and within half an hour, the job was done, without a drop of blood on anyone’s shoes to bear witness to our crimes.

Now it was time to move indoors and let the real games begin. Fadaila put a pot of water to boil on the stove. She cleared out a plastic bucket and pulled up a chair. And then, sitting down as though to enjoy a game of cards, she took the first rooster, poured boiling water over it, and yanked the feathers out in soggy handfuls.

[%image feature-image float=left width=400 caption="The coq au vin made from the roosters."]

She worked fast, an easy smile on her face, chatting casually, until all the birds were clean. Then, this time taking a really menacing butcher knife from the block, she chopped and cleaned and threw each section into the pot on the stove. 

While she worked, I wandered back out toward the pond and watched the new serenity that seemed to be settling in with the remaining animals. Did they notice? Would they care? 

That evening, with Fadaila gone and my husband off tucking in the children, I decided to get cooking. I wanted to barely simmer the stew overnight, and then ratchet it up the following afternoon, with all the flavors melding and peaking by dinnertime when our guests were to arrive. 

Véronique and her husband, Bertrand, had bravely accepted our dinner invitation. They would taste a French country dish, made by an urban American, and thereby forge a new cultural connection. Clearly they were ready for an adventure. 

Had I known then the most astonishing part of this meal — that Véronique would have seconds and Bertrand thirds, both hungrily slurping their broth-soaked baguette, murmuring about the tender meat just falling off the bone ("Mon dieu, quelle tendre la viande!") — I’d have wished we’d had more roosters.

But we had just four birds, and into a smoking pot they went with the bacon, lots of it, followed by onions and garlic. It all browned and sizzled together (except the rooster heads and feet, which Fadaila had thoughtfully included and I ultimately discarded) while I tasted the wine (a local Côte du Rhône, in keeping with the farm-to-table theme). I covered it all with water, poured in the bottle of red minus the glass I was drinking, added bay leaves and thyme from our garden, reduced the heat to nary a whisper, and put on the lid. 

Then I went off to bed and slept, blissfully uninterrupted. All night long.

p(bio). Shelly Peppel now lives in northern California with her husband and two children. She is a senior editor at Food News Journal.

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