The Persistence of Chicken
By Leslie McGrath
oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said
There is feminism and there is chicken. The two are so intertwined in my life that if I think about one, I’m also thinking about the other. As a divorced mother in my twenties, I cooked in a condominium kitchen so crammed with large appliances that I’d have to partly back out of it in order to open the dryer door of the stacked washer-dryer unit next to the refrigerator. I lived with my four year old and a newborn, both with persistent ear infections, in three rooms. My days revolved around the moment by moment needs of my two babies and on cooking a good hot dinner each night.
My older daughter loved “chicken in the pot.” I’d braise a bird in white wine and stock after tucking carrots, potatoes, mushrooms and a few bay leaves around the sides. It made our little place smell like a home with a whole family inside. I’d arrange the vegetables around the mound of shredded meat and blend a couple of carrots and a potato with some of the cooking liquid into a thick gravy. We’d feast that night, then again on a pot pie I’d assemble from a mince of the leftovers, and finally on soup made with the carcass and the last scraps of meat.
Cooking well is a gesture entire: a magician’s swoop of an arm from bird to broth. Every calorie and nutrient banked in the little bodies of my beloveds.
I’ve been staring for days at an image I’ve downloaded. It’s a painting by the surrealist Spanish artist Salvador Dalí, a chimera of opposites: food and death. Dalí made many paintings of food, most of which were wildly surreal. Noble rib roasts of beef massive as the Grand Canyon, dwarfing the scrawny human figures near them. A trio of Cornish hens saddled with lardons, waiting patiently as yaks. A grand tray of lobsters and citrus fruit piled onto the back of a swan sporting a loaded toothbrush for a tail. The image I’ve saved is more humble in both color and character. It looks like a chicken prepared for roasting, humped in the right place, but looser, like a beggar’s pack of rags slashed by death’s head gashes. Is it a chicken or a human skull? The viewer’s eyes move down to the undercarriage of this strange corpus toward a second face—something that could be the skeletal remains of a wildcat’s head, complete with brushy white whiskers and a mouth full of crumbling yellowed teeth. There are proper chicken legs where chicken legs should be, yet the oozing form to which they are attached dwarfs them to the extent that they could just as well be insect antennae. Or the stick shift of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.
When I was four years old, I came upon a neighbor girl
enjoying a snack of raw chicken
skin one afternoon. She held
her hands in a kind of cat’s
cradle, the translucent skin
draped between them as she
nibbled. Her hands glistened.
Her mouth. Here was pleasure-
in-consumption the likes of which
I’d never seen. At my family’s kitchen table, hands were used for holding utensils properly, whether it felt comfortable or not. When we weren’t using them, our hands were supposed to rest in our laps. Lip smacking, openmouthed chewing and loud gulping—the audibles of eating—were considered rude. When my mother served a meal to my brother, father and me at the little rectangular table under the west-facing kitchen window, she took pride in what she’d arranged on our plates. Our meals were simple mid twentieth century classics: lunches of peanut butter sandwiches on white bread, canned soup. Dinners of cooked-to-a-fare-thee-well inexpensive cuts of beef, boiled potatoes and a frozen green vegetable. It was always reliably good enough and we were reliably hungry. We ate everything on the plate just as we were told, though not too quickly and not too conspicuously.
Memory persists in influencing the present. It bends our moods, impulses, perceptions. Driving on errands with my friend Donna yesterday, we passed a loosely rolled rug on the shoulder of the highway. We looked at each other, then circled back, slowing to check the dark red heap more closely. Donna thought it might be a treasure blown off the roof of someone’s car, maybe an antique oriental rug. I was almost sure I saw the outline of a body and the soles of a pair of men’s shoes sticking out the end. Neither of us was right.
I was born in a Catholic hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1957 exactly nine months after my parents were married. A honeymoon baby.
My mother had been the first girl in the family to enroll in college. Her parents drove her to Virginia and helped her settle in at Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, where she fell in love with my father, then a law student, during the first weeks of her freshman year. The two had grown up in the same town and had known each other slightly. There’s a magnetic pull between people in new cir- cumstances who discover they share a background. They married quickly. They were sure.
What a change in circumstance my birth must have brought them both. One day they’re a trim couple ecstatic in a blur of rice on the church steps. Next they’re sweating in a trailer park in Virginia with a baby, her cloth diapers, and her endless needs.
