In Shalom Auslander's story "God Is a Big Happy Chicken" God shows up as a chicken. A big happy one. A character protests: "But the bible..."
The Archangel Gabriel (Gabe) answers: "Don't worry about the bible. We've got the joker who wrote that thing down in hell."
Auslander's story makes perfect sense to me. It also feels perfectly Jewish to me, not because Auslander was raised as an Orthodox Jew, but because god shows up as a chicken. To me, being Jewish is loving chicken.
I think about my Jewish family. I think about my father's mother, Francis, gnawing on a chicken bone. I think about the chicken schmaltz she used to flavor her white rice. I recall only a few meals from my childhood and my favorite is this: roasted chicken and white rice with schmaltz.
I ate this meal about once a year, every year, on the very first night of my visit to my grandparent's house in Sherman Oaks, CA. I'd sit down, eat, gnaw on the bones, and for a very, very brief moment feel utterly Jewish.
My Jewish ancestry did not bequeath me religion. Instead, it gave me chicken.
When I gnaw on a chicken bone, when I revel in the darker parts of the bird, the skin, the wings, the weird little bits of spectacularly flavorful meat surrounding the back bone, I feel my Jewish heritage. I gnaw and I'm with my grandmother, in Sherman Oaks, and then something weird happens--this Jewish thing, this blood I have coursing through me: it speaks to me, in chicken. Suddenly, I'm an immigrant, I'm my Aunt Pauline (she lived to 103) walking with her mother and older brother, from Novgorod through Moscow to Odessa and the Black Sea and, ultimately, to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.
This excursion, undertaken on foot before the first World War, during the summer of 1913, brought the Polansky's to America. My grandfather, the first Polansky born in America, was called Moisha. Later, he changed his name to Maury Pollins.
Around the time I got married, I called my grandfather up and told him I wanted to change my name back to Polansky.
"No, please no," he said.
He assumed, with a name like that, that I would be barred from jobs, from opportunities. Polansky, I suppose, is too ethnic.
So I'm still Seth Pollins, feeling remotely weird about my name, feeling a little lost. And it's weird to say, even ridiculous, but I actually find a bit of myself in chicken.
Perhaps this is why I love sharing chicken so much, why I love cooking it for my Jewish father, and why I love watching him attack it like a madman. I take after him: we do not eat chicken, we brutalize it. This brutality is not an act of violence; it's an act of love: for flavor, for our blood.
With my grandmother I share this: a taste for dangerous, undercooked chicken; we know that chicken is most tasty when it perilously close to killing you.
(Actually, I probably just picked this up from eating my grandmother's unintentionally undercooked chicken. She probably prefers fully-cooked chicken. Whatever, I shape my own memory.)
Recently, I've been sharing whole roasted chickens with my wife. It's become our Sunday thing. I buy a whole chicken, brine it, brush the skin with olive oil, and roast it. I'm so happy too: Karen's moved from a zone of boneless, skinless breast to chicken wing. She doesn't attack it, just yet, but she does eat it, with gusto. That's good, because she's married to a Jew.
I was never bar-mitzvahed. I don't fast on Yom Kippur. I'm hardly religious. Most importantly, for some I suppose, my mother's not a Jew.
I do have this part of me though, this blood.
Being a Jew, of course, is not just about your relationship with god. Admittedly, I have no relationship with god. I could care less if god is a chicken. In fact, I just might start believing he is. Why not? I appreciate the blasphemous sensibility behind that belief.
To me, and perhaps only to me, being Jewish is eating like a Jew.
I love the famous, almost offensive Jewish eating culture: the loud, hand-waving, argumentative meal, foods flying here and there, across the table and out of our mouths. There's groaning, eye-rolling, and plenty of laughter. There's hot tears, shouts.
Stick a bottle of wine on a table. Stick a whole roasted chicken on a table.
That's it: no cups, no silverware, no plates.
Me and my dad would handle this situation quite easily. We'd sit down and tear that bird apart. We'd eat out of our hands. We'd sip from the bottle. We'd talk, raise our voices, and laugh.
And that's when I'm Jewish.
This is weird, idiosyncratic, but to me it's Jewish.
Seth's Brined & Roasted Chicken
Don't make this recipe unless you're going to brine the bird. Don't come to me and say, "I made that recipe, I didn't brine it, but it was good!" Bullshit. You don't need a recipe to roast a chicken. The brine is the key...There's nothing especially Jewish about this recipe except for the fact that a man with about 50% Jewish blood is writing it.
6 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons pure cane sugar
One 3-4 pound organic or free-range chicken
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon plus two teaspoons olive oil
2 teaspoons dried thyme
fresh ground black pepper
To make the brine: dissolve the kosher salt, sugar, and 4 cups water in a gallon bag. Place the chicken in the bag and brine for 2 hours (can be brined up to 8 hours; for crispier skin, allow the bird to air-dry after brining for at least 4-8 hours and up to two days.)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Take the bird out of the brine, rinse, and pat dry. In a small bowl mix 1 tablespoon olive oil and thyme. Brush the olive oil mixture over the chicken and then season with fresh ground pepper.
Toss the carrots, celery, and onion with remaining olive oil. Place half of this mixture in the cavity of the bird. Scatter the remaining vegetables over a roasting pan.
Turn the oven temperature up to 450 degrees. Take the roasting pan out of the oven and carefully place the chicken breast side up. Roast for 25 minutes, until a thermometer inserted in the breast registers 160 degrees.
Let the chicken rest for 5-10 minutes on a cutting board.
Cut it up, into pieces: legs, wings, breasts. Or just put it on the table and rip it apart.