Okay, after this I promise, no more chicken for a while...
I like chicken. Chicken is good. Chicken takes almost any kind of flavoring I give it. It doesn't break the bank, or get me lectured by my doctor. I also really believe in the healing properties of bones and connective tissue, which release their goodness (in the form of collagen and elastin), when left in the chicken while cooking. The same is true for any meat or fish, but poultry has a great meat to bone ratio. Bones and connective tissue (tendons and cartilage) are what make that homemade chicken stock so gelatinous when chilled, and what makes our own bones, joints, and connective tissues feel lubricated and good.
When I was in culinary school, Noah and I lived just off of Clement Street in San Francisco. In addition to a handful of budding bars and bistros, Clement had a great number of Chinese grocers and Dim Sum shops. We often did our grocery shopping on Clement, and I noticed in those markets, that squeamishness with animal parts was not a factor. When I bought chicken on Clement Street, it still had a face. (I can hear your collective eeew's. It's okay. We're not used to seeing that sort of thing in the U.S. )
Noah and I would walk down Clement Street with our face-filled grocery bags, smelling the mahogany-colored Peking ducks (head included) hanging in the steamy Dim Sum shop windows. Below the ducks sat an array of miniature delights. Among them: Hom Bao- Golden brown wheat buns, warm and filled with candy-sweet pork. Siu Mai- Tiny noodle cups full of meat and scented with star anise and dried orange peel. Har Gow- shrimp dumplings showing their coral-pink stuffing through the velum of steamed pastry.
And then, there were the chicken feet.
"Eeeew," we would say, daring each other to go in and buy one. What kind of detritus was once on those feet? And wouldn't they be leathery, tough, and sharp with little chicken bones? We would step up to the counter, and invariably leave with a little paper bag containing some variety of filled noodle or pastry. Never the chicken feet.
"Before we leave San Francisco," Noah vowed, "I am going to eat chicken feet."
I wasn't so sure I could do it. But I really wanted to, if only out of culinary machismo. I consulted my classmate Annie, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, and asked her if she ever ate them.
"Oh yeah," she said, pointing to her elbow. "They're really good for your joints." Annie ate chicken feet not so much because she liked them (which she did), but more so for medicinal purposes.
Still, the thought of putting that scaly little claw in my mouth gave me the willies. My cultural conditioning regarding animal parts was being challenged. I wasn't used to seeing that sort of thing, and it was good for me. Chickens, after all, do not grow in striped paper buckets, or in shrink-wrapped Styrofoam packaging. And isn't utilizing every part of the animal less wasteful, more respectful, even more sustainable? I want to be fully aware of what I'm consuming, to not turn a blind eye to the truth of being a carnivore.
As a result of my education in San Francisco, both in school and on the street, I have come to appreciate the goodness of bones and other chicken parts that one of my poultry-averse friends calls "choingers". Noah even more so. Now, when he's finished with a drumstick, the only thing on his plate is the bone. He eats it all.
"I love it," he says, pointing to his elbow, "It's crunchy and it makes my joints feel good."
Did he fulfill his vow to eat chicken feet? You know what? He never did. Neither did I. And we both regret it. Next time we're in SF, we are definitely eating chicken feet.