Recently I found a few black and white snapshots of our trailer’s interior, which had the spatial efficiency of a small boat, though no relief from the Virginia heat. It wasn’t long before my parents moved back to Connecticut to be closer to the extended family. By then my mother was pregnant again. My father left law school and took a job as a milkman to support the family. After a few years they had two more children, a small black and white television, and the kind of suppurating tension abetted by poverty that was palpable to me even as a toddler.
Memory is not static, nor is it solely of the past.
At once artful and vulnerable, memory is both an assembler of word-worlds and a reliquary of wordless knowledge. Why do some memories become lodged in the place of not-really-knowing, caught like a piece of meat between molars? The tongue worries it and worries it. When did it catch? What can I do to make it go away? What would happen if it stayed there.
There are the acceptable reasons why I wanted to write this essay and there are less-acceptable reasons. The acceptables are a desire to talk about one of my prevailing pleasures (roasting a chicken) and my most unsettling childhood memory and how it has taken me many decades to suss out the link between them. I’d like to think I even have a civic reason in the urge to make sense of the relentless betrayal of women, who too often find ourselves pregnant and without resources, facing decisions no one should have to make, then punished for making these decisions. Or I could say the essay is borne out of learning that tragedy is rarely self-contained and self-extinguishing. Some little girl will find that tragedy and mistake her for a doll.
It makes sense that so much of Dalí’s surrealist painting took food as its subject, specifically food prepared to be served to others. He was, if I can use a term that came into being years after his death, a foodie. Not just a “where can I get New Haven’s most popular bowl of pho?” kind of foodie, but a person completely swept up by food’s textural, olfactory, visual, and yes, gustatory powers. The sound of an orange peel coming away from its fruit. The dark stab of sugar on the edge of burning. The art of arranging and piling-up that signifies plenty, an overabundance, a feast.
“When I was six years old,” Dalí was reported to have said, “I wanted to be a cook.” He came close. His surrealist cookbook, Les Diners de Gala, was pub- lished in 1973 replete with recipes for aphrodisiacs and drawings of lobsters, which seem to have been his spirit animal.
Ben and Jen keep chickens, partly for the egg supply, partly to teach their twins (our grandchildren) about responsibility for animals, and partly because chickens are, there is no better way to say it, fascinating. They’re winged dinosaurs. Tasty winged dinosaurs.
In 1860, Paleontologists found a fossil, Archaeopteryx, in Germany that had components of both dinosaurs and modern birds: feathers, wings, and a dinosaur-like snout complete with rows of teeth. Much of the scientific community believes that the asteroid that hit the earth 65 million years ago had destroyed every species of dinosaur except Archaeopteryx, forerunner of the contemporary bird.
There’s a direct connection between the domesticated bird that has been bred for maximum breast and leg meat, Gallus gallus domesticus, and Archaeopteryx. Today’s chickens are poor flyers, exemplary prey, and sport a beak instead of a dinosaur snout. But recently a research team from Yale and Harvard universities successfully reverse-engineered a chicken via DNA manipulation, giving it a dinosaur snout and palate.
By the time she turned twenty-five, my mother had been abandoned with neither employment nor a college education to support her. Us.
Her parents took us in. My grandfather bought us a split-level house in a new development called Rock Ridge, which seemed to expand like a lava flow. On weekday afternoons we’d hear dynamite blasting through rock, then the rumbling equipment that collected and ferried the excess away. On Saturdays all the neighborhood kids would explore the raw new roads and construction sites on which soon appeared more houses filled with more children.
I sent this essay to a writer I deeply respect, hoping he would publish it.
Hoping he would tell me the difficult content I’ve been working with was lifted
up, clarified and cleansed by an elegant-but-insistent lyric style. By distillation
and white space. By the familiar pattern of the braid. His reply, handwritten
and clearly agonized-over, was that he felt a slipping queasiness as he read and that he nearly couldn’t finish reading it when it became clear to him that the ghoulish figure of a chicken and a baby that had been joined together via trauma was the focus of my essay.
I have a feeling he wouldn’t like Dalí’s chicken/skull chimera painting either.
I can’t blame him for responding this way. Over the years I’ve told my story about the incident to friends whose faces inevitably slacken and blanch. They feel sorry for me, sorry it happened. They hope I’ll forget and move past it, but it’s embedded fifty years deep into my daily life, now less a trauma than a habit.
