Confessions of an 80-Year-Old Barbarian
Abigail Thomas struggles to make sense of her affinity for spatchcocking chickens.
There must be some underlying reason to explain my enthusiasm for spatchcocking a chicken, or chickens, as I have done three already, on different days, of course. The obsession began when my son Ralph sent me a link to a recipe that involved spatchcocking, a word I didn’t know. It means to cut the backbone out of a chicken before you cook it. It comes from “dispatching the cock” about which I have no comment, except to say it appeared in Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785, compiled by Captain Francis Gros. I have ordered a reprint of this book, and I can’t wait to read it.
I’m good at chicken, but at my age something new to do in the kitchen sounded exciting. Something new to do, period.
I watched the YouTube video, bought a non-stick frying pan and a pair of kitchen shears, picked up a chicken and came home. I wasn’t certain the guys at the butcher had ever heard the word spatchcock before, and I didn’t want to be the first person to use it in front of them. I planned to spatchcock it myself.
I’m good at chicken, but at my age something new to do in the kitchen sounded exciting. Something new to do, period. Bonus points for anything that takes my mind off whatever is on my mind these days. (I try to avoid the news.) The scissors weren’t up to the job, and I had to do a lot of just plain ripping, oh, it was horrible, but strangely satisfying in a primitive kind of way. No, primitive doesn’t describe what I felt, savage comes closer.
I realized, after three bites, that I don’t really like chicken all that much, at least not when I’m eating it by myself.
Anyway, after you take out the backbone and cut something vague in the breast bone and flatten it out, the chicken looks a little like an angel and nothing like a chicken. Then you put it skin-side down in a non-stick frying pan, and start it cold over a low flame, gradually turning the flame up until the chicken is cooking in its own fat. Yes, it was the tenderest white meat I’ve ever had and yes, the skin was nice and brown although not as brown and crisp as in the video. I realized, after three bites, that I don’t really like chicken all that much, at least not when I’m eating it by myself. And cooking something in its own fat sounds like what human beings might have done to torture another human being who would later became a saint. At least the chickens were already dead.
However, for reasons I cannot fully explain, as I have already confessed, I have since spatchcocked two more chickens. The second one I shared with the dogs. When the third one was all nice and brown and juicy, I cut up a bunch of carrots, mixed up some dumplings, and made chicken soup. When it was done I ate everything except the chicken. Then, while hunting for the tin foil to wrap the meat, I realized I hadn’t been using the new scissors because there they were, in the way back of the drawer, which was why the procedure had been so hard, and now having found the real kitchen shears, I can’t wait to do it to a turkey! This is nuts. I’m an eighty year old barbarian.
Why do I keep doing this horrible thing? How to explain this frenzy! My friend Paula suggests the chicken might be a “transitional object,” and removing its backbone is the substitute for what I want to cut out of my life but can’t bear to look at.
What is wrong with me? Why do I keep doing this horrible thing? How to explain this frenzy! My friend Paula suggests the chicken might be a “transitional object,” and removing its backbone is the substitute for what I want to cut out of my life but can’t bear to look at. Well, I don’t listen to the news anymore but sometimes I hear it by accident. Or read a headline before I can stop myself. We are not my favorite animal, although there are many of us I love, and many millions more I fear for. I think earth is preparing to shrug us off. Ants have been around for at least 168 million years, minding their own business. I looked them up once. We’ve been here for a measly 200 thousand, and have done more damage than all other species combined. Okay. I’m facing it. I can think of no solution.
I need a new habit. Or maybe just a different verb. Ponder is a nice one, reminiscent of, well, a pond. It sounds peaceful. I will fold my hands, take up pondering. Still water, full of life.