The book Heat by Bill Buford is about his culinary education as he runs through an intense number of first class culinary jobs. He was first an understudy at Mario Batali’s Babbo, then a pasta student in Italy, and finally shadowing arguably the most famous butcher in the word, Dario Cecchini. This past Saturday I underwent a similar first hand education. I can now certainly tell you that I will never be a butcher. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My mentor Awa, 20 years old, and I had our day planned out as we were going to visit her new husband, 30 years old, and his family a couple towns over. When I arrived in the morning ready there was a new plan: cook for the husband and his whole family by the time they visit this afternoon. On the menu were chicken, French fries, and yassa. Yassa is simple. It’s only onions, MSG, and Magic powder which is basically chicken stock. French fries are even easier as you only need potatoes, salt, and a Paula Dean butter-size-amount of vegetable oil. The tricky part had just come through the door, flapping away and trying to escape Awa’s fathers hands. So I watched those three white chickens pecking away as I cried over my onions, oblivious to their imminent fate.
Now it should be made clear that I am neither a vegetarian nor against vegetarians. I am of the opinion though that people know what they are eating. Most people think, “oh, I’m going to eat a hamburger tonight.” They don’t make the connection between those happy cows in California and what is on their plates. Already in Dakar we had gone through the process of preparing a meal completely. For with ceebujen you start with the fish that have just been yanked out of the ocean and are definitely not already laid out in nice fillets. I’m not really a fish person (even though oddly enough I love to fish), so dealing with the smell was the hardest part of that meal. Chicken is a whole different deal though because I actually like to eat it. They are also a lot bigger and quite more alive than the fish were. I guess you could say that Saturday was my chicken baptism. For the squeamish, I might advise skipping the next paragraph.
Step One: Awa’s brothers killed the chickens. Two: pour boiling water over chickens (as they breath their last breaths, I had a bit of a problem with this part) in order to start plucking them. I avoided the neck area till I wasn’t squirming on the inside completely… and then I squirmed some more. I obviously was not as practiced as Awa, but my at least my chicken only needed five minutes of extra help to move on to the next stage. Three: put naked chicken over gas flame to burn off little feathers that you didn’t get by hand. Try not to crisp it. Four: Get all the gooies out from inside. Its important that when cutting the skin that you do not pop the stomach, which I miraculously did not do. Watch gooies float in the bucket that is filled with water, all the feathers, blood, and now the gooy bits. Five: cut off hind leg and feet. Wash chicken with hand soap and salt. Rinse. Ready for cooking.
My first Senegalese chicken lesson: check. Bear Grils would be so proud of me. For now, if I just happen upon a chicken in the wild I have the ability to not completely freak out and to actually make it edible. I will return to the fact that I will not be a butcher in my future, but I decided to be one, if just for a day. I could have opted out of this whole experience, but to me that would have been taking the easy way out- the easy way out of eating meat and of learning about the culture here. There are no supermarkets where I am. Most of what we eat is made by my family or the people we see every morning. Just like Mr. Buford, I am not going to be a butcher. Yet like him, I find a sweet knowledge in the casalinga, the home and hand made food that I live off of here.