In 1935, connecticut’s first Planned Parenthood clinic opened in Hartford. The clinic offered healthcare specific to women’s needs, and this included birth control, despite there being a Connecticut state law on the books that prohibited the sale or use of contraceptives.
I roast a Sunday chicken. I slip thin discs of garlic under the skin and stuff the cavity with a halved lemon and some rosemary sprigs. Aromatics, as they’re called in culinary writing, produce taste as well as scent. Those little wafers of garlic don’t just sleep with their cheeks resting on the breast after the roasting pan is slid into a hot oven. They imbue. They influence. They permeate the bird’s muscle and bone like your grandmother’s cologne lingers on the wing chair after the holidays.
When Estelle Griswold, executive director of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and C. Lee Buxton M.D., challenged the state law by opening a birth control clinic in New Haven in 1961, they saw ten patients the first day. Many were married women. Catholic women forbidden to use effective birth control methods. Women looking to limit the size of their ever-growing families.
For health reasons.
For economic reasons.
For sanity’s sake.
After Griswold and Buxton were arrested, found guilty, and fined, both the Connecticut Circuit Court and Connecticut Supreme Court refused to overturn their conviction. Eventually Griswold got her case in front of the U.S. Supreme court, which found the Connecticut statute to be unconstitutional. It violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which mandates equal protection under the law.
That was in 1965.
I watch “the girls,” who have names like Twinkle, Minnie, and Princess Leia, tut-tut and peck near the back door as if they’re waiting for a play date. Their instinct to bunch together is strong. Usually they wander around the yard like a thought, though in hot weather they’re a single clucking organism settled into the shade of the rhododendrons. The largest of the group are the Rhode Island Reds, the fanciest are the Buff Orpingtons, but the Auracanas lay eggs that range from light blue to celadon.
Fresh eggs are a golden revelation to those of us who’ve plucked them only from a refrigerator case between the soy milk and the string cheese. But to me, no egg can beat the taste of chicken. I’ve made a couple of studiously casual inquiries about his chickens’ fate, hoping I’d one day have the pleasure of roasting a fresh one, but Ben has plans to build them a chicken retirement home in a different part of the yard when their laying days are over.
According to Freud, a contemporary of Dalí’s whose theories fed the Surrealist movement like an underground stream, dreams are the only way we can access that vast terrain of the unconscious, which is responsible for so much of our behavior and so very beyond our control. “Dreams,” Freud is thought to have said, “are the royal road to the unconscious.”
One of Salvador Dalí’s best-known paintings, “The Persistence of Memory,” was inspired by Freud’s theory of the unconscious. It’s the painting that features clock faces so distorted that they appear to ooze downward, like solids turning into liquids turning into solids. Like the way candles burn, passing from state to state and back again.
Dalí said his “soft clocks” were based on the image of ripe Camembert melting over his fork. I imagine Dalí and his wife Gala, hero-provocateurs of the twentieth century avant-garde, lounging for hours over a meal of meats, cheeses, and fruits plucked from the trees of a wealthy friend’s estate overlooking beautiful European hills. They gossip and smoke. Dalí pokes his silver fork into the Camembert, intending to take a casual bite, but as he lifts it to his mouth, framed by the waxed moustache so pointed that it too could be said to be forked, the cheese oozes luridly in its way to Dalí’s mouth.
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in the years between my father’s departure and my mother’s second marriage to a man with a Yale degree and a drinking problem. It was the early 1960’s. John Kennedy was President and the adults talked excitedly about him being Irish Catholic like us, and his promise to get a man on the moon. I stood with my grandmother at her kitchen sink on February 20, 1962. She placed her hands on my shoulders as she told me that an astronaut named John Glenn was flying around the earth in a rocket right this very moment.
Glenn returned to the earth just a few hours later that day. He landed just where he should have and his capsule floated like a bathtub toy in the Atlantic Ocean. Men in a big ship quickly spotted him bobbing in the sea and pulled him to safety. On the curved surface of the black and white television screen my astronaut smiled from his silver space suit and gave the world a thumbs up.
I’ve named all my cats after aviators:
Orville and Wilbur. Lindy. Amelia. Baron von Richthofen. Yeager and Buzz.
