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How I learned to cut up a chicken — and why

(article, Johanna Bailey)

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It was in Switzerland that I first started tearing apart chickens with my bare hands. 

This was an unexpected development in my culinary trajectory. Previously I had always stuck exclusively to that most neutral of chicken parts, the breast. Already the most unidentifiable part of a chicken, I would try to make the breast even more so by hacking off the slightest evidence of former life. Flaps of lingering skin, dimples of fat, and blood-tinged veins would be removed and thrown unceremoniously into the garbage. 

The process would disgust me so much that the idea of one day branching out and using any other part of the chicken was unthinkable.

Switzerland is bloody expensive, though, and buying boneless, skinless chicken breasts on a regular basis just wasn't going to fit into our budget. Not to mention the fact that the sudden lack of Campbell’s condensed soups cut a major swath out of my casserole repertoire.  

Since red meat and fish were even more pricey than poultry, I realized that it was time to learn how to cook chicken differently.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Why not buy a chicken and cut it up yourself?"]

When I mentioned my dilemma to an elderly neighbor, she was surprised. “Why don´t you just buy a chicken and then cut it up yourself?” she asked. 

She went on to tell me that, at least for her generation, the idea of paying three times as much for chicken parts that had already been separated and de-boned was unthinkable. 

I took her advice, but as I started to dismantle my first chicken, I was petrified. If snipping a bit of fat off of a chicken’s breast grossed me out, surely hacking the poor little thing’s legs off, legs that it once used to walk around on, would render me completely incapable of eating any meal I might prepare with it. 

Midway through the process, however — somewhere between popping the first thigh bone out of its socket and realizing that freshly removed chicken skin has the same dry soft consistency as bread dough — I began to realize that the whole thing wasn't nearly as disgusting as I'd feared it would be. In fact, I was sort of starting to enjoy it. 

As I boiled the parts, dug out the meat, made stock with the bones, and then turned it all into chicken and dumplings, I felt industrious and thrifty and capable. What’s more, I wanted to eat it, if only to taste the results of my efforts. 

The final reward was realizing how very good chicken can taste. The texture was dense and ropey, the flavor rich, and as Julia Child always said, “chickeny.”

I grew up in Utah, and as a kid, chicken breasts were a staple in our kitchen. We were people of Mormon ancestry and, therefore, we ate casseroles — lots and lots of casseroles. I remember the breasts coming to us wrapped in cellophane, nestled together on beds of damp pink paper towels and Styrofoam. Later the chicken reappeared, buried in the depths of casseroles, and it always seemed to me that, aside from its nutritional contribution, the dense cubes of papery white meat were there primarily to provide texture — brief respites from the oceans of Cheddar cheese and Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup that they invariably swam in. 

So when I later started cooking dinner for my own family, I stuck to the breasts and strenuously avoided venturing into parts unknown when it came to cooking chicken. 

Apparently this is not uncommon. It's well documented that the majority of Americans buy more boneless, skinless chicken breasts than any other chicken part. This, despite the fact that the breasts are not only the easiest part of the bird to overcook, but also the most expensive. 

I do know that there are people who genuinely prefer the white meat of the breasts, either for the flavor or because it is lower in fat. I also know that chicken breasts can be delicious when properly prepared. Nevertheless, I suspect that there are also a lot of people who, like I did, choose chicken breasts simply because they are the least threatening part of the bird.


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Recently I´ve been reading a lot about the trend of getting in touch with the meat that you eat. Chefs, food journalists, and hardcore foodies are visiting slaughterhouses, attending rabbit-killing seminars, and butchering their own chickens. The earnestness of these accounts used to make me scoff a bit, and I kept waiting to read about some journalist who had decided to camp out in an chicken coop for a month, just to see what it feels like. 

But the other day, while scrubbing underneath my fingernails after a particularly satisfying session of chicken prep, I realized that what I've been doing isn't so different.

I have been getting in touch with my meat. I have accessed my inner chicken, and now the part of me that feared poultry has been vanquished. It sounds corny, but it’s true nevertheless. 

When I used to prepare chicken breasts and felt repulsed by the sight of a stray clot of blood, it was because it appeared  as out of place there as, say, a tendon in a Twinkie. Quitted of both bones and skin, those inoffensive pale pink packets of protein had about as much connection to an actual chicken as a slice of Wonder Bread does to a wheat field.


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Here's our [/articles/features/quarteringaturkey "step-by-step directions"] for quartering a turkey, and another post with chicken cooking ideas: [/articles/features/onechickenfour_meals '"One chicken, four meals."']


Now we live in Spain, and my five-year-old son likes to go to the local market to pick out his dinner. Surrounded by chickens, pig heads, skinned rabbits, blood sausages, and all manner of organ meats, he is not in the least bit disgusted. 

“Cook me a fish, and I WANT TO SEE HIS EYES,” he´ll say. Or, “Could we take that pretty chicken home to eat?” 

I used to think that this was rather macabre on his part, but I've recently come to wonder if perhaps it’s just the opposite. He has grown up in cultures where you really see where your food comes from, whether it be ham sliced directly from a pig's leg or rabbit stew made from a rabbit that he picked out at the market. 

So maybe for him, the idea of consuming the headless, amputated parts sold in American grocery stores is even more disturbing than eating an animal that he once saw whole.  

I used to believe that the more I saw of the animal I was eating, the less I would enjoy eating it. As it turns out, though, I am beginning to understand my son and his desire to “see the eyes” on his food. Now, when I cook chicken, the blood, the bone fragments, and the fatty bits are no longer unsightly or repulsive — because I can see that they belong there.

p(bio). Johanna Bailey eats, cooks, and writes in Barcelona, Spain. Her blog is called Barcelona Bites.

reference-image, l