Sunday, March 29, 2009

God is a Big Happy Chicken

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.

Place the chicken, wing side up, on a rack over the roasting pan and put the chicken in the oven. Roast for 20 minutes. Take the roasting pan out of the oven and carefully flip the chicken so the other wing side is up. Roast for 20 minutes.

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.

34 comments:

dsc said...

Funny, you don’t look Jewish, seth
I have never seen a sad chicken until now.

sad sad chicken
http://www.vimeo.com/84678

Bocephus said...

God is a chicken? He's mah nigga!!

[Think he comes with collards?]

Steve said...

if only it were that easy to be a yid.

Steve said...

its funny, my associations with being jewish happened in the complete opposite order: the religious ideas, then the philosophy, and finally the food.

I remember the exact moment I disciovered hot pastrami, coleslaw, and half sour pickles from Brooklyn.

It was at the (now defuct) 2nd Ave. Deli on the Lower East Side. It was an absolute epiphany.

I remeber being angry at myself that it took me so long to come around.

What was I thinking that this stuff could actually not be good?

What the hell was my problem for all those years before?

Bocephus said...

Please educate this ignorant goy. You've mentioned a proclivity toward undercooked chicken elsewhere. What is the appeal of undercooked chicken?

[To my people, this almost constitutes heresy.]

Seth said...

Bo:

Would you rather have mouthwatering, juicy, slightly undercooked chicken, or tough, dry overcooked chicken?

Tastiness is often very close to danger. Think of a very rare steak. Think of sushi...

What's a "goy"?

Bocephus said...

I don't eat rare steak or sushi. God created fire for a reason -- a reason other than The Inquisition, that is.

As far as I can reason, cooked doesn't equate with dry and tough. Overcooked does.

I get your point, though. I guess I'm just anal enough to not overcook my chicken. You can't beat my meat...


goy |goi|
noun ( pl. goyim |ˈgoi-im|or goys ) informal often offensive
a Jewish name for a non-Jew.

dsc said...

goyim גויים , "nations", seven nations other than Israel at the time, not an Israeli , a part of the other nations, a goy.

Shiksa is an completely different story, every jewish man should own one.

Me, it was the food, shabbos, standing rib roast, blue,(with my mom's home grown home minced horseradish), or rack of lamb, booties and all, and mint jelly. Chicken thing happened after I became observant, I prefer standing rib.

manishevitz wine, I have been buzzed since I was eight days old.

It is not easy being a yid, observant or not.

Was also rebellion, my family was atheist so of course I fucked them up by fasting and keeping pesach. Kinda was in to the "God" thing as well.

Whats wrong with a properly cooked "juicy" chicken unless you don't believe in basting?

Seth said...

(dsc):

I'm not against properly cooked chicken--I suppose, to me, though, "properly" means about 155 degrees, which is a bit below the USDA suggested temperature.

Most people have no idea how to cook chicken anyway though--and that's why brining helps. Unless the bird is kosher and therefore pre-salted, of course...Basting won't help if you overcook the bird. Nothing will help. Not even butter.

dsc said...

Who is stupid enough to overcook a chicken? Roasting a bird is as easy as boiling water. Cooking 101.

Meringue? forget it! Try as I may, impossible. Too much sugar, too little sugar, beat too fast, beat too slow. egg whites? egg yolks?

Anonymous said...

Hi Seth

first time here for me. Thanks for the advice how to get in. I'd prefer it to be on Myspace though, it's just far more accessable.

I used to tell my cat Jaffa "You better look out little buddy, God might just turn out to be dove." Jaffa has sadly gone and I feed the doves daily on leftover rice to help make up for his bad karma and somehow spring him outa purgatory (I sincerley hope he didn't go to the unspringable hell he deserved from a doves point of view).

In my experience the Chinese cook chicken (and duck) better than anyone. That's not to say I wouldn't sit down and enjoy roast chicken in...pretty well anywhere in a non arctic climate. Want a good recipe? Contact me on MySpace.

ciao

Jeffrey

Ms. Jackson said...

Interesting blog, but where can I locate the "can sugar" to which you refer? I guess it doesn't matter since I don't eat chicken.

Seth said...

ms. jackson:

Good catch you editorial sleuth.

I changed it, of course, to "cane"...

Bocephus said...

"Miss Jackson, if you're nasty."

Seth said...

"Sorry Miss Jackson, I am for real."

tonya said...

seth, you kill me.

i was just reading the new amy bloom and this is my favorite sentence:

'if there are going to be big gestures, if there's going to be chicken thrown for passion's sake, she wants to have things ready.'

it's the bit about hurling chicken for passion's sake that gets me.

you kids all strike me as passion filled chicken chuckers, and that's why i loves ya!

Steve said...

DSC:

kosher wine has come along way since manashaygitz.

I remember the first time i got drunk off of the stuff. i was at a party in tenth grade at my friend charlie's house. someone had brought a bottle of the blackberry variety. i drank. i loved. i drank more. wonderful.

the next moring i had to drive with my father upstate (in pa.) to a wrestling tournament that was a qaulifier for the greco-roman national high school team. i was still drunk when we got there. dad had no idea. i had four matches that morning. i pinned everyone in my weight class and passed out in the car on the way home. dad was too proud to notice anything amiss.

once a shaygitz always a shaygitz.

tonya said...

steve, you're hilarious.

Seth said...

Steve is actually just drunk.

Steve said...

Seth, shouldn't you be somewhere taking more pictures of yourself in deep, thoughtful poses?

Seth said...

Steve, shouldn't you be somewhere getting drunk?

I've been working out. I'll kick your ass. As long as you don't try any of your dirty moves, you dirty, drunk bastard.

dsc said...

seth there is no such thing a Jewish shicker'

“Shicker iz a goy, shicker iz a goy, shicker iz er, trinken muz er, vahl er iz a goy!”

toby said...

the chicken and wine meal needs bread (I think French) to counter-balance. Bread also serves a secondary role as a napkin.

Seth said...

Toby:

I added mashed potatoes.

Deanne said...

You write very well.

Stephanie said...

Wow, Seth. You sure tapped into some passionate feelings about the bird here.

I love this story. I love how you've traced your history of jewishness back to early memories of chicken. I'm guessing that many jews, like myself, share your nostalgia.

Just yesterday, I cooked one of my most favorite grandma comfort foods - chicken stewed in tomato sauce. It's merely a couple of chicken legs thrown into a pressure cooker with some onion, garlic, rosemary, and a can of tomatoes (I through lima beans in this time too). Later on, my friend walked into my house and said, "Mmm, it smells like my grandmother's cooking in here."

There's no escaping that connection: chicken - jewish grandma.

Stephanie said...

"through" (duh) should read "threw."

Seth said...

To me, the most unmistakably Jewish Grandmother smell is cooking kasha. The smell of kasha instantly transports me to me ancestral past...

Anonymous said...

I just finished cooking this recipe, but without the brine. It was delicious!! thanks for a great recipe!!

Bert J. Cattivera said...

"...instantly transports me to me ancestral past."

Now you're Irish!

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