Never a John Glenn. He was already mine.
I thought I had a clear memory of the conversation about John Glenn in February of 1962 but it couldn’t have happened that way in that place. My father had not yet left a note for my mother to discover in the mailbox the day he took the family car and began his solo cross-country drive to New Mexico. We were still living together as a family in a duplex on a marshy road out by the town dump. John Glenn was orbiting the earth and my father was still with us toward the end of May when they brought my baby sister home.
I bake tiny cornish hens so small they could pass for my daughters’ plastic play food. And shrink-wrapped “stuffer roasters” domed with preposterous hillocks of breast meat. And frying chickens whose yellow chamois skin draped loose as an old woman’s face. Oh whole cut-up chickens! Oh “family packs” of a dozen legs and thighs! O wings, those meat lollipops, buffaloed, barbequed, orientaled and fried!
In 1941, salvador and gala dalí hosted a grand surrealist party at the Del Monte Lodge in Pebble Beach, California to raise funds for European artists who’d been uprooted by World War Two. The “Bad Dream Party” invited guests to dress as their own bad dream. The photos I found online show Dalí costumed in anatomy drawings of a human heart, liver, and stomach, with two extra heads attached to his shoulders. Strangely, my own recurring dreams feature a character similarly disfigured.
I had difficulty adjusting to my father’s absence and stepfather’s arrival. I was plagued by episodes of sleepwalking. Every couple of weeks, my grandparents brought me relief by having me for an overnight stay at their house at the shore. Their house was new. All the houses were, and with every visit I’d see that the mile of newly-poured blacktop had been nudged a little closer toward being a neighborhood. New lawns fenced with new bushes. New mailboxes with family names painted along their lengths. Children played dodge ball in the street or rode up and down its length on shiny two-wheelers. I loved to pedal rocket-fast along the flat road on my blue bike, zipping by new construction and empty lots to join the kids. I’d attached a Beatles card from a flat pack of stale bubble gum to the axle with a clothespin. It slapped the spokes of my bike as I rode, making a zoomy motorcycle sound.
One Saturday morning while on my bike, I thought I saw a baby astronaut doll laying at the edge of the water. A collector of seashells, driftwood and tern eggs, I
always kept an eye out for treasures the
waves would set on the shore as the tide ebbed. When I turned back toward my grandparents’ house, I left the bike, kick-propped, on the road’s sandy shoulder and approached the water. The sun was strong, the waves mere ripples. The body lay akimbo on the slanting sand near a bunch of sea kelp. It seemed dusted with silver glitter as though it had floated not in from the sea but down from deep space. I bent and picked the doll up by its fat arm. It was heavy, heavier than it should have been, and the rest of its body began to come away, slumping back onto the sand. I high-tailed it back to my grandparents’ house knowing something about that doll wasn’t right. Not its globelike mottled belly. Not the astronaut cord trailing off as if someone had put down the hall telephone, got distracted, and left the phone of the hook.
It would be 1972 before unmarried couples in Connecticut had the right to legal birth control. It would be 1973 before women had the right to legal abortion. The Griswold v. Connecticut case provided necessary legal underpinning for Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal and thus much more likely to be safe.
For every woman.
For any reason.
Through the first trimester.
When I got back to my grandparents’ house, I told them that I’d found
something I couldn’t describe. My grandfather and I retraced my steps to the
body at the tide line and I was sent back to my grandmother. I don’t remember
much of the rest of the weekend, other than my grandparents following
through on an invitation to go out on a neighbor’s speedboat. They thought it
would be a helpful distraction. I sat staring backwards at the blue-green wake, 109 nauseated by the mix of sun, gasoline fumes, and the dawning realization that I had picked up something dead.
oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
In July of 2017, Salvador Dalí’s body was exhumed from its tomb at
the Dalí Theater-Museum in Figueres, Spain, 28 years after his death in 1989. A woman claiming to be both Dalí’s daughter and a psychic had requested a DNA test. The casket was disinterred and samples of Dalí’s teeth, nails, hair, and two bones were collected. Accounts in the Spanish press highlighted the care and respect with which the exhumation and sampling were done. The public was further reassured by the secretary general of the Dalí Foundation that “the mustache preserved its classic ten- past-ten position.”
Dalí was not the father.
A raw chicken, salted, garlicked and stuffed, its wing tips tucked primly under its thighs, looks like a kid shivering at the edge of the pool, hands under her fanny, waiting for the go-ahead after Adult Swim.
The summer I found the infant washed up on the Connecticut shore, abortion was not legal in the state. Any number of scenarios might have led a woman to drown her newborn. She could have been unmarried and unable to care for the child without the help of a spouse or a family. She could have been a twelve-year-old impregnated by a family member, her infant taken from her, the problem hastily disposed of. She could have been a married woman struggling to feed five or six other children on her husband’s salary, worried that adding yet another child in the household would end in hunger for all, raising the likelihood they’d succumb to disease. She could have been unsure of the father and terrified that she and the baby would be beaten and abandoned if her man had reason to believe she’d been unfaithful to him.
I collect vintage milk glass chickens. Each is made of two parts: a bowl-like bottom and a rounded lid. I have a dozen in graduated sizes lined up on a beam in my kitchen. I don’t know what use they were meant for, but in my home they’re shrine-like decoration.
There is a kind of knowing unavailable to the clarifying nature of words. Even now I struggle to describe what I felt when the baby slumped to the sand more than fifty years ago. I knew something was not right, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I knew this small body, whether fallen from the sky or carried in on the waves, was beyond my claim. It was broken. It was no longer in danger. And I couldn’t let it stay out there at the tide line.
My mother’s choices, I suspect, when she learned at twenty that she’d become pregnant with me on her honeymoon, were few. She was married, after all, and children were expected of her. When did she realize that her college education would end when she became a mother once, twice, three times by age twenty- five? Did she consider an illegal abortion, even fleetingly?
The woman who gave birth to the baby I found on the beach didn’t have the choice to terminate her pregnancy early, legally, safely. All these years I’ve wondered why she hadn’t made another decision, sparing me a lifetime of repeating the moment I picked up her dead child.
I roast a chicken. I let it rest on the counter.
I twist the leg while supporting the thigh, listening for crackle and ligament rip.
The head of the tibia. The femur. Uncoupled.
Then the wings.
The head of the radius. The humerus. Uncoupled.
I know my chicken. I know the juices bubbling under the skin need to slow and be taken up again via capillary action in order to assure moist and tender meat. I know the legs will loosen their hold on the carcass, drooping a bit as the meat relaxes. I know the sign that a chicken’s perfectly cooked is not its scent or texture but the crackling sound the leg makes as it’s twisted from the thigh bone, easily and completely.
Of all the sounds over the course of a day—my husband making his way up the stairs in the dark with the cup of coffee each morning, the noon horn from the volunteer fire department, the ghostly moan of the town’s old steam engine as it makes its short journey up the Connecticut River valley—there is none more satisfying than this. It is the sound of something coming apart when the time is right. When I am ready.
Like dalí’s chicken/skull painting, I have sutured two bodies together.
I think I’ve figured out why discovering the drowned baby and roasting chicken are linked, but I’m still trying to come to terms with my urge to roast chickens repeatedly and of the satisfaction in serving them to my family.
For decades now, scholars have turned away from Freud and his psycho- sexual theories, but I think there’s value in Freud’s view of the self as a kind of psychodynamic machine in which the gears of consciousness are under the control of the unconscious. The unconscious itself is made of childhood experiences: the seen but not noticed, the heard but forgotten, the wished for, the pushed-away and the not-quite-understood.
Is my urge to roast and carve chicken an attempt to head off the feelings that overwhelmed me when I became aware that I’d found not a doll, not a baby astronaut, but a corpse? Freud called this “Wiederholungszwang,” a repe- tition compulsion. He theorized in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that a person might reproduce a traumatic event, even if the event is not remembered, as an attempt to overcome the feelings evoked by the original trauma. In my case, to turn a tearing sound into a simple act of care.
oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
—Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Mother”
Grief. No revulsion, but grief all around.
Ball and socket. Necklace of pearls. String of snap beads I pull apart again and again.
Leslie Mcgrath is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives, Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage, and Out from the Pleiades. Winner of the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and the Gretchen Warren Award from the New England Poetry Club, her poems and interviews have been published in Agni, Poetry Magazine, The Academy of American Poets, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Yale Review. McGrath teaches creative writing at Central Connecticut State University and is a series editor of The Tenth Gate, a poetry imprint of The Word Works Press.